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School closures and learning loss in West Africa

Findings from IDinsight’s assessment show children spent less time learning, had difficulty using the internet for remote learning, and girls faced unique challenges. The full report can be read here.

A boy washes his hands in a school in Ghana. Photo by Rising Academies Network.

Worldwide, school closures from COVID-19 have caused large learning losses. A study by the World Bank in June 2020 simulated the possible effects of COVID-19 school closures, estimating that in the ‘pessimistic scenario’ of 7 months of school closures, the typical student would lose 0.9 years of quality-adjusted schooling1. In many countries actual school closures were much longer than 7 months, cumulatively leading to millions of years of lost schooling and over $10 trillion in lost future earnings2.

Evidence is beginning to emerge showing the effects of school closures will be dramatically different for low- and middle-income countries than for high-income countries. On average, low- and middle-income countries have experienced longer school closures, with limited capacity to transition to remote learning3. This lost year of learning is deeply concerning, not just because of the educational progress students have missed out on, but also because of the increased risk of gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage. Our recent findings from surveys of parents and caregivers in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia underscore these risks and offer some insight into how policymakers can respond.

We partnered with Rising Academy Network (RAN) and Echidna Giving to better understand the effects of COVID-19 school closures on educational outcomes and gender effects in West African countries. This research was done in part to understand if COVID-19 would have a similar effect as the Ebola pandemic in West Africa, which disproportionately impacted girls — with girls dropping out of school at a higher rate than boys amid a surge in child marriage, child sex work, child labor, and teenage pregnancy4. To understand whether the effects of COVID-19 would be similarly disastrous, we surveyed over 3,000 caregivers of students from 103 primary and secondary schools. In this post, we report on the first round of data collection, conducted from January to April 2021, where we attempt to estimate the magnitude of learning loss in these three countries. Our next post will report the results from the second round of data collection, conducted from July to August 2021, where we will explore what policymakers and education stakeholders can do to address these challenges5.

Our research found that school closures have likely led to alarming learning losses. Caregivers reported drastically reduced hours spent on educational activities when schools were closed. On average, students spent 5.7 fewer hours per day on education-related activities during school closures. Of course, this difference is largely explained by the fact that students were not in school on weekdays. But what surprised us was that there was little home-based learning being substituted for the lack of in-school learning (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Time Spent on Educational Activities (Hours per Weekday)

Unlike many students in Europe and the United States, most students in Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone did not have the resources at home to compensate for the lack of in-school learning. Fewer than one in four households had internet connectivity on a smartphone, and fewer than one in eight households had internet access that could be used for remote learning6. Due to the lack of access to these platforms, education providers in settings with limited resources have innovated with low-technology solutions such as Rising on Air for radio, Young1ove and Dost for Delivery over basic handset. Yet even these technologies do not reach all students: nearly half of households in our sample do not have access to a smartphone, basic handset, or radio. Consequently, no matter the technology used, a significant proportion of households will continue to rely on physical materials, like worksheets and textbooks, to access any remote learning during school closures. 

Challenges with remote learning are compounded for girls. In addition to lacking access to Edtech, girls often face an unsafe environment at home. In our survey, caretakers were concerned that girls in their communities were at increased risk of physical and sexual violence during school closures. In this light, it is hardly surprising that re-enrollment rates for girls when schools reopened were 98% since the classroom offers a safe space that is conducive for learning7. 

Education providers were also concerned that school closures could lead to a spike in teenage pregnancy. While we only found five drop-outs in our sample associated with teenage pregnancy, it is possible that this number is understated since our results were self-reported and stigmatization around teenage pregnancy is prevalent. Caregivers in our surveys predominantly believed that pregnant girls should not be sent back to school8. In the past, in fact, Sierra Leone banned pregnant girls from coming to school – causing them to permanently drop out9. It took 5 years for this ban to be overturned10. 

The search for immediate and sustainable solutions is critical, given the trends we have begun to see in past data could worsen in the future. Many West African countries are currently weathering their 2nd or 3rd COVID-19 surge, and some like Liberia have responded with a second round of school closures. Future COVID-19 waves and further school closures are imminent given the low vaccination coverage in the region. 

From the first round of our data collection, we learned that school closures due to COVID-19 in West Africa have likely led to devastating learning losses. We have also learned that lack of access to the internet and distance learning technologies are a major possible factor contributing to learning loss. Going forward, education providers will need to:

  • Invest in tools to enable at-home learning, and ensure they can adapt their content to the medium of instruction. 
  • Include non-technological options as distant learning cannot be implemented using a one-size fits all approach, and must include non-technological options. 

Given emerging evidence that even low-technology Edtech solutions fail to reach a majority of students, the solutions required must be out of the box11. Our second round of data collection (currently underway) explores what these options could look like and will inform programming to support remote learning.

  1. 1. João Pedro Azevedo, Amer Hasan, Diana Goldemberg, Syedah Aroob Iqbal, Koen Geven. Simulating the Potential Impacts of COVID-19 School Closures on Schooling and Learning Outcomes: A Set of Global Estimates, page 25, 2020.
  2. 2. ibid
  3. 3. Li-Kai Chen, Emma Dorn, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, Anna Wiesinger. Teacher Survey: Learning Loss is Global and Significant, 2021.
  4. 4. Jabeen Bhatti. The Lessons of Ebola: 2014 Epidemic Drove Many Girls Out of School Permanently. 2020; Oriana Bandiera, Niklas Buehren, Markus Goldstein, Imran Rasul, Andrea Smurra. The Economic Lives of Young Women in the Time of Ebola: Lessons from an Empowerment Program. 2018.
  5. 5. This sample was representative of students in RAN’s network whose families have phones – which in Ghana and Sierra Leone was the majority of students, but in Liberia was only 50% of the caregivers.# Nonetheless, we believe that the data reveals broad patterns about the educational experiences of other students and schools in these countries. If anything, RAN families with phones were likely to be more well-off than many students in these countries. Our estimates on the amount of time spent on educational activities during school closures or the availability of distance learning technologies, therefore, are likely upper bounds on the average experience of students in the region.
  6. 6. In our sample, 45% of households report owning a smartphone, and 23% report having access to internet on their smartphone or other devices that could be used for distance learning. However, only 54% of parents of RAN students have a phone number listed in RAN’s database. We assume that the remaining 46% do not have access to a smartphone or other device to access the internet.
  7. 7. Re-enrollment refers students reporting back to school after school closures. We found that re-enrollment rates were 98% for girls and 96% for boys
  8. 8. 67.5% of the sample surveyed held the opinion that pregnant girls should not be sent to school
  9. 9. Amnesty International, Shamed and Blamed: Pregnant Girls’ Rights at Risk in Sierra Leone, 2015.
  10. 10. BBC News, Sierra Leone Overturns Ban on Pregnant Women, 2020.
  11. 11. Amin Sajeda, Rob Ubaidur, Billah Masuma, Ainul Sigma, Hossain Md Irfan, Rahman Forhana, Kundu Surojit, Ehsan Iqbal, Haque Eashita, Hossain Md Saddam, Manzur Mehnaz. COVID-19 Related Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices Among Adolescent Girls in Bangladesh. 2020; Promises to Keep. Impact of COVID-19 on Adolescents in Kenya. 2021.