Have we underestimated the number of students affected by school closures?

By Silvia Montoya, Director, UNESCO Institute for Statistics

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only brought the loss of many lives and severe pressures on health systems, it has also had a severe and negative impact on livelihoods of disadvantaged people and has led to governments closing schools. Both factors threaten the ambitious education targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably by exacerbating learning inequities. This blog presents new information about partial closures of schools, proposing a new methodology to estimate the number of affected students and introducing two new dashboards on school closures.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, school closure decisions have evolved as reflected through the data collected by the UNESCO school closures tracker. In March 2020, a drastic decision to close schools affected the vast majority of students, about 1.6 billion. As countries gradually controlled the spread of the virus, schools reopened, fully or partially, by September 2020. According to the UNESCO, UNICEF and World Bank joint survey, 9 out of 10 countries implemented some remote learning modality to mitigate learning losses. A new UNESCO dashboard updates the COVID-19 country profiles with information on the different strategies used for remote learning.

At the beginning of the academic year in the northern hemisphere, the pandemic brought a different response with most countries re-opening schools, using full in-person instruction or hybrid models, which combined in-person attendance with remote learning. Full school closures continued in some regions, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, or closures for some grades, where the conditions for reopening fully did not favour in-presence interaction.

The percentage of fully closed schools has decreased over time. As of April 2021, Africa was the region with the highest percentage of students under fully open status. An update on school closures by region is available in the UIS regional dashboard.

Percentage of students by school closure status and region; April 2020, October 2020 and April 2021

Source: UIS and UNESCO. Status figures are averages weighed by enrolment in primary and secondary education.

Is there a learning loss associated to partial closures?

So far, the focus has been on learners negatively impacted by full school closures. Counting the number of students affected by the closures has not covered the students attending schools that are partially closed (by region, grade or level), or those attending schools where class time has been reduced. A new estimate on the number of impacted learners has therefore been made. This adjusted estimate also identifies the type of delivery modality chosen by countries, distinguishing in-person, remote and hybrid models.

Such distinctions are very important for some regions, where the predominant arrangement is for schools to be partially open (defined as some school open and other fully close), notably in Latin America and the Caribbean. The use of partially open modality is shown by region, with the exception of Africa, where two thirds of the students under partial modality (6% of the total enrolment) face a selective opening by grades. This means that most students attending school under partially open arrangements are differentiated by region within each country.  

Distribution of students where schools are partially closed, by modality, April 2021

Source: UIS and UNESCO. Status figures are averages weighed by enrolment in primary and secondary education.

The possible school closure arrangements by grade and regions or hybrid modality listed in the table can be classified in seven categories, depending on geographical and grades extension of the coverage and the modality of delivery of learning (in-presence, hybrid or purely remote) as described in this methodological note. A summary of these modalities by country is shown in the map below.

Source: UIS and UNESCO. Status figures are averages weighed by enrolment in primary and secondary education.

Learning opportunities are also lost when schools are partially closed

To reassess the impact of different types of school closures on learning, some assumptions need to be made. A critical one relates to hybrid learning and its equivalence to in-person instruction. Hybrid learning is understood as a method that incorporates any possible learning technique to best teach the content, no matter if it is online or offline combined with in-person instruction. A second related assumption is that a system that only uses remote strategies (online, radio and television) is not equivalent to a system that totally or partially includes interaction between students and between students and teachers. Any modality that reduces the number of days or hours of in-person instruction, or that combines a teaching and learning system with remote learning, is equivalent to in-presence instructions.

Based on these assumptions, the percentage of students enrolled in basic education and affected by COVID-19 school closures doubles from 14% to 31% or from 195 to 444 million students worldwide at the end of April. The region the most affected, if counting the adjustment, is Latin America and the Caribbean where the percentage of students affected increases from 40% to 55% or from 37 to 70 million students out of the total 130 million in the region. This analysis can be further improved as information about the efficacy of remote and hybrid learning strategies relative to in-person instruction becomes available.

The second round of the UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank joint survey showed that the perceived effectiveness of remote learning varies by level of education. Remote learning for upper secondary education was reported as very effective by 50% of reporting countries, but only 30% of countries considered remote learning effective in primary education. Altogether, these figures are a cause for concern and call upon us to carefully monitor the learning achievements of students to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need of countries to establish their own monitoring and data collection during and post-pandemic, analysis of equity and drivers of differences within countries.

Percentage of students affected by COVID-19 school closures by region, before and after adjustment for partial school closures, April 2021



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