How has COVID-19 affected the prospects of achieving the SDG 4 targets?

Education systems across the world have never faced a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog summarizes selected findings from the new 2021/2 Global Education Monitoring Report on the implications that the pandemic has had on each and every target in SDG 4. With the exception of the accelerated pressure to develop digital skills, which are captured in target 4.4, the concern is that the chances of achieving the other SDG 4 targets have been compromised.

One message is clear: the impact on learning is expected to be long-term, especially in those countries that did not have the resources to provide equitable distance learning opportunities of good quality for all. Globally only one in three children, and one in six of the poorest children, had access to the internet as school closures began. About 40% of children in Ethiopia and Nigeria followed radio programmes but only 10% in Ethiopia and 17% in Nigeria used mobile learning apps; barely any in Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mali and Uganda. While almost all countries deployed a mix of remote learning modalities, at least 463 million children could not access any remote learning opportunities, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Key data collection processes have been interrupted – or the data they produce are less straightforward to interpret – which means that the implications of disruptions on attendance and on learning may remain opaque for a while. The paragraphs below summarize what we know at present, yet the full impact will not be known for years to come.

Target 4.1. The pandemic has put the goal of achieving universal primary and secondary education for all in jeopardy. Aside from the quarter of total days accounted for by closure for academic breaks, schools were closed for 28% of total days and partially closed for 26% between March 2020 and October 2021. But the variation between countries was large. Some countries never closed their schools, while in many Latin American countries, Bahrain, India and the Islamic Republic of Iran, schools were open for less than 5% of total instruction days.

Estimates of learning loss vary by context, school level and subjects. Marginal or no impact was observed in Australia, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, while considerable losses were observed in Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Pakistan, and South Africa. A study by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in six sub-Saharan African countries, released after the launch of the 2021/2 GEM Report, shows no impact on the percentage of children reaching minimum proficiency but probably because most children fall below this level. Two-thirds of countries implemented remedial measures in primary and secondary education but there is no consolidated information on the coverage and depth of these programmes.

Target 4.2. Children in preschools lost more instruction days in 2020 than in primary and secondary schools. By mid-2021, over 60 countries had not fully reopened pre-primary schools. A global survey by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank found that 44% of low-income countries and 71% of high-income countries provided materials for parents and caregivers. Pre-primary teachers in 55% of countries were asked to ensure learning continuity, compared to 70% for other education levels.

Target 4.3. Remote teaching, teaching preparation and access to devices and the internet represented the biggest challenges in technical, vocational and tertiary education. Up to 80% of TVET programmes focus on practical and soft skills, which should be acquired in person. One in two low-income and one in three lower-middle-income countries had to cancel all training. At the tertiary education level, where students were more exposed to remote learning prior to the pandemic, countries varied in their choice of online platforms and their preparedness for switching to online learning. In the United States, student enrolment fell by 6.5% on average between 2019 and 2021, but by 13% in four-year private for-profit and two-year public institutions, while it grew in highly selective universities and in graduate courses.

Target 4.4. Demand for digital skills soared since the pandemic began, making them a core priority of education, training and skills building. COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation in labour markets and the acquisition of digital skills. But opportunities were not equally available for those lacking basic literacy or access to the internet and devices.

Target 4.5. The most serious legacy of COVID-19 on education has been its disproportionate impact on disadvantaged learners. Online learning was easier for students in richer than in poorer countries; at best, 6% of students in Africa would have been able to attend classes online and about 30% on television. Remote learning arrangements left learners with disabilities unsupported. A global survey of parents of children with disabilities found that only 19% of those in need had access to sign language interpretation. Migrants and refugee communities were also severely affected. Learning centres for the Rohingya in Bangladesh remained closed for 18 months.

Target 4.6. The pandemic demonstrated that the ability to read and count was crucial for health literacy and effective vaccination campaigns and needed to be included in reconstruction plans. In India, women participating in a literacy programme knew more about COVID-19 than their counterparts. But literacy and numeracy programmes were hit hard by the pandemic. But by mid-2020, 90% of adult literacy programmes were partially or even fully suspended.

Target 4.7. COVID-19 shed light on education system failures to pursue the ideas of solidarity and multilateralism. The growing inequality within and between countries raises moral concerns related to vaccine nationalism, xenophobic policies, and the spread of discriminatory beliefs. Just as such issues have become more urgent, however, the pandemic has led many governments to increase the curricular focus on ‘core’ subjects to minimize learning losses in these areas.

Target 4a. The pandemic has been a stark reminder that learners can be located in other environments when learning is remote, but also that adapting the school environment is crucial to provide a safe environment. In early 2021, less than 10% of low-income and 96% of high-income countries reported having necessary basic sanitation and hygiene facilities. In early 2020, 25% of countries and 50% of low-income countries, reported needing more resources to ensure the safety of learners and staff.

Target 4b. Tertiary education scholarships and student finances were severely affected as a result of the pandemic. In EU countries, 41% of students lost their jobs. In Latin America, more than 60% of public and 90% of private higher education institutions provided tuition discounts. Scholarships were also affected by travel restrictions and financial instability. In Finland, 48% of international students returned home. Vaccine inequalities also affected the mobility of students from the Global South for longest.

Target 4c. Teachers were hit hard by COVID-19. Thousands of teachers died as a result of the pandemic leading to two-thirds of countries to prioritize teachers in their vaccination plans. Teacher education and well-being was also affected by school closures and the limitations of remote learning. Among 20,000 teachers in 165 countries, 39% stated that their physical, mental, and emotional well-being had suffered.

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  1. It really impacted a lot on education especially on Kindergarten students. THough virtual class was introduced. It was impossible for Preschool kids to learn how to read and write virtually.

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