More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has enough information to decide if the new education reality could be adapted to the post-Covid era. Data suggests against it.

When Covid-19 hit the world in late 2019, education systems across the world were unprepared, with school shutdowns affecting more than 1.6 billion students.

With the sudden dramatic change, remote learning has become the main solution that was adopted during the pandemic. However, it raised the question of whether the changes could be adopted in the long-term. Virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or learning software, have seen a significant surge in users during this period.

The studies based on the data gathered for over 21 months, on the other hand, suggest returning to physical classrooms, regardless of the increasing adaptation to distance learning.

Here’s why:

  • The need to recover from learning loss during the pandemic

Emerging data suggest that learning losses during the pandemic have been large and inequitable, particularly for marginalised children and now in-class learning is vital in order to be able to recover from it.

“In low- and middle-income countries, the share of children living in learning poverty—already over 50 percent before the pandemic—will rise sharply, potentially up to 70 percent, given the long school closures and the varying quality and effectiveness of remote learning,” a joint report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank said this week.

Even though the future of learning could be supplemented with online learning tools, the global adaptation to online learning has been unequal for now. Developing or underdeveloped countries, in particular, couldn’t provide teachers with the transition tools they needed to keep their teaching as effective as in-class learning.

Even in the cases of teachers who were fully adapted to the online learning systems, children from disadvantaged households didn’t always have the chance to continue their education due to a lack of parental support, or technical issues such as electricity or access to electronic devices.

Meanwhile, the disruption to in-person classes affected girls’ education significantly due to social norms and other struggles the disadvantaged students face.

“An estimated 10 million more girls are at risk of early marriage in the next decade and at increased risk of dropping out of school,” due to school closures, the report said.

  • The essential services that schools provide

School education is not just about classes, it also offers other services such as feeding pupils.

“Schools ordinarily provide critical services that extend beyond learning and offer safe spaces for protection,” the report says, noting that more than 370 million children globally missed out on school meals during school closures. For some children, it’s the only reliable source of food and daily nutrition. 

As of October 2021, this global figure for children who skipped school meals remained at 187 million with low-income countries having faced a 30 percent reduction in nutrition services that include supplements and nutrition education besides school meals.

And the most pessimistic scenario based on the data in the report suggests that seven million additional children may be stunted in low-income countries by 2030, while obesity in middle and high-income countries may increase. 

  • A mental health crisis

School closures and education turning virtual also was among the reasons for a mental health crisis among children and young people that emerged during the pandemic.

“Reopening schools and supporting them to provide comprehensive services promoting wellbeing and psychosocial support is a priority,” the UN and the World Bank said, saying that schools provide an environment that helps to tackle these issues.

“A growing body of evidence shows high rates of anxiety and depression for children and youth because of Covid-19,” the report said.

The students’ positive social interactions at schools impact their mental health and wellbeing in general. But for the students who experience distress and violence at home, in particular,  schools become a temporary shelter that can also provide assistance to tackle crises that they face at home.

According to a new survey by MTV Entertainment Group and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 46 percent of Americans in Gen Z — the age group that includes ages 13 to 24 — said the pandemic has made it harder to pursue their education or career goals. 

Meanwhile, suicide attempts increased among young people aged between 12 and 17, especially young girls, during the Covid-19 pandemic across the world, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July.

A lack of assistance amid school shutdowns is likely to decrease the reports of child abuse, the UN and World Bank report says, pointing out that this has been the case in Mexico. 

It was an approximate drop of 30 percent in child abuse reports during the school closures, with larger reductions among women and in municipalities with high poverty rates – a worrying development that may have long-term effects on education.