Students worldwide suffer education setbacks from pandemic school closures

One of the major consequences of the coronavirus is that children around the world have been unable to attend schools to learn and are too poor to have computers and thus can't learn remotely. This is especially a problem in poor, less developed countries. We take a look at the issue with reports from three countries around the world in Venezuela, Uganda and India.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Since the pandemic began more than two years ago, millions of children around the world have been unable to regularly attend school, and students without access to computers or reliable Internet can't be taught remotely. The problems are especially acute in poor and less developed countries.

    Our special correspondents report now on the hurdle students face in three different countries, Venezuela, Uganda and India.

    And we begin in Mumbai.

  • Rebecca Bundhun:

    The grease and grime of this garage are part of this 14-year-old's daily life now. He's been working here for eight months, earning $2 to $3 a day for a few hours of labor.

    Because of his age, this work is illegal. And he's asked us to hide his identity, the pandemic forced schools to shut in Mumbai, many for almost two years. And this Mumbai teenager has no access to a smartphone or laptop. So, his mother says, attending his school's online classes was not an option.

  • Person (through translator):

    How would I buy a mobile phone? I'm concerned about getting food to eat. How can I think of buying a mobile phone?

  • Rebecca Bundhun:

    The COVID-19 lockdowns dried up her meager income collecting scrap metal to sell for recycling. As the second eldest child in a single-parent family with five kids, he started picking up or jobs when the schools closed. And this teenager's income became vital to the family's survival.

  • Student (through translator):

    I can't go back to school now. I have forgotten everything. I have forgotten how to study. I come here, earn some money. That's how we make ends meet.

  • Rebecca Bundhun:

    At this government-run primary school, which only reopened last month for kids to attend classes in person, teachers say about half the children have fallen behind dramatically in their studies. Many going into their third year of education can't read or write because they didn't step foot into a classroom for two years and had little or no access to a device to attend online classes.

    Educators say the pandemic exacerbated income and opportunity inequalities that already existed. And they say it's teenagers who will experience the most lasting effects.

    Neerja Birla founded and chairs an education trust.

  • Neerja Birla, Founder, Aditya Birla Education Trust:

    But, in any case, in secondary school, we have very high rate of dropouts. So, automatically, they have been out of school for two years, then chances are that they will not want to get back to school.

  • Rebecca Bundhun:

    Authorities in Mumbai have launched a mission to guide schools on assessing and supporting students to try to ensure there aren't further interruptions to learning.

    India has a large young population, half of which is under the age of 25. Education has been key to the country's progress in recent years in lifting the next generations out of poverty. But a study by Pew Research Center shows that the number of poor people in India doubled in 2020 due to the pandemic-induced recession.

    With families still struggling, many fear they will get trapped in the cycle of poverty if their kids don't return to their studies.

  • Person (through translator):

    I want my kids to study and get a good job somewhere. When my children don't go to school, I feel this pain in my heart. I feel sad thinking that they will have to work all their life.

  • Rebecca Bundhun:

    Her children and those of millions of other impoverished Indians now face the prospect of making their way in the world without the benefits of an education.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    I'm Isabel Nakirya in Uganda, where the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt learning for millions of children, children like 9-year-old Juliana Namakula, who is tucked behind her grandmother's grocery stall.

    Schools here reopened in January after the pandemic shut them for 80 weeks, but Juliana isn't going to school. Instead, she's helping her grandmother sell groceries in Chevandu, a slum in the capital, Kampala.

  • Florence Nabawanuka, Uganda (through translator):

    I'm so worried that this child is not in school. And I don't see help coming from anywhere.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Juliana started staying with her grandmother at the start of the lockdown after her mother fell seriously ill and could not fend for the family.

    She would be a fifth grader this year, but the $30 enrollment fee for public schools is completely out of reach. And she knows she won't be able to continue her education.

  • Juliana Namakula, Former Student (through translator):

    I feel bad. And I always ask my grandmother why kids my age are going to school, yet I'm here at home.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Juliana joins millions of children in Uganda who may never step into a classroom again. The National Planning Authority estimates 30 percent of Ugandan children will not return to school, children who are now working, who got pregnant or married since the onset of the pandemic.

    For those who have managed to go back to public school, classrooms are overcrowded. Up to 180 children are crammed into classes meant for 40. Two years of lost learning may never be recovered for many students in public schools. The government has promoted all students to the next grade to make up for lost time, but there's no easy answer about how they will muster the backlog of material they have missed.

    Educators say the high numbers of children in each classroom will likely mean lower mastery of skills at each grade level.

  • Kajwiga Hussein, Head Teacher:

    Most of them are in classes, but they need remedial assistance. We are trying it. But the performance is not as good as it was before COVID.

  • Isabel Nakirya:

    Refugee children have also been hit especially hard. At this camp in Northern Uganda, children tried to teach themselves during the lockdown, sharing the few learning materials provided by the government.

    Now that schools are open again, the government is rolling out a campaign on TV and radio to encourage parents to take their children back to school and to get schools to make allowances for those who can't afford the fees.

    But many of Uganda's schoolchildren will never return to class. Like Juliana, they are facing a future limited by their missed educational opportunities.

  • Mary Triny Mena:

    I'm Mary Triny Mena in Caracas, where children are learning in kitchens and living rooms pressed into service as classrooms to make up for closed schools.

    Primary school teacher Anam Yost (ph) belongs to an informal network of teachers opening up their homes to offer private tutoring to neighborhood kids in Petare, Venezuela's biggest and most populous slum. She says, when the schools closed, not only did students stop learning new things. They unlearned what they knew before the pandemic. And that's not all.

  • Person:

    They have lost the studying habit, the habit of going to school and studying every day.

  • Mary Triny Mena:

    Fifth grader Victor Pelayo, tried to make do with online learning during the 18 months Venezuela's schools were completely closed, but he doesn't have a computer or reliable access to a smartphone. And it was hard to learn without a teacher.

  • Victor Pelayo, Student (through translator):

    I was not understanding.

  • Mary Triny Mena:

    In October, classrooms reopened in Venezuela, but in both public and private schools, students are only going to school once or twice a week for a few hours at a time.

    The whole country is struggling with conditions that persist from the chaos that plagued Venezuela even before the pandemic, an economy in crisis, political repression, and millions of people fleeing the country. Most schools have no running water. Many children do not come to school at all. And with salaries as low as $2 a month, Venezuelan teachers are leaving the profession.

    Educators warn, without urgent action, an entire generation could be left behind. And Venezuela is not the only Latin American country with this problem. According to the World Bank, more than seven million Latin American children may grow up unable to read proficiently because of the pandemic.

    Victor may be one of the lucky ones. For now, his family struggles to pay $1 a week for his tutoring. But educators warn, until schools across Venezuela receive significant investment, the costs of lost learning will continue to grow.

    Carlos Cedeno is an educator a member of Venezuela's Parents Network.

  • Carlos Cedeno, Venezuelan Parents Network (through translator):

    It's a loss of knowledge. It will also mean a loss in their incomes in the medium and long term and, finally, a loss in productive jobs for their country.

  • Mary Triny Mena:

    It's that long-term effect that is most worrying, an economic and intellectual kind of long COVID with deep scars and a high cost for generations to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," with Rebecca Bundhun in Mumbai and Isabel Nakirya in Kampala, I'm Mary Triny Mena in Caracas.

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