Generation of learning loss due to COVID-19

Inequality is not a new issue, but the COVID-19 pandemic has just made it more visible around the world. “Learning loss” has become a common experience for this generation of children from vulnerable groups. (Photo courtesy of APREMC II)

Education is an important tool in the fight against inequalities, whether economic, social or otherwise. Children can escape the poverty trap that their parents couldn’t for generations, according to Dr. Kraiyos Patrawart, Managing Director, Equitable Education Fund (EEF).

Inequality is not a new issue, but the COVID-19 pandemic has just made it more visible around the world. “Learning loss” has become a common experience for this generation of children from vulnerable groups.

According to the latest study by UNESCO and UNICEF, countries in the Asia-Pacific region were the first to be affected by COVID-19, which disrupted access to education for 760 million children during from the initial peak of the pandemic in 2020.

Although the problem is not unique to Thailand, the Thai government admits that it is a big challenge to try to keep all children in school. Education Minister Treenuch Thienthong said just 3 more years of secondary school can make a huge difference in their life opportunities.

“What we can do quickly is create learning networks. Small schools may not be ready to merge one hundred percent with others. Let’s say we have a ‘mother school’, where the government helps fund the improvement of facilities, we could also call it a ‘magnet school’. At the same time, the surrounding schools, with 20, 30 or 50 students in total, with a few teachers, can send a few children first. Children from the 5th or 6th grade, who are able to travel, can be sent to these magnetic schools. Then the teachers from the smaller schools can take care of the rest, or if they wish to merge, there is no problem at all,” explained Treenuch Thienthong, Minister of Education.

The minister said not all small schools should consider merging. She insists that schools located in remote areas, such as on an island or in mountainous areas, will be supported by the Ministry of Education, with the aim of ensuring access to education for all.

In 2008, the Equitable Education Fund, or EEF, was created in hopes of helping to reduce educational inequity through systematic research, teacher development, and financial support for children and young people considered vulnerable.

The organization has supported over 700,000 students and provided 2,500 vocational scholarships per year across the country. One of their goals is to bring out-of-school children back to school or provide them with appropriate training.

This is what the Ministry of Education has also been trying to do for a few months, according to the Minister, to put children back in school. They managed to find 64,000 students who were excluded from Thailand’s education system during the pandemic. Fortunately, a majority of them were able to return. The big concern, however, is over 8,000 of them who are still outside the system.

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To repair the damage caused by the pandemic, Debora Comini, director of UNICEF’s Regional Office for East Asia and the Pacific (EAPRO), said we need to understand what has been lost. “It’s part of UNICEF’s support, assessing what has been lost. What the gap was, even before the pandemic, needs to be identified before we are able to understand where best to tackle the situation,” Comini added.

Comini said a very urgent solution is to make sure every child is back in school. UNICEF insists that schools should be the very last to close and the very first services to reopen “in the safest way possible”.

For sustainable development, the EEF advocates “education for all” and “territorial” education. “Since this is very detailed work and requires interdisciplinary skills, it cannot always be done at the national level. It needs to be decentralized, managed at the provincial level and even more localized,” explained Dr. Kraiyos.

He said education institutes must be given the opportunity to work with local communities and agencies, decentralizing the system, so they can be the response in their own context. He said people close to the problem would know the root of it best. EEF’s job is to provide the tools, technologies, innovations and knowledge to make it sustainable.

Recently, UNESCO and UNICEF co-organized the Regional Conference of Ministers of Education of Asia-Pacific in Bangkok, in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Education, to be a space where each country can share his knowledge and strategies for recovering from learning loss and looking to the future of the education system.

Shigeru Aoyagi, director of the Asia-Pacific Regional Office for Education in Bangkok, said the most urgent thing is how we can recover from the disruption to learning due to COVID-19, which has affected students’ skills and learning loss.

“How can we recoup this loss as quickly, as quickly as possible? This will be the most important and urgent thing. Beyond that, it will be a wonderful opportunity for us to reflect on the future of education,” Aoyagi said.

The United Nations will host a “Transforming Education” summit in September, which will address the issue of how the world is recovering from learning loss and rethink the future of education, based on the experiences that the world has gained during the pandemic.

by Tulip Naksompop Blauw