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$17 trillion: That's how much the pandemic could take away from today's kids

An empty classroom during the pandemic in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-Jun
Getty Images
An empty classroom during the pandemic in Seoul, South Korea.

17 trillion dollars.

That's how much the pandemic could cost today's children in terms of lost earnings over a lifetime. The number comes from a new report by the United Nations and the World Bank.

Starting in March 2020 schools closed in nearly every country, for 1.6 billion children. Nearly 2 years later, interruptions continue here in the U.S. and part-time or remote learning is still going on in places from India to Brazil.

In this new report, UNESCO, the educational arm of the U.N., along with UNICEF and the World Bank estimate what these months of disruption could ultimately mean. Shuttered schools combined with frozen economies not only means lost learning, it means students driven into the workforce, some for good.

With less schooling, children learn fewer skills. That takes them out of the running for higher-wage jobs. If they don't make up the time lost in school, it could potentially lead to lost earning over a lifetime. The $17 trillion estimate is up considerably from a $10 trillion estimate released in 2020 because learning interruptions have dragged on.

The rise of 'learning poverty'

Before the pandemic, the world had been making progress getting more children into schools. Between 2000 and 2015 enrollment in elementary schools in developing countries rose 8 percentage points to 91%. The U.N. and related organizations had turned their attention from increasing the number of children who weren't in school at all to improving the quality of education students were receiving.

There was a lot of work ahead to meet that latter goal. UNESCO has a simple benchmark for "learning poverty": Can a child, by the age of 10, read a simple sentence in their native language? Borhene Chakroun, UNESCO's director of the division for policies and lifelong learning systems, says that even before the pandemic, more than half the children in low- and middle-income countries could not do it.

"Usually those who are not achieving these basic metrics are the ones that are disadvantaged, discriminated against or coming from a lower socioeconomic background," he explains. According to the new report, learning poverty is expected to potentially affect more of those children because of the pandemic – up to 7 in 10.

That uptick in learning poverty has been triggered in part by the gaps and flaws in remote learning, even in the wealthiest countries. "Most of the countries found that their capacity to respond to such a crisis, their resilience, the infrastructure in terms of remote and hybrid learning, in terms of equipping the teachers with the digital skills and digital pedagogy, are lacking," says Chakroun.

This wasn't just a problem in countries like Mexico, Morocco and Malaysia, he says, but in France, where he is based, and in the United States. Around the world, children with disabilities, the youngest children and poorer children had the most trouble accessing or benefiting from remote learning.

Girls face tougher problems

Because of gender discrimination, this report found, girls around the world were also less likely to have the chance to participate in remote learning during COVID. In one of the more striking examples of downstream impacts of the pandemic, UNICEF projected in March of this year that 10 million more girls around the world than previously estimated could be forced into child marriage in the next decade. They were more likely to have to take care of younger siblings. They may have been orphaned or their parents were driven further into poverty because of COVID. This is an economic problem and a humanitarian problem.

Reports like these are projections, not facts

The authors of this report emphasize that there is still time to recover.

And they have recommendations that apply to both rich and poor countries.

First: invest in education. Reopen schools for full-time in-person learning and offer supplemental education and other services to bring girls, lower-income and other groups back up to speed. The authors note that only about 3% of government COVID relief funds globally have gone to education so far.

Second: innovate in teaching. Chakroun mentions a method called Teaching at the Right Level, developed by Pratham, a nonprofit in India, which is now being tried in countries like Cote d'Ivoire. Basically it means working one-on-one and in small groups to catch children up based on where they are at the moment – teaching in a way that is more flexible and personalized and less rote than is the norm in many countries' classrooms.

Third: International organizations are speaking up more forcefully than earlier in the pandemic to say that given all the major long-term drawbacks, school closures for COVID outbreaks should be avoided whenever possible, even during outbreaks like the current one.

"Our stance together with other partners has been you cannot open a supermarket and leave the schools closed," says Chakroun, who adds that the rule should be to close schools last and open them first.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.