THE damage inflicted by Covid-19 on lives and livelihoods over the past two years is still visible today, even as economies reopen and strive to regain lost ground. Even as the easing of lockdowns allows businesses and sectors hit by the pandemic to capture a rebound in demand, more experts are voicing their concerns about the damage caused by the pandemic that is less visible to the naked eye and, thus, may not be receiving enough policy action.
The threat of worsening health and child stunting is one of them, as nutrition becomes a luxury to those struggling to put food on the table. The damage to human capital from widespread loss of learning among school children, even those with access to online learning, is another. As the lower- and middle-income groups are harder hit by the pandemic, these threats pose a setback to upward social mobility and are, thus, grave concerns to supporters of sustainable growth and people who truly believe that children are a country’s future.
“While the cost of school closures is not seen immediately, a large body of evidence suggests that the long-term cost of school closures may dwarf the short-term cost of reduced economic activity,” experts note in a January 2022 report titled Prioritising learning during Covid-19: The most effective ways to keep children learning during and post-pandemic, by the Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel (GEEAP) with the support of researchers at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the World Bank and Unicef Office of Research — Innocenti.
Globally, credible estimates suggest learning lost from the crisis to be in the trillions of dollars if corrective action is not urgently taken, the experts say, pointing out that nearly every aspect of education was hit by the pandemic — access to school fell, nutrition was hampered, learning loss occurred, learning inequality increased, logistics became more complex, teachers’ jobs became harder and child mental health and well-being deteriorated.
“The short- and long-run impact of the Covid-19 crisis on children’s education will be profound. There is an urgent need for education systems to recover [and] education must be at the forefront of discussions on how to regenerate economies: if education is not at the heart of countries’ recovery plans, economic recovery will be much weaker,” says the report, flagging the need for policymakers to seize the opportunity the pandemic presents to “rethink and reset education provision so that all children, irrespective of their socioeconomic background and circumstances, can learn and thrive”.
In Malaysia, at least one in four children from each region in the country experienced learning disruption due to the pandemic, a separate study conducted by the World Bank found last year.
While most children have access to online classes or mobile learning applications, 30% of children from low-income households and about 25% of children in each of the five regions in the country did not have access to online learning resources during the pandemic, according to the findings of the High-Frequency Phone Survey (HiFY), titled Covid-19 Impact and Recovery Among Malaysian Households, which separated Malaysia into five regions, namely, Northern Peninsular, Central Peninsular, Southern Peninsular, East Coast Peninsular and East Malaysia.
Uneven learning loss
Just how much damage have the two years of learning disruption caused to the country’s economy and cognitive development of our future leaders?
“From a national point of view, the economic significance is huge when the dollar cost of learning disruption is calculated in terms of the overall loss of future earnings — the learning disruption alone could cost Malaysia a loss in lifetime earnings of between US$27.68 billion and US$59.15 billion,” Professor Niaz Asadullah of the University of Malaya’s Faculty of Business and Economics, tells The Edge.
He adds that he expects the inequality to worsen.
“Children from well-off families who had the necessary resources coped with the learning loss [with] more investment in digital technology, greater parental involvement, supplementary tutoring. But for the B40 community, who already suffered from learning poverty before the pandemic, two years of school closure is likely to have intensified learning poverty, leaving the next generation at greater risk of income poverty.”
Niaz, who is the Southeast Asia lead at the Global Labor Organization, says there are many sources of inequality in the Malaysian education system, with the region of residence being one of them. In addition to the rural-urban divide, there are huge inequalities in access to basic tools for online learning even in rural Malaysia, he points out.
“During my recent visit to the Kelabit highland community in Bario, Sarawak, I was struck by the extreme form of such inequalities — even mobile phone signal quality is very poor and irregular, let alone an internet connection. Levelling the playing field in education requires both public and private investment. But in remote locations such as Bario that are home to indigenous communities, private telecom and internet providers alone will not eliminate the digital divide unless the government supplies complimentary public communication infrastructure that is currently missing,” says Niaz.
“Rapid expansion of digital transformation programmes under the Jendela initiative of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) is promising. The Sarawak Rural Broadband Network (MySRBN) initiative of the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation (SEDC) is expected to build hundreds of telecom towers.
“While MySRBN has already expanded opportunities in many parts of rural Sarawak, coverage is still inadequate in last-mile locations like Bario. This, in turn, discouraged private investments in locations where schools remained the most isolated during the PdPR (home-based teaching and learning) campaign.”
World Bank senior education specialist Dr Aija Rinkinen concurs that two years is a long time in a child’s development. “It is not only academic skills that our children are learning in school, they are also at a critical age, growing as human beings and developing their communication, social and emotional skills,” she says.
“Being isolated from their peers and teachers may have hindered their development and well-being. These are the consequences that we do not even know for sure yet. For these reasons, some students may not have experienced learning loss at all. And for some, the loss can be immense.”
Citing the World Bank’s HiFY survey, Rinkinen says low-income households reported a lower rate of school attendance even in the pre-pandemic period, and children from these households are also less likely to continue learning from home during the pandemic.
“The reasons children did not engage in learning changed over the course of the pandemic. In the first round of the HiFY survey, in May and June 2021, constraints related to lack of internet access and devices were the most frequently reported reasons for children’s failure to engage in at-home learning.
“In October and November, however, more families said their children’s lack of interest in online classes and the lack of parental or adult supervision were reasons for their children’s non-participation.”
She adds that it was also difficult for teachers to quickly transfer their teaching approach to online methods, so many struggled.
Lam Shuk Fong, a primary school teacher in Kuala Lumpur, says educators are finding ways to help children cope with learning loss.
“While online learning could mitigate the impact, its effectiveness and the student attendance rate could be better. Obviously, many young children are easily distracted during online classes. Parents are working from home and they may not be able to make sure their children remain concentrated at online classes. The learning disruption over the past two years will definitely affect the children’s learning progress,” she says.
Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim says now that students are being assessed by their respective schools (following the abolition of the standardised primary school achievement test), teachers should ensure that every student is given personal attention, so that the foundation for each subject taught is solid and they are able to apply the concepts to solve problems. “Teachers therefore must have received specific training to identify the gaps and undertake the required interventions,” she adds.
More than just a device for every child
Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to learning loss and tackling the inequality in access to education?
“It is very important that when students return to school, we as adults try to find out what the needs of our students are and decide what to do about it. These needs are different, they vary, and therefore there is no one-size-fits-all solution to fix the problem,” says Rinkinen.
Teacher Raj Ridvan Singh, founder and CEO of SOLS 24/7, an online education provider for the poor, opines that the government has sufficient taxpayer money to provide a digital device to every B40 child in Malaysia.
“It will cost less than RM500. And if you do the maths, RM500 x 2.2 million B40 students who need devices, it is only about RM1.1 billion. In addition, tax breaks can be given to the telcos so they can provide the bandwidth for free or at an extremely low and affordable price of, say, below RM20 per month,” he says.
“The reality is that this is a completely new market for the telcos and in the long run, the telcos themselves will benefit as these will become their customers. [Moreover,] the private sector and large foundations [can also play a part] in helping to get the devices to these children.”
Raj, a social entrepreneur who has designed and implemented education and community development programmes for entire communities, stresses the need for Malaysia to step up its game plan and harness the benefits of technology in building up future talents.
“Look at Indonesia — who understands the digital world better than the experts in the field,” he says, pointing to how Nadiem Anwar Makarim, the co-founder of Gojek, was named Indonesia’s minister of education, culture, research and technology.
“[We need] to really get a solid, experienced and capable leadership team to lead our education technology adoption and invest in providing every child with a digital device and sufficient internet bandwidth. This will be a total game-changer for Malaysia and may even help the government of the day win the election … Get a device for each child, get our leaders and teachers prepared and trained in digital skills, and get the parents engaged.”
It is imperative that policymakers assess the extent of the learning loss and implement targeted remedial plans, say the experts. There are already promising adaptive software and technology that can be used to assess learning progress and help teach children “at their level”.
“To catch up, it will be critical to assess students’ learning levels as schools reopen,” say the GEEAP experts, adding that an ambitious reform that could enable catch-up and prevent students from falling behind in the first place include reforming the curricula to better match day-to-day instruction to the children’s level. They admit, though, that changes are time-consuming and hard to do well.
The World Bank’s Rinkinen asks that all stakeholders play a part in tackling the issue at hand, as the responsibility should not be just on the government.
“It would be easy to say that addressing the issue would be a responsibility of only one party like the ministries. That, however, is not the case. This is the issue of the whole society. We are in this together and we need to fix this together. All stakeholders can do their part,” she says.
The education ministry can support schools by offering guidance, resources and advice. However, it is still in school where learning takes place. That is why school leaders and teachers have a big role to play in checking how their students did during the school closures, finding out what the problems are and planning solutions for them. Parents need to support their children by helping them with their schoolwork, giving encouraging advice and creating a positive atmosphere for learning.
“Society, as a whole, can support by giving additional resources or offering services to those in need. As part of a whole government approach, social security and health sectors are needed to do their part in supporting children’s and their families’ basic needs, making learning possible,” says Rinkinen.