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Rebuilding Quality Education Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Young child spraying hands in classroom with mask on and notebook on his desk

The shutdown of schools and transition to remote learning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has proven detrimental to global learning initiatives. Not only has 20 years of efforts to achieve worldwide quality education plummeted, but in some parts of the world, the loss of physical schooling created unsafe conditions for vulnerable students who were forced to remain at home with unstable caregivers or enter into forced labor or marriage.

Despite the gains that have been made in the last two decades, the UN said that progress toward reaching the SDGs’ education-related goals has been “slow and insufficient.” The COVID-19 pandemic—as is often the case in times of crisis—significantly exacerbated preexisting inequities.

As a result of widespread school closures, an estimated 9%—or 101 million—of children in grades 1 through 8 fell below minimum reading proficiency levels. The lack of supportive online learning technology created additional obstacles for families who were also without access to basic school infrastructure, such as clean drinking water, electricity, handwashing facilities, and safe, welcoming environments.  

Currently facing what the UN has dubbed a “generational catastrophe,” it is imperative world leaders and the education sector align policies with UN SDGs to reverse pandemic-era losses and lack of social support.


What Defines Quality Education?

In an effort to improve sustainability and combat systemic inequalities, the UN initiated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, consisting of 17 interconnected objectives to eradicate poverty, urgently seek climate action, end world hunger, and more, all by 2030.

The intergovernmental organization’s fourth initiative, establishing quality education, aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Seeking to increase literacy rates and ensure engaging and inclusive learning environments, the UN outlines key targets and indicators for global educational access by 2030, such as ensuring all children complete primary and secondary schooling and have access to quality care options, early childhood development, pre-primary learning, and equitable learning environments.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively nullified decades of educational gains.


The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Detrimental Effects on Education

Pandemic-induced shutdowns have not only negatively affected learning benchmarks, but have put those most vulnerable in danger by removing their access to the protection schools afford.

Prior to the pandemic, only 53% of worldwide youth and 29% in sub-Saharan Africa completed secondary schooling, while 70% percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in 76 low- to middle-income countries were considered “on track developmentally,” with no distinct gender disparities, according to a UN analysis. The same time period also saw a steady increase—from 65% in 2010 to 73% in 2019—of participants in organized learning in the year before beginning primary education, the analysis continues.

Widespread school closures significantly prevented access, especially in disadvantaged regions.

The shutdown of schools and transition to remote learning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has proven detrimental to global learning initiatives.

Lengths of shutdowns varied by country: Buildings in middle-income South Asian and Latin American countries were fully or partially closed for at least 75 weeks. Meanwhile, high-income regions of Central Asia and Europe shut down for 30 weeks, and low-income sub-Saharan Africa for an average of 34 weeks.

As a result, at least 463 million students worldwide were cut off from education, according to a UNICEF factsheet. Thirty-one percent of children could not access remote learning programs due to insufficient household assets or appropriately targeted policies, and 40% of countries lacked pre-primary remote learning opportunities altogether.

Those with internet access have suffered a collapse in reading proficiency levels due to reliance on caregivers for learning. As already slow school completion rates continue to fall, these compounding factors have wiped out 20 years of educational gains, according to the UN’s 2021 Sustainable Development Goals Report.

Vulnerable children have faced unsafe caregiver conditions or heightened risk of entering into child marriage or labor, while numerous institutions lack basic school infrastructure such as drinking water (56%), electricity (33%), and handwashing facilities (40%).

As the aftershocks of COVID-19 continue to be felt, it is increasingly vital that government officials and educational leaders protect vulnerable youth from not only significant lapses in proper learning opportunities but the dangers accompanying the absence of schools.


Maintaining a Real-Time Pulse on Educational Disparities

Although schools have reopened in most cases, the COVID-19 pandemic’s rippling effects on learning are still unfolding.

While world leaders and institutions may base forthcoming policies on data insights from studies or forums, these traditional measures—although effective—oftentimes take months to produce, and lack the necessary urgency to respond to educational inequities at hand.

By contrast, emerging real-time data technologies and social understanding platforms provide actionable insights on various learning trends and associated dangers instantaneously, through intelligent interpretation of digital content, including social media commentary, blog posts, and discussions.

Through leveraging online conversations to gauge populations’ most pressing issues, this passively-collected data reveals vital education narratives, drop-out rates, gender disparities and more.

Dubbing data such as this the “lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability,” the UN has recently emphasized the importance of Big Data and real-time insights in its analysis titled “Big Data for Sustainable Development.”

“Achieving [the Sustainable Development] goals requires integrated action on social, environmental and economic challenges, with a focus on inclusive, participatory development that leaves no one behind,” says the UN in a statement in this analysis. “Critical data for global, regional and national development policymaking is still lacking… Big data can shed light on disparities in society that were previously hidden.”

Real-time feedback—such as utilizing citizen reporting to discern reasoning for student drop-out rates, the UN continues—is instrumental in maintaining a more complete understanding of this global crisis.

As the world forges forward to better support school-aged children, it is essential policymakers and world leaders urgently capitalize on this cutting-edge technology to leverage real-time learning trends and align policies with UN SDG initiatives.

Citibeats leverages ethical AI for social understanding, interpreting real-time, unstructured data from social media commentary, blog and forum discussions, and more. Our Sustainability and Social Risk Monitors shed light on millions of unfolding conversations, empowering the education sector with actionable insights to shape global policies. Schedule a demo today to learn more.