This blog was written by Surayya Masood, Research Associate on the LEAPS Programme at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP). and Zainab Qureshi, Director of the LEAPS Programme at Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard University. It was originally published on the website on 16 May 2020, and then the RISE Programme website on 5 June 2020.

Covid-19 has forced schools to close and thrown education systems around the world into an unprecedented crisis: how can students learn if they cannot access the classroom? In Pakistan, already suffering from a severe learning crisis, an extended shutdown of schools will deeply impact the national education ecosystem in three distinct ways: it will cause large learning losses, exacerbating the existing learning crisis; it may have a devastating impact on the low-cost private school sector; and it may lead to a higher dropout rate, especially amongst older children and girls.

How Covid-19 will make the learning crisis worse

Pakistan’s learning crisis is grave and well-documented: Aser reports that only 27 percent of third-grade children in rural Pakistan can read a sentence in a local language, and only 22 percent can perform simple arithmetic operations. The pandemic will drag these numbers farther down. Tahir Andrabi, Benjamin Daniels and Jishnu Das’ study after the earthquake of 2005 found large learning losses among all children. More surprisingly, schools were closed for only an average of 14 weeks, but the impact on children exposed to the earthquake four years later was a loss of 1.5 to 2 full years of learning. Given that schools across Pakistan will remain closed for longer than 14 weeks due to the current crisis, this has huge implications: Students will be affected immediately and also in the long run. Education experts hypothesise that learning losses accumulate over time when children go back to school after a gap and teachers start the next level of curriculum without assessing how much students know or taking any remedial measures.

Imagine this: a first-grade student was not able to attend the last three months of school, so she misses out on key foundational lessons. Because school is closed for so long, she forgets some things she did learn. When school resumes, she has been promoted to Grade 2. If her teacher begins the Grade 2 curriculum without first assessing how much of the Grade 1 curriculum his students know/remember, he might cause long-term harm. Unless conscious remedial action is taken, gaps in foundational skills will only worsen. This will not be an easy task for teachers, made more difficult because children in the same classroom already have enormous variation in how much they know. Teachers will need effective testing tools and help with how to adapt curricula for the post-Covid school years.

What will happen to private schools?

We also fear for the future of more than 100,000 low-cost private schools in Pakistan, which are often overlooked, undervalued and even villainised. In reality, they provide an essential service to the nation. Monthly fees range from Rs.300 to Rs.5,000 and they are spread out in both urban and rural areas, catering to over 40 percent of the nation’s primary school going population. They employ more than 900,000 (primarily female) teachers, making them the largest employer of women in Pakistan. They fill gaps in access (helping take Pakistan’s Gross Enrollment Rate to 97 percent) and test scores for children in these schools are higher.

Unfortunately, they are also particularly vulnerable to financial shocks and at risk of bankruptcy in the current crisis. For students in these schools, learning is at a standstill, with no existing mechanisms for remote education. These schools have started seeing declining or halted fee payments as parents (mostly farmers, labourers, and blue-collar workers) are unable or unwilling to pay. Without income flows, these schools can no longer pay staff — which means that a large number of teachers are at risk of losing their jobs and sources of income.

What happens if a large number of these low cost private schools shut down permanently, and the entrepreneurs who run them decide to move to different industries? Where will their students and teachers go? How will we as a country bridge the gap in access, given that many public schools are operating at capacity?

Great dropouts?

Lastly, school shutdowns may lead to a higher dropout rate, and many previously enrolled students may not return to the classroom. Suffering from limited income flows and multiple dependents, parents may involve older children in household work, agriculture or other income-generating activities, increasing the opportunity cost of returning to school. Girls may be especially at risk, facing increased prospects of early marriage driven by economic necessity.

Prolonged closures without innovative alternatives will especially hurt vulnerable populations, exacerbating existing social inequalities. Many elite private institutions have shifted instruction online through various digital platforms. Although the quality and efficacy of these measures have been questioned, they do provide a mechanism for continued learning. They also highlight the digital divide, since most schools in Pakistan do not have the capability for online instruction and many students do not have internet connectivity, digital literacy or household support required for online instruction at home.

We need to think deeply about alternatives to the traditional classroom while schools are closed, and remedial measures when they reopen. The silver lining to this crisis has been an explosion of innovation in distance learning and a greater willingness of schools and parents to experiment with education technology. The new national and provincial education television channels are one such experiment in distance learning. Our team at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan has partnered with leading EdTech providers like Muse by Sabaq and EdKasa to launch Ilm Exchange, a digital education platform that allows even low-cost schools to help children continue learning from home. But more thought will be needed on how to integrate these initiatives with mainstream curricula and remedial learning when children return to school.

These initiatives will help us assess the strengths and limitations of education technology and contribute towards evidence-based education policies that serve Pakistan beyond the current crisis. But, in the meantime, we need to put our heads together and figure out how to avert a looming learning crisis, permanent school closures, and a higher dropout rate.

RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.