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How school closures from COVID-19 have cost society


Throughout the pandemic, data like daily case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths have helped public health officials make sense of COVID-19 and all the ways it's altered daily life. And we begin today's program with another figure, $17 trillion. That's how much the pandemic could cost children around the world in terms of lost lifetime earnings. The number comes from a new report by the United Nations and the World Bank. NPR's education correspondent Anya Kamenetz has been digging into this, and she joins us now.

Hi, Anya.


NADWORNY: So $17 trillion - that's a lot of money. How did the researchers land on that number?

KAMENETZ: Sure. So, as you know, in March 2020, schools closed not only here in the United States, but all over the world for 1.6 billion children. And obviously, that's a really big deal in richer countries, but especially it's a big deal in regions of the world that have been working hard in the last couple of decades to get children into formal education.

So in this new report, the United Nations and the World Bank are estimating what those months and months of disruption might ultimately mean for these children. So closed schools combined with the economic crashes all around the world not only means lost learning, it means students driven into the workforce. And some of them are going to stay there. So that all translates to children learning fewer basic skills, which makes them less qualified for higher-waged jobs. And that is how they get that estimate of $17 trillion of lost wages potentially over the lifetimes of these children.

NADWORNY: OK. And when you say basic skills, what exactly are you talking about?

KAMENETZ: Right. So I was interested in this. UNESCO actually has a really simple benchmark, which is can a child, by the age of 10, read a sentence in their native language? And if they can't, they call that learning poverty. And they found that even before the pandemic, more than half of the children in low- and middle-income countries couldn't do that. And now learning poverty is projected to potentially reach up to 7 in 10 of those children, given that remote learning could not and did not reach everyone.

NADWORNY: Wow. Did you get any more details about which children in particular could be impacted by this lost learning?

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Unfortunately, Elissa, I mean, it tracks the inequities that we see all over the place. It's poorer children. It's children with disabilities. And it's girls. So UNICEF says that 10 million more girls around the world could be forced into child marriage in the next decade as one of the most unusual cascading impacts of the pandemic. And this is because not only have they likely dropped out of school, they may be orphaned, or their parents were driven further into poverty. And essentially, they've run out of options for survival. So this is really a human toll that they're talking about here.

NADWORNY: So keeping in mind that these reports are projections, is there anything that can be done to lessen the impact of COVID on education outcomes?

KAMENETZ: Yes, absolutely. This is really important. So there's three big recommendations by the authors of the report that actually apply to both rich and poor countries. One is invest more in COVID recovery dollars into education. You know, if you spend the money now, you may not have to cost the money later in terms of these lost earnings. Second is to innovate in teaching. So interestingly, coming out of the developing world, there's a lot of really positive research about a method called teaching at the right level, which is basically working one-on-one and in small groups to catch children up based on where they are at this moment. And the third point made by Borhene Chakroun, who's the director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems for UNESCO, is that based on everything we've seen, even with these new variants like omicron, we really need to avoid closing schools again, if at all possible. Chakroun said...

BORHENE CHAKROUN: Our stance together with other partners has been you cannot open supermarket and leave the schools closed.

KAMENETZ: So he says the rule should be to close schools last and open them first.

NADWORNY: That's NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thanks, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Elissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.