Generation Lockdown Schoolchildren Around the World Face a Steep Uphill Battle

Hundreds of millions of children around the world have been unable to attend school for months because of the pandemic. More than 24 million may never return. The future of an entire generation is at stake.
Children in a Kenyan slum: Around the world, school closures are dimming the future prospects of today's students.

Children in a Kenyan slum: Around the world, school closures are dimming the future prospects of today's students.

Foto: Brian Otieno / GGImages / DER SPIEGEL

When the twins Esther and Deborah Pereira still hadn't heard anything from their school by early February, despite months of waiting, they turned to books to satisfy their longing. Their father scraped together his savings to buy them: "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," "Pinocchio" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

"We want to become dentists," they say after they hold up the colorful books, one after the other, in front of a smartphone camera.

Esther and Deborah are 11 years old, two bright girls who live with their parents in a rundown house in Maré, one of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Since their father lost his job at a construction company, the family's food has come from an aid organization.

The twins are in the sixth grade – theoretically, at least. Because in contrast to the private schools, most public schools in Brazil are still closed. And nobody knows when they might reopen their doors again.

When their school went into lockdown almost a year ago, their mother approached the teachers personally and was given a few exercises that she could do with the twins. But the material became increasingly difficult over time and the corrections came back less and less often. At some point in the middle of the year, contact with the school broke off completely.

So they played, watched television and, without really noticing, grew further and further away each month from their dream of attending university one day. Esther and Deborah are falling behind – as are millions of children around the world. And they are losing more than just an affiliation with their school or a year of instruction.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2021 (February 27, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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In countries like Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa, the future of an entire generation is at stake. Life paths are changing direction because homeschooling in city quarters with inadequate internet access is little more than an illusion. Children are unable to continue their schooling because there is no money for private tutors – or perhaps not even a desk or a room where the children can concentrate on their work. Doors are closing forever because parents have lost their jobs during the crisis and the children must now contribute to the family's survival. Or because girls have become pregnant.

Schools closed last year in more than 180 countries around the world. Some only closed for a few weeks, but in many places, they still haven't reopened. Because of the hundreds of millions of schoolchildren who are still unable to return to the classroom, the United Nations has warned of a "global education emergency." Experts see it as the deepest education crisis of the last 100 years. "What we are experiencing is an historical double-shock," says former Peruvian Education Minister Jaime Saavedra, who now leads the World Bank's Education Global Practice program. "Never has the economy suffered so much. Never have schools been closed for this long."

The Inequality Virus

In a report called "The Inequality Virus," the organization Oxfam notes that the coronavirus has torpedoed efforts to reduce educational disparities. Because development aid budgets have been cut and money has been flowing from the education sector into health care around the world, the disparities are now growing rather than shrinking. Whereas children in Europe have missed 10 weeks of schooling on average, the total is as much as 200 days in large parts of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

At home with the Pereira Bernardo Ferreira in Rio de Janeiro: Sisters Deborah and Esther are trying to keep up even with their school closed.

At home with the Pereira Bernardo Ferreira in Rio de Janeiro: Sisters Deborah and Esther are trying to keep up even with their school closed.

Foto: Evgeny Makarov / DER SPIEGEL

The consequences are vast. The United Nations believes that more than 24 million children will never again return to school. World Bank expert Saavedra estimates that 72 million children of Esther's and Deborah's age are sliding below the "learning poverty line," which doesn't just mean not having the ability to read understand a simple text, but also that the obstacles on the path out of poverty are greater.

The development of many countries could stagnate if children are unable to reach their potential. The World Bank has calculated that today's schoolchildren will lose out on $10 trillion in future earnings – a total that is growing with each day that schools remain closed.

But that's not all.

Children like Esther and Deborah are the ones that will ultimately have to pay back the debts their governments are currently incurring in the battle against the coronavirus. It is this generation's fate: The worst is yet to come.

The two girls are still too young to understand all that, but they can sense that things aren't going well. They are eager to learn, says their father, who is frequently unable to help with homework because he only went to school for a short time. But they will have to redouble their efforts if they don't want to lose sight of their dream.

In a certain sense, their father believes, they've been lucky. At the beginning of last year, the two had registered for a course that was to prepare them for acceptance to a better school. There were a few meetings in the library before the arrival of the virus. But in contrast to their school, which closed down entirely, the teacher of the preparatory course continued to send them exercises via WhatsApp. Later, they were loaned a tablet computer, enabling them to take part in instruction three times a week.

Trend Reversal

"Math, Portuguese, environmental science," says course coordinator Aline Ádria, who works for Redes da Maré, a civil society organization. Even if they only managed to make it through a fraction of the planned curriculum, Ádria says, the lessons were valuable because for many students, they managed to slow the process of alienation from schooling.

Ten of 25 children dropped out of the course in the last several months – because, for example, they no longer had access to a smartphone when their mothers went back to work. "Only 10," Ádria says. She still sees it as a success.

The Maré is a vast jungle of brick houses surrounded by highways, a place in which drug gangs control the lives of more than 100,000 people. There are 50 public schools in the favela, and even if many people living in the quarter don't even have running water, progress has been made in recent years. As in many regions of Brazil, the number of children who can read and write has risen. More children are staying in school for longer.

But such trends are now stalling. Around 4 million Brazilian schoolchildren and university students, according to surveys, have dropped out during this pandemic year, the equivalent of one in 12. Furthermore, there is a worrisome pattern: Those who have dropped out tend to be just entering puberty, have darker skin and come from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds.

Several countries are essentially starting over again, says Shelby Carvalho, who works for the Washington-based think tank Center for Global Development and is researching the consequences the pandemic has had for education. There is a risk of progress being reversed in the school system, she explains. "Schools are in crisis management mode, trying to just do what they can to make sure that students actually come back to school,” she says.

Carvalho believes that many countries are now paying the price for never really taking "pre-existing conditions" within their educations systems seriously enough. Even before the pandemic, economic crises around the world had resulted in shrinking education budgets. Globally, teachers are poorly paid or have been laid off and there has been, she adds, a shortage of investment in technological infrastructure for schools, a failure that the pandemic has exposed, despite hurriedly developed radio or TV learning programs.

The Pereira Bernardo Ferreira family in front of their home in a Rio de Janeiro favela

The Pereira Bernardo Ferreira family in front of their home in a Rio de Janeiro favela

Foto: Evgeny Makarov / DER SPIEGEL

On top of that, many countries have entrusted the education of their citizens to private school operators. Now that many families are facing a decision between spending their money on food or education, such tuition-financed models are proving inadequate. In Rio de Janeiro alone, some 150 private schools have closed down since the beginning of the pandemic. In India, where many parents send their children to private schools, many of which only cost a few euros per month, an entire system is at risk of collapsing.

The Learning Poor

It is possible that public schools, which are already overcrowded, will be further stretched, believes education expert Bikkrama Daulet Singh, who works for the Indian education NGO Central Square Foundation. Around half of all 10-year-olds in the country, Singh says, already belonged to the "learning poor" before the pandemic, a label that applies to children who have a hard time reading with comprehension. There are now studies indicating that this number has risen substantially as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. Children who were able to read a year ago are now having difficulties.

The problem, Singh says, is that these children are destined to fall even further behind. Once they reach a certain age, he says, learning is primarily based on reading comprehension, making it extremely difficult for those who cannot do so to catch up. It is just a matter of time before they drop out of the system entirely.

The Tumkur district near Bangalore is one of those places where the damage done over the course of the last year is visible. As in some other areas, schooling recently resumed here. Girls with braids and boys with neatly parted hair, all in grades six through 12, are walking with their backpacks along quiet roads on a recent February morning. Salman Pasha would be among them but for the fact that he has been working as a mechanic for the last several months.

Salman's smile is a bit forced as he bends over a motorcycle in a corrugated tin hut situated along the dusty main road through his village. When India shut down in March, both of his parents lost their jobs as day laborers and their savings evaporated quickly. Salman says he sat around at home for months, wasting his days until the lockdown was lifted and his parents heard that a repair shop owner was looking for a cheap assistant. They told him that he would at least learn a vocation if he took the job and could finally use his time more productively.

"I Don't Want to Be a Mechanic"

Since then, Salman has been changing out batteries, fixing flat tires, going out to buy chai and delivering repaired mopeds to the shop's customers. He earns the equivalent of 1.70 euros per day. His hands have become dark with oil. Salman seems as though he doesn't fully understand what has become of his life.

Mechanic Salman Pasha in India: "My parents always told me: If you work hard, you'll get somewhere."

Mechanic Salman Pasha in India: "My parents always told me: If you work hard, you'll get somewhere."

Foto: Mahesh Shantaram / DER SPIEGEL

"I miss school," he complains. "My parents always told me: If you work hard, you'll get somewhere."

And now?

He furrows his brow. "I don't know what I want to do," he says. "But I do know one thing: I don't want to be a mechanic."

If you ask Salman how old he is, he looks distrustful before answering. Fifteen, he says, which could be true. But it's the same thing that all boys say in the villages. Fifteen, says a lanky boy with peach fuzz on his upper lip, bragging that he can balance heavy sacks of cement on his head and that he earns 7 euros a day in construction. The boys who labor away at the mango farm? They also all say they are 15.

Fourteen, after all, is the legal working age in India. If they were younger, it would be considered child labor. Another common story told by younger boys to avoid suspicions of child labor is that they are just helping out in the stores or workshops of a relative and aren't being paid. It is the same thing that many teachers heard when they came to the villages and threatened to turn the girls and boys in to the police if they didn't return to school.

Many parents are fully aware that having their children work is wrong, but their immediate needs are often more pressing, and education only pays off in the long term.

An Indian family in the Tumakuru District, located in the state of Karnataka: Often, a family's immediate needs take precedence over education.

An Indian family in the Tumakuru District, located in the state of Karnataka: Often, a family's immediate needs take precedence over education.

Foto: Mahesh Shantaram / DER SPIEGEL

The dire consequences of the school closures affect 60 percent of all schoolchildren in developing countries. Already, an additional 150 million children have fallen back into poverty as a result of the pandemic, and for many of them, schools aren't just places where they learn something. They are places to socialize and where they develop as citizens. They are safe there from domestic violence and some even get medical care at school. And for millions of children from the slums of Kenya, for example, school was the place where they ate their main meal of the day.

A Full Meal

Since the beginning of the lockdown, 39 billion school meals have been missed, according to the UN. "School closure is a multi-dimensional loss," says World Bank researcher Saavedra.

The effects can also be seen on a visit to one of the dismal townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, where almost every sixth child suffered from hunger during the lockdown. On a recent afternoon, Xanda Booysen is standing in the sun in front of a small, wooden shack held together by rusty nails where she lives with her family. Xanda's dark eyes shine bright when she says: "I can hardly wait for Wednesday."

That is the day that her school reopens. And she will once again be able to eat a full school meal.

The twins Esther and Deborah in Brazil: Nobody knows when schooling will return to normal.

The twins Esther and Deborah in Brazil: Nobody knows when schooling will return to normal.

Foto: Evgeny Makarov / DER SPIEGEL

Xanda is a quiet 15-year-old who is in the ninth grade at Lavender Hill High School. In three years, as she says, her diploma should open the world to her. She wants to go to the U.S. to study acting. It's such dreams that help her endure the day-to-day in the township.

Her school was closed from March to September. It then opened for a brief time and closed again in December. Politicians called it a "phased reopening." Xanda, though, calls it "not enough schooling."

To avoid falling behind, she would lie down in the double bunk bed she shares with her three younger siblings to read and do math problems. But she had a hard time concentrating. Xanda grew angry and irate more often, without knowing why. Outside, gunfire would reverberate through the township as the gangs battled. Inside her head, she says, the reverberations were the word "hunger, hunger, hunger, like an echo."

It wasn't a feeling she was familiar with. "In school," she says, "we always got an apple and milk. Then rice, vegetables, sometimes fish." She is aware that many of her classmates only go to school because they get a decent meal. Xanda only really understood what that meant when her parents lost their jobs as a butcher and a streetsweeper due to the lockdown.

Every Single Day Is Vital

Suddenly, there wasn't always enough food to fill everyone's bellies. Government aid, say people in Xanda's quarter, never arrived. Her parents borrowed money where they could and stood in the long lines outside of the private soup kitchens that popped up everywhere. "There were times," says Xanda, "that we had porridge three times a day."

But now she is excited about Wednesday, about seeing her friends again at school, even if she is still afraid of the virus. And she is excited about English class. Most of all, though, she is excited about the food. "I'm going to take all I can get," she says.

A slum in Nairobi, Kenya: Around the world, millions of children have no longer been able to benefit from school meals since the coronavirus lockdowns.

A slum in Nairobi, Kenya: Around the world, millions of children have no longer been able to benefit from school meals since the coronavirus lockdowns.

Foto: Brian Otieno / GGImages / Der Spiegel

After the summer break, say researchers, children have usually forgotten around 20 percent of what they learned before. But how much will they forget after a break of six months or a year?

Jaime Saavedra of the World Bank says that every single day is vital. To alleviate the effects of the pandemic, it is up to the countries, he says, and they have to be flexible. Saavedra proposes using younger teachers, teaching in shifts and introducing review classes for those who have fallen behind.

Education officials, experts say, must start combing remote areas for families who may not have heard that schools are opening again. And governments, if they are able, must provide financial assistance to families in need.

"It's not going to be perfect," says Saveedra. "But it is important that societies develop a sense of urgency. Children need to go back to learning as soon as possible, despite all the other concerns."

Priorities must be reconsidered. Instead of opening up shopping malls, concert halls or football stadiums, developing and emerging countries should focus more on the youngest members of their societies. Even if the virus itself doesn't seem to have much of an effect on them, they are the biggest victims of this pandemic.

Esther and Deborah, the twins from Rio de Janiero, would be happy with a bit of luck for the time being. They spent the last months preparing themselves for entrance exams to get into a better school only to learn that such exams won't be taking place this year. Instead, the students will be chosen by lottery so that they all have the same chance.

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