February 2, 2023

Poor kids fell far behind peers during COVID school shut-downs, new global study shows

People queue for hand sanitizer refills during lockdown in Alexandra Township
People queue for hand sanitizer refills during lockdown in Alexandra Township

School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted poorer children disproportionately across the world, finds a new study released on Thursday by researchers at the Center for Global Development. The analysis shows that poor children lost out on up to twice as much learning as richer classmates, and that teenagers were the most likely to drop out of school all together.

The Center for Global Development researchers brought together data from studies carried out all over the world and found that students today know less than students in the same grade or year group did before the pandemic and that poor children fell far behind their peers.

“While the extent of the learning lost due to COVID school shutdowns varies in countries across the globe, one thing is clear: not all children are feeling the impact of school closures equally.” said David Evans, an author of the study and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. “We knew that the poorest kids would be hardest hit, but the degree and the consistency is striking, even in countries where lots of kids have access to education technology. Disadvantaged children are the ones losing out on learning because of this pandemic, and older students are the ones cutting their schooling short.”

The analysis brought together studies from 27 countries across the world and captures both what students forgot while schools were closed and whatever new content they would have learned but didn’t. The researchers found:

  • In the United States the achievement gaps between low and high poverty schools widened by 20 percent in math and 15 percent in reading.
  • In the Netherlands poorer students or those whose parents had less education missed out on as much as 60 percent of learning.
  • In the United Kingdom, the gap between disadvantaged children (who receive free school meals) and other students grew by as much as students normally learn in seven months.
  • In Mexico, poor students lost more than twice as much reading ability as rich students.
  • In Bangladesh, learning loss was more than double among girls in the poorest 40 percent of the sample, relative to better off girls.
  • In Ghana, the learning gap for primary school students widened for the poorest students in both literacy and math.
  • Even in countries with no average learning loss, like Uganda and Australia, the weakest students in the least advantaged schools came out of the pandemic significantly worse. 


In some of the poorest countries studied, this analysis also found that the school closures meant that more children dropped out of school all together. In South Africa, children were three times as likely to drop out of school as their pre-pandemic counterparts, with the highest dropout rates among the poorest households. (Most studies in rich countries did not measure drop-outs, so it’s difficult to know if this is the case across the globe.)

The study finds that teenagers were the most likely to drop out of school. In Nigeria, the percentage of children enrolled in school dropped by five percent for 5 – 11 year olds, but by more than ten percent for 15 – 18 year-olds. In rural Kenya, secondary school aged girls were three times as likely to drop out of school, and their risk of getting pregnant prior to completing secondary school doubled. In São Paulo state, Brazil, researchers estimated that up to 35 percent of secondary school students had dropped out, triple the pre-pandemic level.

“What that means is that education systems need to implement targeted solutions to make sure that the students who were already struggling the most before COVID came aren’t forgotten by their schools coming out of this pandemic,” added Evans. “There are proven interventions which boost learning for those students who have fallen behind. Programs that provide intensive summer reading camps or bring in teaching assistants to work with struggling students have helped to close the gap for the most disadvantaged students, and they can play an important role in the context of COVID-19.  Now is the time to put them to work.”


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