Lockdown’s impact: Unicef cites poor reading skills among Philippine kids

The Unicef report found less than 15 per cent of schoolchildren could read simple texts, in large part due to the school closure of more than 70 weeks during the pandemic.

Ben O. de Vera

Ben O. de Vera

Philippine Daily Inquirer


LEARNING GAPS Filipino students in Grade 5 are likely to struggle toward secondary school as most of them do not meet minimum proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics, according to a comparative study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia. —INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

April 1, 2022

MANILA – Less than 15 percent of schoolchildren in the Philippines, or about three in every 20, can read simple texts in large part due to the longest schools closure of more than 70 weeks as of the middle of February caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said in a report.

The latest Unicef assessment translates to a learning poverty—defined by the World Bank as the share of 10-year-olds who cannot read or understand a simple story—of more than 85 percent, which is slightly better than the World Bank estimate of as high as 90 percent in November of last year.

Learning poverty in 2019, or before the pandemic happened, was 69.5 percent, according to the World Bank.

Unicef’s latest joint report with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and the World Bank titled “Where are We on Education Recovery?” showed that schools in the Philippines had been closed from face-to-face classes the longest among the 122 countries that the report covered.

Since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March 2020, only a few schools in the country have returned to in-person instruction and the government had piloted face-to-face schooling in public schools, but in a limited scope as COVID-19 continued to rear its ugly head.

Next to the Philippines with the longest schools closure was Uganda, which was nearing breaching the 70-week mark.

Although with shorter closures than the Philippines, however, many other poor and developing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gambia, Mozambique, and Myanmar suffered a similar fate of having only less than 15 percent of children able to read a simple text.

Globally, “two years into the pandemic, schools have been fully closed for 20 weeks and partially closed for an additional 21 weeks, on average across countries,” Unicef said.

Education disruption
“Data from the Unesco global monitoring of school closures reveal that about one in 10 countries have fully closed their schools for over 40 weeks. Schoolchildren around the world have missed an estimated two trillion hours—and counting—of in-person learning since the onset of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns,” Unicef added.

Unicef noted that even before the pandemic more than half of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read or comprehend a simple story—“now that figure is estimated to be as high as 70 percent.”

“This has been exacerbated by two years of COVID-19-related school closures, which have deepened education inequality. In fact, nearly 153 million children missed more than half of their in-person schooling over the past two years, with more than 62 million of them having missed at least three-quarters of in-person schooling,” Unicef said.

“And we know that the most vulnerable children are paying the heaviest price, with evidence of disproportionate learning loss among children from disadvantaged backgrounds, children living in rural areas, children with disabilities, and younger students,” it added.

According to Unicef, about two in five learners continued to experience significant “disruptions to education” up to end-February, citing Unesco data showing that while a majority of countries have fully opened schools, 42 countries have opened schools partially and six countries still have their schools fully closed.

“The chain effect of school closures could be staggering and felt far beyond education. In addition to missed learning, school closures deprive children of the benefits to their safety, health, nutrition, and overall well-being provided by schools. The impacts of school closures are wide-ranging: estimates suggest 10 million more children could fall off-track in early childhood development as a result of early childhood care and education closures in the first 11 months of the pandemic,” Unicef said.

In-person learning
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte’s economic team said resuming all classes in-person would add much more to the windfall to be reaped from Executive Order (EO) No. 166, which put in place the Philippines’ “new normal” policies to make COVID-19 endemic or a part of everyday life.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua said that “the full benefit of alert level 1 cannot be maximized if the majority of schools are still closed for face-to-face learning.”

“We urgently call for the full resumption of face-to-face learning in areas under alert level 1. We already have most elements in place to enable our full recovery in 2022. The biggest piece missing is our education sector. More than the foregone economic activity, we are concerned for the learning and future productivity of our children. Under alert level 1, children are allowed to engage in leisure and recreational activities for all indoor and outdoor venues, but the most important activity of children—going to school and learning fully—continues to be restricted,” according to Chua.

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