Repeated school closures due to COVID-19 leading to learning loss and widening inequities in South Asia, UNICEF research shows

Limited access to devices, low connectivity, and limited teacher contact are severely constraining remote learning in the region

08 September 2021
Chameera Laknath

KATHMANDU, 9 September 2021 – School closures have led to alarming inequities in learning opportunities for children in South Asia, despite significant efforts by governments and partners to expand remote learning, according to UNICEF research conducted in India, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  

School closures in South Asia due to the COVID-19 pandemic have interrupted the learning of 434 million children. According to UNICEF’s research, a substantial proportion of students and their parents reported that students learnt significantly less compared to pre-pandemic levels. In India, 80 per cent of children aged 14-18 years reported lower levels of learning than when physically at school. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, 69 per cent of parents of primary school children reported that their children were learning “less” or “a lot less.” Girls, children from the most disadvantaged households and children with disabilities faced the biggest challenges while learning remotely. 

“School closures in South Asia have forced hundreds of millions of children and their teachers to transition to remote learning in a region with low connectivity and device affordability,” said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “Even when a family has access to technology, children are not always able to access it. As a result, children have suffered enormous setbacks in their learning journey.” 

Despite significant efforts from governments, low connectivity and access to digital devices have severely hampered efforts to roll out remote learning. In India, 42 per cent of children between 6-13 years reported not using any type of remote learning during school closures. In Pakistan 23 per cent of younger children didn’t have access to any device that could support remote learning. Poor and disadvantaged households have been the worst hit, with many families struggling to afford even a single device.      

Even when devices are available, UNICEF’s research indicates that they are often underutilized and that children’s access to them is often limited. For example, in Pakistan, among children with access to devices, only about 24 per cent could use them when they wanted to.  

The research found that student-teacher engagement, when regular and reciprocal, is a strong predictor of success in children’s learning, especially for younger students. However, the surveys found that most students had little or no contact with their teachers after schools closed. In Sri Lankan private primary schools, 52 per cent of teachers reported contacting their students five days a week, but this number dropped to only 8 per cent for teachers from public primary schools.  

“The safe reopening of schools must be considered an utmost priority for all governments. Parallelly, investing in teachers will ensure that teachers and schools can adapt to all situations. The more teachers are trained, equipped and supported on distance and blended learning, the better they will be able to reach all their students,” added George Laryea-Adjei. “This is a critical investment we need to make for children as the region gears up for future waves of COVID-19. We need to build systems which can weather any storm and keep children learning, no matter the circumstances.” 

To ensure that children keep learning, UNICEF is calling on:  

  • Governments to prioritize the safe reopening of all schools, while also ensuring that children are able to pursue quality learning remotely if necessary 
  • Teachers to assess children’s learning levels and ensure catch up is enabled through a "learning recovery" period 
  • Governments to prioritize the vaccination of teachers to support the safe reopening of schools  
  • Governments to train and equip teachers to better reach children and adolescents with limited or no access to technology through a combination of modalities including mobile devices, TV, radio, and printed materials 
  • Governments and donors to protect and expand investments in education, including critical pre-primary and foundational literacy and numeracy 
  • Private sector and civil society organizations to work with governments in improving connectivity and creating high-quality, multilingual remote learning content tailored to students’ needs 
  • School administrators and education officials to provide more guidance to teachers to engage with their students and use different types of learning techniques  
  • Parents and caregivers to receive adequate support and guidance to continue home-based learning 

School closures in South Asia have compounded a situation which was already precarious. Even before the pandemic, almost 60 per cent of children in South Asia were unable to read and understand a simple text by the time they are 10 years old. In addition, 12.5 million children at the primary level and 16.5 million children at the lower secondary level were out of school.  



Media contacts

Eliane Luthi
UNICEF South Asia
Tel: +977-98010 30076
Sabrina Sidhu
Tel: +1 917 4761537

Notes for the editors: 

Download photos and multimedia content here.  

See the UNICEF blog on ‘Essential Learning Packages’ (Live on 9 September 2021) 

About the research methodology:  

The research was conducted by UNICEF using data from household surveys commissioned by UNICEF in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, and by the Ministry of Education in the Maldives. These surveys were conducted between 2020-21 using UNICEF South Asia’s Monitoring Guidance. The aim of the research is to better understand and improve the reach and effectiveness of distance learning during school closures.  

In India, Computer Assisted Telephonic Interviewing was used to survey over 5,800 parents of children aged 5-13 years, and students ages 14-18 years, as well as government school teachers, across six states: Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. To ensure representation of marginalized groups - parents from migrant families, and from tribal and remote locations were included. In the Maldives, online surveys of teachers, students, and parents were conducted. In Pakistan, teachers, parents, and students (ages 14-17 years) were surveyed through Interactive Voice Response calls. In Sri Lanka, face to face interviews was conducted with parents of primary school children (grades 1-4) and focus group discussions with teachers. 

Useful publications: 

About UNICEF    

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.  

UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) works with UNICEF Country Offices in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to help to save children’s lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfil their potential. For more information about UNICEF’s work for children in South Asia, visit and follow UNICEF ROSA on Twitter and Facebook

For more information about Education in South Asia, click here