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The impact of COVID-19 on education & socioeconomic mobility

Nur Amalina Ahmad Zaki

30 September 2021

With the opening of Malaysian schools being postponed once more to at least October, parents and educators alike continue to be concerned about the effects of school closures on the academic performance and mental wellbeing of students. This article will discuss the short-term effects of these closures, and then take it a step further to predict the long-term effects on our existing socioeconomic gaps.

Effect of lockdown on learning

According to a report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), there was clear evidence that students learned less during lockdown than in a typical year [1]. In a study of schoolchildren from the Netherlands, the average scores of students dropped by 3 percentile points in math, spelling and reading[2]. This was the result of a mere 8-week school closure. With schools in Malaysia being physically closed for over 40 weeks, this suggests the effects on our Malaysian students will be much harsher. 


One of the greatest learning losses facing our younger students is the inability to read and write. For students in Primary 1 and 2, illiteracy has increased tremendously as many students completed most of their kindergarten and Primary 1 learning in lockdown. Even when these students were provided with internet data and suitable devices, they were unable to keep up with online lessons as they could not read or write. For Primary 1 students in rural areas, they are usually taught to read and write from scratch as they were unlikely to attend kindergarten. After nearly 2 years of school closures, they are likely to  be much further behind compared to their peers in urban schools. 


For students about to graduate from secondary school, there was a higher tendency recorded for students who did not attend online classes to also fail to register for their SPM examinations. The World Bank forecasted that learning loss will result in learning disparity, which is likely to have implications on employment opportunities and potential and lower income earnings for these students in the near future.


Adding to that, it was predicted that learning losses would be worse in countries with lower degrees of technological preparedness. Many students in Malaysia had insufficient access to internet and internet-enabled devices, and as a result could not attend all of their online classes. In more extreme cases, such as that of the Orang Asli children, teachers had to send physical worksheets to their students but were unable to conduct proper assessments due to a lack of resources.

Psychological impact

While the drop in academic scores is likely to be significant, we have yet to consider the effects on children’s psychosocial development. According to UNESCO [3], schools act as hubs of social activity and human interaction. Long-term school closures have disrupted this, causing adverse effects on academic capability and personal development. 


Students across all age groups have suffered negative impacts on their social skills. For students who have struggled to attend online learning, they have been unable to keep in touch with friends and instead kept mostly to themselves. Skills such as the ability to communicate, collaborate and problem solve in team settings will be lacking in these students, which may potentially affect their abilities to flourish in work environments. Students transitioning from Primary 6 to Secondary 1 are a particularly vulnerable group. Without the presence of their peers, many of them may become reserved or lack confidence.


Heightened economic stress on the part of parents who have lost their sources of income may also result in permanent school dropouts. This can be seen in B40 and Orang Asli children, who were more likely to start working during the pandemic to support their families. We will not know the true rise in dropout rates until schools reopen, but it is likely to increase if lockdowns across the country persist in some shape or form.

The widening urban-rural divide

According to a survey conducted by the World Bank, children of tertiary-educated respondents were 11.1 percentage points more likely to engage in learning activities during school closures compared to children of less-educated respondents. Furthermore, children in urban areas were 6.3 percentage points more likely to continue learning relative to their rural peers. With education being one of the key factors in improving social mobility prospects, a vicious downward cycle can be observed. Low socioeconomic status has caused students to face greater learning losses, further increasing the opportunity gap. The pandemic has exacerbated the impact that household location, wealth and caregivers’ education has on determining children’s access to opportunities.

The way forward

Among the key takeaways from the pandemic is that stakeholders should make decisions based on data. Over the past 2 years, the Ministry of Education has made changes in decisions and messages sent far too frequently. At the ministry level, there is a need for long-term planning so that proactive measures are in place to prevent issues before they come into fruition. Instead of focusing solely on whether schools should reopen or not, there should have been greater emphasis on making sure that while schools were closed – there were steps taken to recover learning loss and make the best use of available distance learning methods and materials.

According to Melissa Tanya Gomes of Edvolution, the Ministry of Education must adjust the syllabus to suit the needs of students [4]. For many students, particularly those with disadvantaged backgrounds who consider dropping out of school to support their families, they are unable to see the relevance of their lessons and do not feel a sense of belonging. This leads to poor attendance in online lessons, and they will find difficulty adapting once they do eventually return to school. The education system must do more to ensure that students are prepared for what will happen post-pandemic. Edvolution advocates for social emotional learning to be taught in schools, where students are given space to share their experiences with their teachers. Through this, teachers will be seen as relevant and helpful to the process of bringing children out of the pandemic.


Samuel Isaiah of Pemimpin GSL recommends that the government attempt to revive TV Pendidikan, as students in rural areas are more likely to have access to television compared to other digital devices [5]. By making this the primary source of academic input and implementing clear, consistent scheduling – teachers would be able to utilise it fully. Adding to that, the government should provide supplementary learning materials and mobile learning kits for students who are unable to rely on alternative distance learning methods to make sure they don’t fall further behind.


Another lesson from this pandemic is that government stakeholders should shift their focus to engagement with teachers, parents and communities. This avoids the pitfalls of the top-down approach, as education syllabus and methods of teaching could be tailored to the needs of different groups. For example, Orang Asli communities need their school syllabus to reflect their community values and teach them things applicable to the roles they will take on in their social hierarchies. After meaningful engagement sessions, the government will be well equipped to act as the uniting force behind all organisations, individuals and communities.

[1] Engzell, P., Frey, A., Verhagen M. D. (2021) “Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118 (17)

[2] Bundervoet, T., Davalos, M. E., Garcia, N. (2021) “The Short-Term Impacts of COVID-19 on Households in Developing Countries: An Overview Based on a Harmonized Data Set of High-Frequency Surveys”, Policy Research Working Paper No. 9582, World Bank, Washington DC.

[3] UNESCO (2021) Adverse Consequences of School Closures, accessed from

[4] Interview with Melissa Tanya Gomes, Co-Founder and CEO of Edvolution (30 August 2021)

[5]  Interview with Samuel Isaiah, Programme Director of Pemimpin GSL (30 August 2021)

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