The Puggle: April 2021 edition

Over the last month we have been devastated to watch the crushing wave of COVID-19 infections in India. Our hearts go out to all of our colleagues based in India or connected to loved ones there who are suffering. We are very much holding you in our thoughts.

We are also working to think through the implications for an education system that is likely to remain shuttered for some time. Towards that end, in this Puggle we share our takeaways from the recent Comparative and International Education Society virtual conference (we enjoyed “seeing” many folks there, and admired those of you attending and presenting in the middle of the night!) around four questions, drawn from the panel that we helped organize as well as a number of other excellent presentations:

  1. What education challenges are girls facing as a result of COVID-19 and are they worse than those faced by boys, as many have feared?
  2. What are promising strategies to support girls?
  3. How do we move forward?



The good news: Research from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, South Africa, and elsewhere shows that so far re-enrollment rates have been high for both girls and boys. In many instances, re-enrollment has even outperformed community expectations. In Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, researchers found that boys and girls are spending equal time on education. In some programs, girls are actually even more engaged in learning than boys. This good news may be built on the back of decades of progress making the case for girls’ education in general, as well as the tremendous awareness that has been built about the gendered impact of the crisis. That said…

The bad news: If we zoom in on adolescent girls, the picture begins to look less promising. In Ghana, 9% of girls are not re-enrolling due to pregnancy. In Kenya, at adolescent age only 84% girls re-enrolled compared to 92% boys. Among very vulnerable girls in rural and low income areas of East Africa, one study found that 40% of girls that had not returned did not return because of pregnancy. Early results from a predictive machine learning model of dropout suggest that early marriage is an especially important driver of drop out, and finishing grade 10 and then getting married is all too common. We have not yet seen great analysis on the extent to which early pregnancy and marriage numbers are being driven by COVID specifically (as opposed to simply indicative of general challenges for girls), but this is bad news regardless. 

The ugly news: For all children, the 2020 learning losses equal the gains made in the last 20 years. Even if girls are not losing more learning than boys, the loss of learning in absolute terms is tremendous. If we look at what is happening for very young children, families are struggling to provide them with the care that they need. In Nairobi, 28% of caregivers found it more difficult to be affectionate to their youngest child because of the high levels of stress brought on by COVID. 24.5% of young children had been left alone for more than an hour in the last 7 days. Based on research in 8 countries in West Africa, although governments are focused on catching children up on learning, the most vulnerable children — girls, out of school children, young children (pre-primary), children in nonformal education — tend to be left out of government response plans.

The uncertain: It is early to answer this question, not least because in many countries the impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding if not exacerbating. It is quite possible that we have not seen the worst of this yet as new waves of COVID unfold and the long-term economic impact on households takes hold. What countries prioritize in their recovery and how donors prioritize their spending will matter.



Remote mentoring came up time and time again as a way to keep in touch with girls, connect them with learning materials and other supports, and keep them tethered to the education system in some form.

Deliver learning through no-tech or low tech solutions. In West Africa, 24% of students do not have access to radio, handsets, or smartphones and need support like sending packets of learning materials home. Phone-based learning can work, but not uniformly. In some instances, girls did not have access, have issues with electricity, or had to use the neighbors’ phone, which left them vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances. Peer-based learning in small neighborhood groups with like-aged students was successful in East Africa.

Cash is a proven way to support girls’ education and had strong effects in the context of COVID as well. In Kenya, a one-time cash transfer led to 94% of girls re-enrolling who got the cash, compared to only 85% of girls who did not.

Protective effect of quality pre-primary education. Building off of the Quality Preschool for Ghana longitudinal study, researchers found that children who had attended higher quality preschools were more engaged in distance learning five years later. This is at least suggestive evidence that quality early learning experiences can provide protection in a time of crisis.



When it comes to re-enrollment, we will need to find ways to address economic constraints. For individuals, temporary waivers on costs to schooling could help marginalized students re-enroll, and avoid the devastating impact for adolescent girls.

When it comes to learning, we need to provide opportunities for remedial learning and catch-up. Some good recent write-ups on this include a piece from the Economist about how Covid-19 creates a window for school reform in Africa and a piece in the Financial Times asking Can doubling down on basic skills rescue left-behind children?

When it comes to recovery and building resilience for the next crisis, we should expand access to quality education and care for young children.

When it comes to funding, Their World offers an Education Finance Playbook and the G7’s recent Declaration on Girls’ Education: Recovering from Covid-19 and unlocking Agenda 2030 is sensible in many regards. (Less sensible is the FCDO’s simultaneous 40% slash in aid to girls’ education.)

If the last month has taught us anything, it is that we are far from the end of the COVID crisis. Stay posted for final results from some of the research cited above to inform the way we move through this and best support education outcomes.