Bhutan’s challenging geography was a boon for education during COVID-19 school closures

Bhutan has received international recognition for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public health front. While it was a difficult time for the nation, and social and economic repercussions are still being felt today, the health impacts were limited, with only 21 deaths to date despite over 60,000 cases.

Less attention has been paid to how Bhutan handled COVID-19 on the education front. When the pandemic necessitated a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, the Ministry of Education took actions to attempt to limit the adverse impact of school closures on learning. Home-based instruction (by television, radio, and online platforms like Google Classroom) was a major part of the emergency response. For the tens of thousands of students without access to remote instruction, printed Self-Instructional Materials were provided. Class curricula were stripped down to focus on core material. Due to their impending high-stakes examinations, secondary school students were prioritized for in-person instruction, returning to school earlier than the rest of the country in August 2020. And school facilities were repurposed for boarding so that more students could study uninterrupted, in containment mode.

One promising indicator that those measures were effective comes from reports by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MOESD). Their statistics suggest there was no widespread reduction in student progression to the next grade from 2020 to 2021, when schools reopened. But how students performed academically before vs. after the crisis remains largely undocumented. This is partly due to scarcity of data. There are no test scores that are truly comparable across schools and across years. Nationally standardized exams do take place in Classes VIII, X, and XII, but those exams have undergone major changes in both content and assessment criteria in recent years. Beginning in the 2023 academic year, MOESD is also starting common examination for Class VI.

A new study by Asian Development Bank looks into the performance of Bhutan’s secondary school students using Class X and Class XII board exam performance (provided by Bhutan Council for School Examinations and Assessment) just before and just after the pandemic. While the study is limited in conclusiveness due changes in exam content from year to year, it contains promising signs that Bhutan’s secondary school students did not suffer from large learning losses during the pandemic.

The study is based on Dzongkha, English, and Science test scores. It analyzes how the performance gaps among students who were in Class X in 2019 (the last academic year before COVID-19) compared with gaps among those same students in 2021 (when schools were reopened) when they were in Class XII.

In other countries, especially in South Asia, a telltale sign of learning losses due to school closures was widening performance gaps among groups of students. In most countries that have undergone rigorous analysis of COVID-19 learning loss, disadvantaged students from poor families fell even further behind than they already were, while students from richer families were able to avoid learning losses thanks to educated parents and conducive home learning environments equipped with computers and stable internet connections.

But for Bhutan’s secondary school students, performance gaps that existed before the pandemic (girls outperforming boys, urban students outperforming rural students, students with home computers outperforming students without) were no wider in 2021 than in 2019. The study also discovered that learning was protected for students that attended schools with boarding facilities. This was especially true for students from large families and those who had poor learning environments at home, likely because studying in a boarding school provided them with stability during the pandemic.

None of this is to say that Bhutan’s children and youth came out of the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed – quite the contrary. Youth unemployment remains extremely high, at 29% according to the latest report by the National Statistics Bureau. And it is likely that younger students, who faced longer closures and were less equipped to deal with the disruptions to instruction, did experience setbacks in their learning due to the pandemic. But the positive signs from secondary school performance alone are worth celebrating, especially given the importance of these students as Bhutan’s future workforce.

The experience of the education system during COVID-19 may hold broader lessons. Bhutan is a unique country, and the education response suggests that to deal with certain problems, capitalizing on that uniqueness can be a path to achieving developmental goals. Geography remains a major challenge to economic development, with citizens in remote areas still lacking access to markets and services. But during the pandemic, that remoteness was suddenly to the advantage of Bhutan’s students, in combination with efforts by the dedicated teachers who worked tirelessly to keep students engaged during closures. Due to its low population density and challenging terrain, the country had over a hundred secondary schools with boarding facilities that had been serving students from remote areas long before COVID-19 hit. About half of higher secondary school students are boarders. Expanding and strengthening boarding facilities were a key part of the pandemic response, and the strategy appears to have paid off at the secondary school level.

By Milan Thomas @drukonomist & Ryotaro Hayashi

Both the writers work for the Asian Development Bank

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