What Happened to Senegalese Students after the COVID-19 School Closure?

This blog is part of a series from PREPARE: a consortium of research organisations from Ghana (IEPA), Kenya (APHRC), Malawi (CERT), Senegal (CRDES), and Pakistan (tbd), all focused on the educational challenges posed by COVID-19.

Senegal was one of the first African countries to register a COVID-19 case, on the 2nd of March 2020. The country has now had more than 40,000 cases and 1,164 deaths. To contain the epidemic, the government decided, among other responses, to close all schools beginning on the 16th of March 2020. Schools reopened for students in exam grades (grades 6, 10, and 13) only at the end of June and, following the summer holidays, for all students in November 2020 (the school year usually runs from October to July). Thus, most Senegalese students were out of school for about eight months. A previous phone survey in Senegal that we carried out found that students received little support to continue their education, with only 4.5 percent reporting contact with their teachers during closures.

In addition to the direct effects of school closures, COVID-19 threatens education in indirect ways as well. Senegal experienced almost no economic growth in 2020 (0.8 percent according to the April 2021 edition of the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database) leading to a small contraction of GDP per capita. In April 2020, 87 percent of respondents to our survey reported a loss in income, and an increasing number of people reported reducing the size of their meals. The effects of the economic crisis might compound those of school closures and lead to a large number of children dropping out or repeating grades. In this blog, we discuss new findings on school reopening; most students have re-enrolled but repetition rates are surging and inequalities are rising.

There is little information about the impacts of school closures and the COVID-19 crisis on Senegalese students. The Centre for Global Development (CGD) in collaboration with the Centre de recherche pour le développement économique et social (CRDES) conducted a face-to-face survey at the national level to measure the adverse effects of the pandemic in schools and among students. The survey took place in May 2021 with 984 households and 182 schools surveyed throughout the country. This blog post summarizes some of the key findings of the household survey.

Most children are back to school...

Having been out of school for months, there was a risk that Senegalese students would not all return to school when they reopened. Our results show that most students re-enrolled and the dropout rate did not increase in Senegal compared to the previous, pre-pandemic year (1.6 percent of students dropped out after school closure vs. 1.9 percent at the end of 2018-19 academic year). The difference is not statistically significant across time and between subgroups (girls and boys, students in urban and rural areas, and students living in rich and poor households).

…but repetition has almost doubled

Although the dropout rate has remained stable, repetition rates have increased significantly in Senegal. The high repetition rate is concerning, first because it translates to a lack of learning, and second because it will increase the age range of students in the next cohort. Literature has shown that greater age dispersion in the classroom might be detrimental to learning, especially in classrooms where learning is already low.

At the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year, 6.3 percent of Senegalese students aged 6 to 18 were currently repeating a grade, but the repetition rate increased to 11.4 percent at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year. This represents an 81 percent increase in the share of students who must repeat. This increase in repetition is particularly high at the end of primary school (grade 5 and 6) and the end of lower secondary (grade 9 and 10) (see figure 1).

Higher repetition rates at the end of primary and lower secondary does not seem to be due to a lower success rate on exams. In fact, success rates of the end of primary and lower secondary exams remained stable (85 percent in 2019 vs. 85.9 percent in 2020 for the end of primary exam and 82.3 percent in 2019 vs. 83.4 percent in 2020 for the end of secondary exam). Passing the leaving exam is not the only requirement to pass to the next level; students also need to have sufficiently good grades to pass to lower or upper secondary. The months of school closure seem to have prevented many students from transitioning to the next academic level despite being successful on the exam.

Note: Students in Grade 13 (“Terminale”) have to take a high-stake secondary leaving exam, the Baccalaureat. The success rate has been historically low in Senegal which explains the high repetition rate. In 2016, the success rate was only 37 percent. (National Agency of Statistics and Demography, 2019).

This increase in repetitions has been similar for girls and boys, students in urban and rural areas, and students living in rich and poor households. While the gap did not grow after the closures, the poorest students are still much more likely to repeat a grade, which increases education costs for families and may lead to dropouts. In private schools the number of repeaters has barely increased at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year, suggesting that private schools better manage the impact of school closure on student achievement.

Tutoring and private education has become more common among the richest households

Parents are worried by the performance of their children in school this year. In our new survey, 44 percent of parents declared that their children’s academic performance is worse than usual this academic year, while only 25 percent say it is better. This fear has spurred an increase in tutoring among families that can afford it, reflected in an increase in the proportion of children who receive tutoring from 12.4 percent in 2018-19 to 13.7 percent in 2020-21. But, as we can see on figure 3, this increase has been concentrated among richest households, with households outside the richest 20 percent unable to increase their level of private support for their children’s education (the difference across wealth is statistically significant).

Similarly, we found that there has been an increase in the number of families sending their children to a private school in 2020-21 compared to the last two academic years. It rose from 13.9 percent to 15.3 percent at primary level and 10.7 percent to 13.9 percent at secondary level. This probably reflects the concern of families for the education of their children expressed in our survey. But the poorest households are still excluded from private education and very few of them are able to afford it. That suggests that the COVID-19 crisis may have increased education inequalities in Senegal by increasing the gap between richest and poorest children in access to private education or tutoring.

Almost 60 percent of the poorest households have been financially impacted by school closure

Similarly to what we found in March 2020, less than half of parents are in favour of future school closures in the event of increased infections (44 percent this time). Our survey results show that school closures are likely to have borne larger financial consequences for poorest households. Almost 60 percent of the latter said that a household member had to stop working because of school closure compared to 37 percent for the richest households.

Despite warnings from UNICEF that the country would not be ready to welcome children safely for the new academic school year, Senegal fully reopened schools in November 2020. Since then, school mitigation measures seem to have been well communicated to parents (96 percent) and school sanitary measures satisfaction has also increased in the past 10 months (87 percent in May 2021 vs 61 percent in July 2020).

In Senegal, the COVID crisis and school closures have not seemed to lead to increased school dropout, but they have prevented many children from progressing through the education system. The increase in repetition will be costly for the Ministry of Education and for students who will have to do an extra year of schooling. The crisis also seems to have exacerbated inequalities in education, with the richest students less likely to repeat and more likely to access private schools or private tutoring. There is a risk that it will lead to more long-term impacts, with poorest students struggling even more to progress and eventually dropping out. Children with multiple vulnerabilities, such as the poorest students or girls, are also at greater risks of falling behind.

The COVID crisis is not over yet and this is only the first academic year after the school closure. Although students have returned to school, parents’ concerns for their performance and the demand for private tutoring suggests that many children are falling behind. The government needs to support all students, including the poorest ones, to avoid academic failure that might lead to dropouts in the long-term.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.