After a full year of “live-in” school, what do we know about how children's educational experiences have been at home? In this section, we present findings from the study “Children's educational experiences at home during the COVID-19 pandemicFootnote 11,” carried out by the authors and centered on the receiving end of the educational act: the student. Considering the unprecedented scenario, this study operated with a broad definition of “educational experience,” in which in addition to exploring distinct instances of learning (formal, informal structured, and every day), an approach to constraints on educability was also included—that is, a recognition of the material, social, and personal surroundings that contribute to or detract from learning.
Data was obtained through a self-administered online survey directed at parents and guardians of school-age children (4–17-year-olds) and in-depth interviews carried out with children between 8 and 13 years of age in different regions of the country. The data collection was carried out between September 1 and October 14, 2020. The online questionnaire was partially based on the survey developed by the Autonomous University of Barcelona “Confinement and Learning Conditions” (Bonal & González 2020), adapted to Chilean reality.
A non-probabilistic sampling by quotas with basic coverage in all regions was used together with post-stratification weights based on enrolment numbers by Municipality and School property (public, private, or subsidized). A sample of 4,912 households with children of school age were reached, with cases in all 16 regions of the country, and in 241 municipalities, out of a total of 345 with school enrolment. The sample collected represents geographical areas where 87% of the national enrolment is located.
Regarding qualitative sampling, it was composed by a grand total of 47 children, 19 of them living in Metropolitan Region, 14 of them in Ñuble Region and 14 in Los Rios Region, both in urban and rural areas. Out of this total, 22 were girls and 25 boys. 13 of them attended private schools (10 of which located in the Metropolitan Region), 19 of them attended subsidized private school (12 of them free of cost), 14 attended municipal schools, and 1 girl attended home schooling. Regarding payment methods, 26 children attended free schools, while 21 attended paid schools (even though not all students who attended subsidized private schools with co-pay effectively paid for tuition).
A “change of venue:” With the school in pandemic, inequality migrated to the internet
The impact of adapting the school to a virtual modality varied in intensity according to pre-existing conditions. The school in pandemic is incapable of attenuating inequalities of origin, given the difficulty of standardization from a distance. This occurs despite the virtual school presenting a fairly common base modality, among whose attributes are the scheduling of online classes on virtual platforms and the implementation of learning resources, with guides and videos prepared by teachers being the most usual.
This modality, however, presents significant differences based on school type according to our study, while 8 of 10 students from unsubsidized private schools receive online classes every day, in public schools and free subsidized private schools, the amount varies enormously: on one extreme, only 3 of 10 students claim to have class every day; on the other, 2 of every 10 students state that they “never have classes online.” These differences are in turn augmented by unequal criteria that operate when online classes are carried out. We observed through our qualitative data that unsubsidized private schools have divided their courses to ensure more personalized learning, while subsidized private schools have opted for joining courses, which can reach more than 50 students online in unison. Likewise, public schools and free subsidized private schools have depended on more traditional support, such as guides and physical materials sent home and communication via telephone or email, all less efficient means.
In terms of content, it is evident that the school in pandemic is greatly hindered in terms of fostering comprehensive learning. Through interviews with students, we noticed that curricular prioritization has been one measure adopted by a significant proportion of schools, configuring a standard foundation of mathematics and language, and another that is a bit more sophisticated, which includes social and natural sciences. According to the children interviewed, the arts and physical education have generally been the most neglected subjects, being retained primarily for students from unsubsidized private schools.
It is also important to highlight the transformation of evaluative parameters in the face of a limited school environment. Though schools have incorporated criteria of curricular hierarchization, a “survival strategy” is applied on the part of the students. Thus, students with less motivation toward school only complete the guides that will be evaluated or are up to date solely in the subjects that “count to pass the grade.” This measure has resulted in the formation of an insurmountable gap in the framework of the school in pandemic. As we observed in the survey, 25% of students devoted less than 1 hour per day to school activities and 33% dedicated 4 hours or more, which leads to a monthly difference of at least 60 hours between the two, differences that are strongly associated with their family socioeconomic status. It is important to note differences in dedication to schooling between the different educational levels. While almost half of those students in primary school (48%) and a third of those among secondary school students (34%) dedicated two hours or less to curricular activities, most students attending pre-primary school only dedicated one hour or less. On the other end of the spectrum, those who dedicated the most time to curricular activities were secondary students, with 38% of them dedicating 5 hours or more of time to curricular activities.
Thus, it is necessary to be emphatic: the school in pandemic has exacerbated the structural inequalities of the Chilean education system. In this modality, the shortage of resources is intensified, as the existing differences have been translated to a single virtual space which, in disadvantaged sectors, multiplies the flaws of the school with the shortcomings of the home.
What is left “unseen” by distance learning
This year, a large majority of virtual classes were carried out with “camera off” students. Whether due to the weakness of their connection, the deficiency of their equipment, or individual discomforts, children were in class only as listeners, without necessarily giving any sign of attention or presence. This metaphor leads to a discussion of the “blind spots” of the school in pandemic, which play a significant role in the evaluation of the past year.
To this effect, we can observe how unequal material opportunities for study interact. Thus, in homes of more than 1,075 square feet (100 mt2), more than 80% of children always have a space of their own to study and do homework, far exceeding the possibilities of those who live in houses of 320 square feet (30 mt2), of whom only 36% have a space to study that is always available and 34% have no such space. Convergently, this gap is repeated for other constraints of educability, including possessing didactic resources, a good internet signal, or a desk.
In the same vein, a spatial overlap of the school and the home occurs. Thus, those who live in more spacious homes or who have exterior spaces in which to “disconnect” from the school environment are in a better emotional state in terms of educability, compared to those who cannot physically separate from their at-home school workspace.
Another resource for educability, highlighted by results of the questionnaire, was access to a computer used exclusively for schoolwork and internet connections. While 2 of 3 students from unsubsidized private schools have their own computer, only 1 of 3 of their peers from free subsidized private schools possess this resource, while 1 in 8 do not even have a computer. Meanwhile, in the homes of students from subsidized private schools, only 1 of 5 can rely upon mobile internet connections and this figure is doubled in the case of students from free subsidized private schools. When evaluating connection quality, while nearly a third (29%) of students who attend free subsidized private schools or public schools have connections that they consider deficient, this indicator is halved (14%) among those who attend unsubsidized private schools.
While material provisions are fundamental to face the situation of the school in pandemic, it would be impossible to do so without a family to carry the demands of the “live-in” school. In this context, another critical gap that appeared on the survey and during the interviews was the clear dependency on the mother for the achievement of the educational process, with the mediation of the school in the home environment resting on her shoulders. This situation leads to repercussions in family coexistence, in which half of people claim to completely agree or agree with the statement that girls and women have been more exposed to some form of violence (physical, psychological, or sexual) in the home, while 71% affirm that mainly women have been in charge of domestic work and care. Thus, for 92% of preschool students and 81% of primary school students, it is the mother who oversees “activating” the school at home, helping with schoolwork, and providing some measure of supervision to ensure their children's continuity in this situation. In this way, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the multiple factors that affect learning. To secure optimal educational processes (both formal and informal), it is not enough to guarantee a larger material equity. On top of this, pressure inside the household, domestic violence, and an overload of work for mothers are also factors which affect the education of children.
The reinvention of the child's world: Between emotional inequality and alternative ways of learning
The school in pandemic has been fundamentally challenging for children. Added to the situation already described, many girls and boys have had to grapple with loneliness during lockdown. In interviews, a substantial proportion affirmed that friends, recreation, and the ordinary life they share are some of the experiences they miss the most, being above all moments in which they do not have to fill the role of student or son or daughter. Undoubtedly, social distancing, lockdowns, the suspension of classes, and the general economic crisis have impacted the wellbeing and emotional world of these generations. The results of our survey show that socioemotional problems affect a significant proportion of students, with the most prevalent being getting bored easily (52%), difficulty concentrating (46%), not wanting to do schoolwork (43%), and getting frustrated often (40%). Additionally, between one-quarter and one-third of children have been more conflictive and more irritable, as well as experienced alterations in sleep and appetite. It is worth mentioning that socio-emotional measurements showed variations according to educational level, being secondary age students (between 14 and 18 years old) those most affected by lockdown. Meanwhile, primary school students had trouble complying with homework and curricular activities. Preschool students (4 to 5 years old) struggled mostly with everyday stress related situations. These effects vary by case: in the context of better social and economic conditions, there tends to be greater capacity to regulate the demands (physical, psychological, and material) of this situation. To confront the stress and loneliness of this period, many children have taken refuge in technological devices amidst the entropy of daily life. According to the survey, 86% of children are in front of a screen every day (television, tablet, or cellphone). Other daily activities outside of school include helping with household work (40%), chatting with friends, communicating via social networks (33%), and reading and playing video games (32%).
It becomes clear, then, why the management of free time has been one of the most complex spheres to resolve during the lockdown. Going from 8 hours per day at school to educational activities that often do not exceed a few 45 minutes blocks per week is certainly complicated. In some cases, this situation has led children to take a more proactive stance toward their emotional state, generally associated with an exploration of their interior worlds.
Interestingly, 56% of families surveyed state that their child has developed new interests and talents during this period of learning at home, in addition to autonomy and self-confidence (61%). Indeed, 20% even consider their children to be learning more at home than at school. If this last assertion is evaluated by educational levels, 67% of families with children in pre-school age agree with developing new interests and talents during lockdown, while 54% of families of students in primary school and 51% of secondary school students agree with this proposal. The massive use of “do it yourself” tutorials, which not only reinforce a positive self-perception, but also stimulate learning by doing as an approach of trial and error. Thus, when seeing others of a similar age painting their rooms, transforming their clothing, cooking, or organizing their things, children feel inspired, delve into their interests, and work toward a finished product.
It should be noted that in this area, we identified certain gender differences. In terms of the use of free time, we observed different manners of addressing the lack of compulsory activities. Among girls, 77% engage in activities like drawing, painting, or crafts every day or some days, compared to 58% of boys. Boys, meanwhile, play videogames daily (72%), compared to 45% of girls. Likewise, a gap of 7 percentage points was noted in terms of household contribution, with girls helping at home more than boys, along with participating more on social media.
In this sense, while the experience of learning from home has been critical in all cases and has confronted children with difficulties previously unknown to them, the reinvention of the child's world through play and the possibilities of informal learning at home has become a way to accommodate the complexity of the process. In the face of the destabilization of the school that provided continuity to their daily experience, the evaporation of peers who were models of identity, and the absence of compulsory time within the school institution, children have been able to practice autonomy, creativity, and self-discipline, though in contexts of great material, emotional, and family difficulties.