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Covid-19 and Schools

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Part of the Economic and Financial Law & Policy – Shifting Insights & Values book series (EFLP,volume 7)

Abstract

Chapter 8, titled “Covid-19 and Schools” of the book titled “Covid-19 and Capitalism - Success and Failure of the Legal Methods for Dealing with a Pandemic,” sets out to examine how the Western policy world has dealt with the opening and closing of schools in respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. This also includes a major focus on the role of various international institutions, including UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank. Methodologically, it has again been necessary to rely heavily on research material and factual investigation provided by an amalgam of policy institutions, academic researchers and specialized investigative journalists. The importance of this factual research cannot be overstated. Accordingly, in this chapter, the findings of said institutions and authors have been meticulously synthesized, in each case with explicit acknowledgment that the institutions and authors cited have, in many cases, been the original authors of the relevant, thus-quoted positions and opinions. This chapter points out that due to the failure of Western (and other) governments to react adequately to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic (cf. Chap. 2 of the book), many countries, especially during Q2 2020, had to proceed to massive school closures. However, it also appears that the referred to international institutions and national governments were very quick to question the effectiveness of such school closures, with the side question of what damage the economy—ergo the interests of the rich classes—had to suffer because of these school closures. Throughout this chapter, various issues that arose from this, as well as from the subsequent reopening of schools, are addressed. Also this chapter of the book also concludes with a call for a different organization of the socioeconomic order in which man, rather than capital, would again be put first.

8.1 Problems with School Closures

8.1.1 General

It has been pointed out in a joint report by UNESCO, UNICEF and The World BankFootnote 1 that, largely as a result of lockdown and similar measures, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented—at least in modern times—disruption of education systems all around the world. This is believed to have affected the lives of more than 1.5 billion students and their families.Footnote 2 In April 2020, UNICEF reported that an estimated 3 billion people were in lockdown or under a similar containment measure worldwide and that nearly 90% of the student population was out of school.Footnote 3

By 2 February 1921—counting from 11 March 2020—schools were said to have been fully shut down for an average of 95 instructional days worldwide, which amounted to about half of the time that, in normal circumstances, is intended for classroom attendance on a yearly basis. Countries in the Latin America and the Caribbean region were reported to have been the most affected, with an average of 158 days of full school closure, followed by countries in South Asia with 146 days of school closure. Countries in the Eastern and Southern Africa region were said to be the third most affected, with an average of 101 days of school closure. Of the 20 countries with the longest complete school closures during this period, more than half had been located in the Latin America and Caribbean regions. On a global scale, 214 million students following pre-primary to upper secondary education in 23 countries were believed to have missed at least three quarters of classroom time since March 2020. Of these 214 million students, 168 million spread over 14 countries had not been granted any classroom instruction time because of perpetuated school closures. Countries with the longest school closures, moreover, tended to have a low prevalence of school-age children with access to a fixed internet connection at home, implying that these children not only missed physical classes but also lacked the technology for attending online classes instead.Footnote 4

By 2 February 2021, around 53% of the world’s countries had fully (re)opened their schools and almost 25% of the world’s countries had partially (re)opened their schools. Still, around 196 million students from 27 countries (accounting for 13% of the school going children on a global scale) were inscribed in schools that remained fully closed. On average, in countries where schools still remained closed on 2 February 2021, almost 80% of classroom instruction was missed during a period of 11 months that had begun in March 2020.Footnote 5

Figure 8.1 shows the evolution of school closures as of March 2020. From this, it appears that, initially, schools had been completely closed in about 150 countries, while about ten countries had only partially closed their schools, and another ten had kept school completely open. According to UNICEF, this situation started to change as of May 2020, due to a gradual decrease in the number of countries with complete school closures, a measure that came with an increase in the number of countries with partially or fully open schools. According to UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank, from July until September 2020, a further decrease could be observed in the number of full school closures, mostly because of overlapping school holidays. In addition, in October 2020—i.e., six months after the start of the first school closures and at a time when in many countries, a news school year was about to begin –, a reversal of this trend could be observed, with at the time about 100 countries having fully opened schools, while about 50 countries had partially opened schools, and about 25 countries still had fully closed schools.Footnote 6 This is illustrated by Fig. 8.1, which gives a representation of a time-series of school closure status from March 2020 to February 2021.

Fig. 8.1
figure 1

Time-series of school closure status from March 2020 to February 2021 [Source: UNICEF 2021, p. 5]

Already from March 2020 onwards, there had been several immediate policy responses aimed at ensuring a continuous curriculum-based learning through a range of distance learning modalities, including online, TV/radio, take-home materials, and other approaches. Governments around the world responded to the challenges posed by this hastened transition to distance learning environments by trying to strengthen support for schools and teachers, as well as by adapting their own assessment and examination policies. Specific measures were also resorted to for ensuring the inclusion of children in populations at risk of exclusion from distance learning platforms, as well as to promote overall student welfare. Of particular concern was that in February-March 2020, when the Covid-19 response had first started to affect schools, the expected duration of the school closures was unknown and often depended on unpredictable elements, such as the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic in a specific country and its sub-regions,Footnote 7 which made a planned policy response extremely difficult.

Full closure of schools obviously had a huge impact on education, and soon proved to be a highly controversial measure, that would continue to stir emotions in many countries for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The closure of schools as such was believed to have a wide range of negative consequences for society as a whole, as well as for children in particular, such as (1) disruption of schooling, (2) food insecurity regarding children (from poor families) who relied on schools or teachers for daily access to healthy food, (3) a variety of social and psychological implications rising from the fact that children were unable to see one another, as well as their teachers, and even (4) an increased exposure to violence and exploitation at home, besides (5) the challenges of establishing, maintaining and improving alternatives for physical classes, such as distance or remote education.Footnote 8

As to the functioning of the labour market (cf. Chap. 7), the closure of schools brought along certain risks of its own, such as permanent school drop-outs from students (including the decreased labour market prospects this brought along), besides the non-renewal of fixed-term contracts of young teachers who had not yet been granted permanent employment in a given school. In addition, many internships and apprenticeships were cancelled upon the outbreak of Covid-19, which added to a disrupted education of children and youngsters for whom such experiences formed a part of their learning curriculum. Moreover, new graduates who ended their education during the Covid-19 pandemic in many cases faced extreme difficulties in getting a foothold in the labour market. In light of similar, past experiences during the financial crisis of 2008–2009, prospects were rather pessimistic, especially to the extent that the persistent high unemployment and underemployment of young people in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis had pointed out that once young people lost touch with the labour market or got marginalised in precarious jobs, it became extremely difficult to reintroduce them in a normal labour circuit.Footnote 9

As we shall see in this chapter, the debate on school closures and distant or remote learning has often been driven by emotional and economic (side-)arguments, even to the detriment of public health considerations (i.e., the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic itself) in general, or the safety of educational staff in particular.

8.1.2 2020 Joint Report by UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank Measuring the Impact of School Closures and Remote Schooling

8.1.2.1 Key-Elements on Assessing the Impact of School Closures

8.1.2.1.1 School Closures in General

According to a joint 2020 report by UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank, hereafter referred to as “the Joint Report”, the key elements of assessing the impact of school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic may be divided into three categories, namely:Footnote 10

  1. (1)

    Lost learning opportunities: Overall, the 108 countries that partook in the Joint Report reported having missed an average of 47 days of “face-to-face” instruction as a consequence of school closures at the time of the survey. This number of missed days of physical presence in schools, on average, amounted to about a quarter of a normal school year. Countries where the academic year 2019–2020 was still running at the time of the survey had, moreover, reported more lost face-to-face teaching days (more precisely, on average, 54 days) than those where, at the time of the survey, the academic year 2019–2020 had already ended (more precisely, on average, 40 days).

  2. (2)

    Learning assessments: A large majority of the countries (more precisely, around 86%) that partook in the Joint Survey reported that student learning remained monitored by teachers throughout the days of school closures. However, this did not imply that there were no large differences between countries and country groups. More in particular, only 3% of high-income countries indicated that student learning progress was no longer monitored by teachers during the days of school closures, compared to about 25% of the group of “low- and lower-middle-income countries”.

    At the end of the so-called “first wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic, in many countries schools began to reopen as well, with most of these countries reporting that they would be assessing, or planning to assess, their students through school-based assessments, even if not in a systematic manner. However, in the period immediately following the reopening of schools, the vast majority of countries did not intend or plan to already conduct a systematic assessment of children at a primary level. This was by some expected to reduce the ability to measure the loss of learning during the days of school closures in a comprehensive manner and in relation to the expected learning trajectory of the students concerned.

  3. (3)

    Re-opening support to address learning loss: The majority of the countries that partook in the Joint Survey (more precisely, around 84%) pointed out that they had introduced so-called “additional support programmes” in order to address learning loss when schools would reopen. In as good as all income groups of countries, but in particular within low-income countries, this learning loss support most often took the form of remedial programmes aimed at helping at least part of the students to catch up. By contrast, one out of four high-income countries declared that they did not intend to resort to such methods of additional support. High-income countries were on the other hand more likely to consider distance learning as a sufficient substitute for formal school days (as noted in more detail in the Joint Report itself, to which further reference is made). Among all groups of countries—including the high-income ones—were school closures seen as leading to learning losses and widening the achievement gap.

The duration of “school closures”, by definition, indicates the total number of school days on which pupils were not physically present at schools in order to enjoy classroom teaching. From data collected by UNICEF on the academic year 2019–2002, it appears that different regions had been disproportionately affected by the extent of school closures (cf. Fig. 8.2). In the period from 11 March 2020 until 2 February 2021, the average number of days of disruption of classroom teaching had been the highest in the Latin America and Caribbean region, followed by the South Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa regions. By contrast, in the North America region, schools had in many cases only been partially closed. Globally, during the academic year 2019–2020, schools had been closed for an average of 95 days (about half of the academic year), which was believed to account for a large part of scheduled classroom time.Footnote 11

Fig. 8.2
figure 2

School closure status in number of days and by region, from March 2020 to February 2021 (weighted average) [Source: UNICEF 2021, p. 6]

Still according to UNICEF, after the summer of 2020, the status of school closures, as well as the differences between countries and groups of countries, drastically altered. Some countries after the summer of 2020 initially still kept all schools closed, to reopen them shortly afterwards. Other countries decided to keep relying on total school closures for most of the rest of the calendar year since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Data point out that, e.g., as mentioned before, more than half of the top 20 countries with the highest number of ongoing days of full school closure were concentrated in the Latin America and Caribbean region, while the number of days of full school closure was also high in Jordan and Panama, ranging from 148 days to 211 days respectively.Footnote 12

As of 2 February 2021, school closures because of the pandemic remained in effect in many countries. In fact, a full year after the spread of the Covid-19 virus had been declared a pandemic, only half of the world’s countries had managed to fully reopen their schools. In 37% of the countries, schools were still partially or fully closed.Footnote 13

8.1.2.1.2 Closures of Higher Education Institutions in Particular

For higher education institutions (sometimes abbreviated as “HEIs”) in particular, Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen have pointed to the fact that almost all the HEIs that had responded to their own survey—hereafter also referred to as to the “HEI Survey”—had been affected by Covid-19 at the time of the survey (which had taken place in March-April 2020 already). Only one HE institution out of 424 (an HEI located in Burundi) had responded that it had simply remained open as usual, without any special Covid-19 related measures in place. By contrast, 59% of the surveyed HE institutions had responded that all their on-campus activities had ceased and that their institution had been fully closed.Footnote 14

From the HEI Survey, it moreover appeared that the region with the highest percentage of full HEI closures due to Covid-19 was the African region (with more than three quarters of HEIs or, to be more precise, 77% of HEIs fully closed).Footnote 15 Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen thereby pointed to the fact that this result has been somewhat surprising, as at the time of the HEI Survey, Africa was the region of the world with the lowest number of reported Covid-19 contamination cases, with the most affected regions being Asia, the Pacific and especially Europe where there were less full HEIs closures. In the opinion of said authors, these results may indicate that African HEIs where inclined to resort to a policy (or were forced to do so by their respective governments) of closing their campuses as a precautionary Covid-19 measure much earlier than HEIs located in other regions.Footnote 16 By contrast, the percentage of HEIs with fully closed campuses in said three other regions was about the same (notably 55% in Asia-Pacific and Europe, and 54% in the Americas).Footnote 17

8.1.2.2 Key-Elements on Assessing the Impact of Distant Learning

As schools around the world were forced to close in February-March 2020 in order to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, many governments responded quickly to this unprecedented situation by providing learning and teaching alternatives in the form of so-called “distant” or “remote” learning. These included online learning platforms, educational programmes that were broadcasted on television and/or radio, and paper-based home packages. Countries however soon had to recognize that these options were not equally, or similarly, accessible to all. Countries, therefore, went through huge efforts for stimulating equal access to these alternative learning environments, as well as for supporting students, teachers and parents/caregivers to obtain (more) access to them.Footnote 18

The Joint Report mentions the following main points on country experiences on how their schools deployed distance education options with or without relying on corresponding support measures, including:Footnote 19

  1. (1)

    Distant or remote learning systems and their effectiveness: Almost all countries that partook in the Joint Report, indicated that they had included distant learning as part of their educational response to Covid-19. The methods mostly resorted to included using online platforms, TV/radio programmes and/or take-home packages. E-learning was thereby mentioned as a solution—for at least a part of the students of a given country—by all high-income countries. By contrast, systems of e-learning were not as consistently indicated by countries belonging to other income groups. In addition, almost 75% of the countries that partook in the Joint Report, indicated that distant learning days counted as official school days. However, the latter was the case in only one in five of the low-income countries.

  2. (2)

    Policies for ensuring (more) access to e-learning: The majority of the countries that partook in the Joint Report (amounting to 89% of all these countries) indicated that they had been introducing at least one measure for improving access to either the services or the hardware connectivity necessary for making e-learning possible. In the majority of the cases, such support measures involved making access to e-learning platforms or other e-learning systems available from mobile devices, and/or offering internet access at a cheaper (governmental-subsidised) price, or even completely free of charge. The majority of countries that partook to the Joint Report (notably 91%) also pointed out that they had taken steps for supporting population groups at risk of exclusion from distant or remote learning systems. However, over 30% of low-income countries indicated that they had not resorted to any special measures for supporting access and/or for dealing with exclusion.

  3. (3)

    Teacher support policies: Three quarters of the countries that partook to the Joint Report indicated that educators had been instructed to continue teaching in times of school closures, however again with significant differences between income groups of countries. The percentages of countries having mandated their teachers to continue all teaching and related activities during days of school closures, more in particular, amounted to over 90% for high and upper-middle income countries, compared to only 60% for lower-middle income countries and a mere 39% with regard low-income countries. Overall, the majority of the countries declared to also having encouraged their teachers to interact with students and their parents by resorting to messaging applications on mobile devices and/or computers. In addition, more than half of the high-income countries partaking in the Joint Report, indicated that they had recruited, or were in the process of recruiting, additional staff members in order to support distant or remote learning, or even for preparing school reopenings. The majority of countries (notably 89%), furthermore, stated that they had taken special measures for supporting teachers, although one in five low-income countries indicated that it had not resorted to such special measures. This support, in most cases, took the form of training sessions on how to deliver distant or remote learning courses.

  4. (4)

    Policies to support parents and caregivers: Around three quarters of the countries that partook declared that they had resorted to specific measures for supporting parents and/or caregivers. However, the differences between countries and groups of countries were again considerable. Over a third of low-income countries had more in particular pointed to the fact that it had not introduced any such learning-related measures. The most frequently used measures consisted in the provision of advice or tips and in the handing out of materials for explaining about learning and studying at home. In addition, more than a third of the high- and middle-income countries declared that they had been following-up on parents and caregivers through regular telephone calls. However, the latter practice was only resorted to by a mere 22% of low-income countries.

8.1.2.3 The Debate on the Reopening of Schools

As has been the case with the debate on the reopening of economies (Cf. Chap. 7), one of the most difficult debates in the field of education concerned the reopening of schools, which especially started to resonate at the end of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the danger Covid-19 posed had at that time by no means disappeared from the Western world, the question of whether or not schools still had to close during future peaks of the Covid-19 pandemic, deeply moved the minds of policymakers and everyone else involved.

Both the timing and strategies for reopening schools varied from country to country, but they universally suffered from a lack of means. Almost all countries that partook in the Joint Report survey declared that they needed additional funding for adequate safety protocols in the education sector. In addition, countries started to rely on a wide variety of resources to meet these needs, while at the same expecting their future education budgets to remain (heavily) affected.Footnote 20

We turn again to the survey on which the Joint Report was based. The main highlights of how countries planned to safely reopen schools and to finance the necessary measures for dealing with the impact of Covid-19-related matters were as follows:Footnote 21

  1. (1)

    School reopening plans: As of September 2020, the majority of the countries that partook in the survey (i.e., 73%) indicated that they had fully, or partially, reopened schools, with a further 5% of the countries that had partook in said survey indicating a future reopening date. The remainder of said countries had either failed to comply with previously set reopening dates or had not reported any reopening dates whatsoever. From the Joint Report, it moreover appeared that the group of high-income countries had been more likely to reopen schools and also to do so by resorting to a “hybrid approach” in accordance with which a combination was to be made of distant or remote learning and face-to-face learning. By contrast, low-income countries were said to be more likely to delay the dates for the reopening of their schools, while in most cases planning to return to face-to-face teaching and learning only.

  2. (2)

    Health protocols during school reopenings: Across all income groups, almost all of the countries declared that they had either produced or approved specific health and hygiene protocols for when their schools would be effectively reopening. The vast majority of these guidelines included measures such as the promotion of physical and social distancing, hand-washing practices and a wide variety of other measures aimed at reducing exposure of contact with the Covid-19 virus. However, at the same time, fewer than one in five countries had declared it had plans for testing children or students and staff members for Covid-19 on school premises. In addition, more than a quarter of the countries that partook in the survey on which the Joint Report was based, indicated that they did not have sufficient resources to ensure the safety of all of their school going children or students and school staff members, with again wide variations among countries by income level.

  3. (3)

    Funding: A very large majority of the countries (notably 95%) pointed to the fact that additional financial (re)sources would be needed for ensuring an adequate response to the demand for education, especially in a context of school reopenings whereby Covid-19 measures would still remain in force. For at least 75% of the responding low- and lower-middle-income countries, this support was to be searched among external donors. By contrast, more than 75% of the high-income countries declared having access to additional government funding in support of education.Footnote 22

8.1.3 Evaluation of the Effectiveness of School Closures as NPIs

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, based on a (fast) screening of 23 official documents on prevention and the management of specific cases in the context of primary and secondary schools throughout the EU, school closures are generally seen as the measure of last resort for dealing with the spread of Covid-19.Footnote 23

In the further opinion of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, there was at the time no direct method for evaluating preventive school closure (by which reference is made to closures of schools and child day-care centres that happen at an early stage and in a planned way in order to contain the transmission and the spread of the Covid-19 virus in schools and throughout the community) as a stand-alone so-called “NPI” (or “non-pharmaceutical intervention”). The reason for this is that school closures have often been introduced in conjunction with other containment measures, which made it impossible to point out what effects were related to which measures.Footnote 24 Notwithstanding these limitations, as well as diverging study results, many of the studies referred by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control still came to the conclusion that school closures help reducing the spread of the Covid-19 virus. However, it also appeared from these combined insights that school closures as such did not suffice to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, albeit that they have been found more effective when used as part of a package of a variety of NPIs.Footnote 25

The reduction in social mix resulting from school closures in particular was inferred by several studies referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. E.g., from an age-structured model with regard to the situation in The Netherlands, it appeared that, presuming unaltered contacts outside the school context, the closure of schools as measured in November 2020 was found to reduce the contagion-factor by 8% for pupils from 10 to 20 year old, by 5% for pupils 5–10 year old and in a negligible manner for children 0–5 year old. The study, hence, came to the conclusion that the greatest effect on community transmission of Covid-19 was feasible by decreasing social contacts in secondary schools.Footnote 26

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the effectiveness of school closures probably arises from two main causes. First, children who remain at home have less social contact than children who go out to school. Secondly, and according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control probably more important, school closures have an indirect effect on parents with smaller children who—or at least one of them—have to remain at home themselves to keep an eye of their children, which reduces their own social contacts and, hence, contamination risk, as well. However, according to the quoted research, it was impossible to decipher between these two elements. A particularly difficult aspect has in this regard been that, within the European context, school closures have often been introduced in parallel with teleworking orders and the closing down of physical working places. In addition, it was pointed out that it was unclear whether older children, especially those between 16 and 18 year old, also decreased their social contacts when schools were closed or when subject to remote learning.Footnote 27

Another modelling study referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control examined the transnational impact of a series of NPIs in the period between 22 January 2020 and 30 May 2020. This study pointed to a positive effect of school and university closures when resorted to jointly. However, this study failed to differentiate between the relative contribution to this positive effect of school and university closures. The study also failed to make a distinction between the direct and indirect consequences of the closures concerned.Footnote 28

A further Dutch age-structured model, again referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, was based on the at the time predominant circulating strains of the Covid-19 virus. From this study, it appeared that the greatest effect on community transmission was obtained by reducing social contacts among children attending secondary schools.Footnote 29

In the assessment of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, empirical studies on school closure, although relatively limited in number, also pointed to a heterogeneity of results. One American study pointed to a correlation between school closure and reduced numbers of Covid-19 contamination cases and Covid-19 related deaths measured on a weekly basis. Another American study indicated that there was a rise in Covid-19 related mortality risk when school closures got delayed, while a further European study pointed to the fact that school closures were associated with lower Covid-19 incidence rates. However, also with regard to these studies, it was observed that, because the school closures had been introduced in conjunction with other containment measures, it was difficult to assess the effect of each individual NPI. Meanwhile, from another study on the situation in Japan, it appeared that school closures did not have a significant effect on Covid-19 transmission, while research in Finland indicated that child day-care centre closures decreased children’s hospital admittance, but that the subsequent reopening of these child day-care centres did not lead to an increase in children’s hospital admittance.Footnote 30

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control also pointed to the fact that during the Covid-19 pandemic, a wide range of containment measures were implemented on school premises in order to reduce the potential spread of the Covid-19 virus in school settings. It was, thereby, pointed out that most of the modelling studies with regard to the effect of school closures on Covid-19 transmission, had failed to take these types of measures into sufficient consideration. One exception to this finding concerned a modelling study regarding Shanghai, from which it appeared that schools could indeed be reopened without causing excessive transmission of Covid-19, provided that the daily contacts between children aged between 10 and 19 years could be diminished to 33% of baseline levels.Footnote 31

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control also remarked that, while many European countries had decided to close their schools during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, they had in most cases chosen to keep their schools open during the autumn of 2020, a period that for many (European) countries coincided with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it was pointed out that such reopened primary and secondary schools could not be seen as similar to regular school settings from before the Covid-19 pandemic (without any preventive measures yet in place). Although in many EU countries schools remained open in the autumn of 2020, there was generally a wide range of separate IPNs installed that also needed to be taken into account.Footnote 32

Finally, it was noted that “reactive” school closures (i.e., school closures in response to increased community transmission of Covid-19, and/or a localised Covid-19 outbreak in a single school, and/or because of increased absenteeism among staff members and/or students making it difficult to maintain education) could also be seen as a NPI and even as a more useful and targeted measure than closing all schools by means of a preventive (proactive) measure.Footnote 33

8.2 Problems Resulting from School Closures

8.2.1 Lost Learning Opportunities

Around the world, school closures due to Covid-19 have been assessed as depriving students of learning opportunities.Footnote 34

One estimate referred to in the Joint Report even suggested that the global educational losses resulting from four months of school closures may have amounted to USD 10 trillion in lost earnings. Other studies also referred to in the Joint Report indicated that students as well as countries stood to lose significant amounts of money over the lifetime of the students involved.Footnote 35

In the 2020 survey referred to in the Joint Report, an attempt was made to track the timing and duration of school closures in response to Covid-19, based on countries’ self-reported values on the duration of school closures in relation to the precise duration of the school year of each of the countries involved. From these data, it appeared that the severity of the effect of a school closure on students varied depending on when school closures began in terms of the school calendar and in terms of their duration. At the same time, the data also revealed whether the respondents to the survey had deemed distant or remote learning methods to be viable alternatives for in-school teaching and learning methods. It was believed that, considered jointly, these two pieces of information would not only allow to make an estimation of the severity of school closures, but also to explain some of the policy choices governments were facing when developing a menu of policy responses to compensate for lost school days.Footnote 36

Figure 8.3 shows that school closures had different effects in countries around the world. In some countries, school closures came at the end of the school year, while in other countries they delayed the start of a new school year. In still other countries, school closures largely overlapped with a previously planned vacation period (e.g., the summer holidays). Figure 8.3 shows the timing of school closures for a number of countries which have been selected in order to highlight the variety of these situations. Even neighbouring countries located in a same region were thereby reported to have very different duration and timing of school closures.Footnote 37

Fig. 8.3
figure 3

School closures varying by length, starting date and moment in the academic year [Source: UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank 2020, p. 14]

Moreover, the patterns largely varied between countries of the northern and southern hemispheres. Specifically, Fig. 8.4 indicates that, regardless of the income position of the countries concerned, on average, 40 school days were lost in case the academic year was already (as good as) over at the time of the survey, which was often the case for countries located in the northern hemisphere. By contrast, in countries where the academic year was still ongoing at the time of the survey, an average of 55 days were reported as being lost, which was the case for many of the countries located in the southern hemisphere. On average, for all responding countries, school closures lasted for the duration of one quarter of a normal school year.Footnote 38 The latter is further illustrated by Fig. 8.5,Footnote 39 which gives an overview of the share of instruction days missed by income level (Fig. 8.5).

Fig. 8.4
figure 4

Average days of instruction missed, by income level [Source: UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank 2020, p. 15]

Fig. 8.5
figure 5

Share of instruction days missed by income level

The Joint Report, furthermore, revealed a wide variation of both experiences and responses to the survey referred to in said report at a national level. E.g., the duration of school closures varied from country to country. Some considered school closures to be a problem as they considered that distant learning systems did not provide a viable alternative. The assessment of school closures also varied depending on a variety of factors such as (1) whether the academic year was (almost) over, (2) whether countries considered distant learning methods to be effective, (3) the income group of the country, and (4) the hemisphere in which the country was located.Footnote 40

According to Borkowski et al., the loss of schooling and learning has particularly been problematic for girls who, considered globally, were already under normal circumstances at greater risk of not going to school or of being withdrawn prematurely from school.Footnote 41

In the United Kingdom, the category of young people “not in education, employment or training” has already for a long time been referred to as “NEET”. It was pointed out that the NEET rate had been relatively stable before the outbreak of Covid-19. However, the NEET rate among young men rose by 1% between February/March 2020 and July/September 2020. It was, furthermore, predicted that this rate was likely to increase further, to the extent that employment and training possibilities shrank further because of Covid-19. Moreover, in the United Kingdom—and most likely also in many other European countries—apprenticeships were of particular importance for the most deprived groups of society, as such apprenticeships may help to decrease inequities in employment and income. These apprenticeships have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. E.g., the Sutton Trust reported that by May 2020 (1) less than 40% of apprenticeships were proceeding as normal, (2) more than a third of apprentices had been put on furlough, (3) one in 12 had been made completely redundant, and (4) prospects for future apprenticeship recruitment were looking bleak. Meanwhile, youth services, which for reasons of neoliberal austerity had been severely cut in the decade to 2020, faced further difficulties as funding from the part of local governments and charities was drastically diminished. Many of the still remaining youth services, which offer services for supporting young people, improving participation in both school and employment and reducing youth crime, were threatened with closure.Footnote 42

8.2.2 Learning Assessment and Monitoring

8.2.2.1 Learning Assessment and Monitoring in Primary and Secondary School Settings

According to the Joint Report, learning assessments and monitoring of educational progress are essential tools for measuring what children are effectively learning. When designed properly, such assessment and monitoring tools may moreover help to evaluate the performance of the education system as such, and to inform policy makers and education officials about possible future reforms and pending needs of schools. Learning assessments and monitoring systems may also allow for feedback, enabling all stakeholders in school settings, including teachers and other staff members, to comprehend what is being learned and how teaching and learning in the classroom could be further enhanced.Footnote 43

According to the Joint Report, there exist different types of learning assessments, each serving different objectives:Footnote 44

  1. (1)

    Formative and summative assessments allow teachers and educators to adapt their teaching strategies and/or serve as a means of providing individual assessment to students at the end of a given teaching period.

  2. (2)

    Examinations are used to certify or select students belonging to a given grade or age group with regard to further education, training or employment.

  3. (3)

    Large-scale system-level assessments help to provide feedback on the general health of the educational system for a given group of students (ranged by age and/or grade), in a given academic year, and in a limited number of areas. This type of assessments has been indicated as the most relevant type of assessment of learning loss due to school closures on a consistent basis.

It will not come as a surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic and the school closures resorted to for fighting it, have had a huge impact on learning assessments and monitoring systems. According to information provided in the Joint Report, especially during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than half of the partaking countries had decided to delay and/or reschedule high-stakes exams, for a duration ranging from four weeks to more than 12 weeks. A few countries even pointed out that they had simply cancelled their exams altogether. By contrast, about a quarter of the countries that partook in the survey, indicated that they would hold high-stakes exams as scheduled (although this number was smaller for primary schools), but half of them announced that they intended to reduce the curriculum content to be examined.Footnote 45

A second set of questions in the joint survey covered the following issues:

  1. (1)

    teachers’ monitoring of learning outcomes and the corresponding monitoring tool;

  2. (2)

    the types of assessment methods that existed before Covid-19, notably formative/summative assessments, examinations, and large-scale system-wide assessments with regard to primary and secondary education; and

  3. (3)

    whether students were assessed (or planned to be assessed) after the reopening of schools at school, sub-national, and national levels and by educational level.

Overall, 14% of the countries that partook in the survey indicated that students’ learning progress was not monitored by teachers/schools during times of school closures. However, there were large variations in monitoring and assessment practices between income groups of countries. E.g., only 3% of high-income countries indicated that the learning progress of students had not been monitored by teachers. This percentage amounted to 25% with regard to low-income countries and to 27% with regard to lower-middle-income countries.Footnote 46

When schools reopened, most countries partaking to the survey indicated that they were effectively assessing, or planning to assess, students’ learning outcomes based upon school-based assessments. Although it was believed that such school-based assessments were less suited for providing a clear and nationwide picture of learning losses arising from school closures in response to Covid-19, they were still considered as being of great value for helping teachers understand where their individual students stood, so that they could start supporting them accordingly. In particular for the primary level, the proportion of countries which had been assessing, or had been making plans to assess, primary school pupils through sub-national or national assessment methods, was considered extremely low, with only 10-30% of the surveyed countries planning to assess primary school pupils in such a manner. According to the Joint Report, this formed an indication that a large majority of the surveyed countries were not preparing to undertake system-wide assessments as schools reopened and may, as a result, not have been able to make accurate estimations and to compare effective learning losses against the normally expected learning trajectory of students.Footnote 47

According to the Joint Report, when schools began to reopen, assessment and monitoring of learning was to be considered more important than ever. However, the Joint Report found that the large differences that already prevailed for day-to-day learning monitoring and for firm system-wide learning assessment systems between countries in times before Covid-19, had only been further exacerbated by the pandemic and by the school closures this had caused. Furthermore, to the extent that access to distant or remote learning channels varied, so did their adoption and effectiveness once implemented.Footnote 48

8.2.2.2 Learning Assessment and Monitoring in HEIs

Regarding examinations in HEIs, the HEI surveyFootnote 49 pointed out that just over half of the HEIs would still go through with examinations as planned for the semester that was going on at the time of the survey. The majority of the surveyed HEIs that were planning to still conduct examinations, indicated that this would happen through new measures or systems, while only 6% of these HEIs said that examinations would go through as usual. 14% of these HEIs planned to conduct only some of the planned examinations, while other examinations would be postponed. In about a quarter of the surveyed HEIs, reviews were to be completely postponed or temporarily put on hold. Europe had the highest numbers of HEIs planning to conduct exams during the at the time of the survey pending semester, with 80% of the surveyed European HEIs planning to act in such a manner. Of these, 56% planned to conduct these examinations by resorting to new measures or systems, 5% by conducting examinations as usual, and 19% only with regard to some examinations. Only 8% of the surveyed European HEIs declared that they would postpone reviews or put them completely on hold. By contrast, the situation was totally different as regards Africa, where 61% of the surveyed HEIs said that they most likely would either postpone (34%) or suspend (27%) examinations, with only 32% of the surveyed HEIs planning to go through with examinations for the semester pending at the time of the survey (18% by resorting to new measures or systems, 6% by conducting examinations as usual, and 8% by only conduction examinations in part). The situation in the Asia-Pacific region and in the Americas was reported to be falling between these two extremes, albeit showing more similarities to the situation in Europe than the one in Africa. In the Americas, 69% of the surveyed HEIs declared that they would conduct examinations. Of these, 51% announced that they would do so through new measures or systems, 8% by conducting examinations as usual, and 10% by only conduction examinations in part. In Asia and the Pacific, 62% of the surveyed HEIs said that they still planned to conduct examinations. Of these, 46% announced that they planned to do so through new measures or systems, 6% through examinations as usual, and 10% only for some examinations. In almost all of the surveyed Asian and Pacific HEIs (notably in 98% of these), it was indicated that strategies were under discussion to deal with problems related to final exams. The percentage of the surveyed HEIs discussing such strategies was also indicated as very high in the Americas (92%) and Europe (94%), albeit somewhat lower in Africa (73%).Footnote 50

8.2.3 Health, Mental and Other Similar Problems

8.2.3.1 A Global Problem

In the assessment of Thorell, Skoglund, de la Peña, et al., under “normal circumstances” (i.e., outside the scope of a pandemic), many schools provide a wide variety of essential services beyond education (e.g., providing nutrition, organizing physical exercise, ensuring social contact between students and between staff members, providing mental health services, organizing extra-curricular activities …). It has in this regard been pointed out that, clearly, school closures disrupted the provision of these services, and through this, the daily functioning of children and their parents as well.Footnote 51

Further research (referred to by Thorell, Skoglund, de la Peña, et al., as well) has, in addition, pointed to the fact that social isolation may contribute to mental health disturbances, and even to depression, particularly for children. Among the other mental disturbances that may occur because of social isolation are stress, anxiety and family conflict. Moreover, such disturbances may have been initiated during the Covid-19 pandemic school closures, to continue afterwards. According to said authors, there is also growing empirical evidence that during the Covid-19 pandemic, a variety of behavioural problems, ranging from irritability, aggression, inattention and internalization of problems, similarly became common amongst children, with home schooling itself indicated as one of the occurrences associated with the greatest negative effects.Footnote 52 A few smaller surveys referred to by said authors which targeted parents of children with neurodevelopmental disorders, moreover, indicated an increase in life management problems and aggression due to home schooling. It has in this context been further hypothesised that children with pre-existing mental health problems may have been particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it has also been pointed out that children with such existing mental or behavioural disorders may also have experienced positive aspects of home schooling. According to Thorell, Skoglund, de la Peña, et al., the latter concerned a claim that required further examination.Footnote 53

Research on the United Kingdom in particular found that deteriorating mental health during lockdown periods has been evident for all age groups, but especially with regard to young people. From this research, it appeared that the following occurrences have been experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic: traumatic experiences (in general), social isolation, loss of education and routine, disruption of formal and informal support, and loss or reduced access to school services and support systems. From this research, it moreover appeared that children and young people who already lived in deprivation, had been more likely to suffer from higher levels of mental distress than their more affluent peers, a fact that was attributed to pre-existing household and socio-economic conditions.Footnote 54

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, a number of organisations reported on a variety of negative consequences of school closures on children’s general well-being, learning opportunities and safety, even in cases whereby face-to-face classroom teaching and learning was replaced by (in theory) full-time distant or remote learning. These effects ranged from disruption of learning, an exacerbation of disparities and mental health problems, to even an increased risk of domestic violence.Footnote 55 These negative impacts were, moreover, reported to have been disproportionately affecting children originating form vulnerable or marginalised population groups. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Research in this regard especially highlighted the role of school settings in providing an active social life to children aged 2–10. Such social contacts, purportedly, helps such young children to learn from their peers, which is said to have a positive impact on the formation of personality and sense of identity. By contrast, disruptions in such peer relationships have in children been associated with depression, guilt and anger issues. In addition, school settings and related out-of-school extra-curricular activities may help to provide structure, meaning and daily rhythm to both children and young people. For children and young people already suffering from issues such as anxiety and depression, the loss of these activities may have worsened symptoms, as well as enhanced social withdrawal behaviour and feelings of abandonment.Footnote 56

8.2.3.2 The United Kingdom

According to Marmot, et al., already prior to the first Covid-19 related lockdown periods, the number of UK children exposed to violence was already extremely high. According to some numbers referred to by Marmot, et al., an estimated one in five children were victims of such domestic violence. It was, furthermore, estimated that during the first Covid-19 lockdown period, there had been an increase of domestic violence within the United Kingdom of at least 25%, with some surveys pointing out that increases may in fact have been even higher. From a Women’s Aid study on the impact of Covid-19 containment on domestic violence referred to by Marmot, et al., it even appeared that 53% of respondents to this survey had declared that their children witnessed more violence towards them. Also in the United Kingdom, common school settings, as well as a further range of related services, under normal circumstances play a crucial role for identifying and supporting child abuse. These settings and services were under the tough Covid-19 containment measures no longer available.Footnote 57

8.2.3.3 The United States

In order to measure the effect that the year 2020 had on children, by the end of 2020, “NBC News” took the initiative of gathering data on a wide range of child protection metrics, especially aimed at finding out what had changed as of March 2020 when the Covid-19 virus had shut down as good as every school in the United States.Footnote 58

Already earlier, it had appeared from a modelling study of the situation in the United States, that a decision to close primary schools was likely to result in the loss of years of life expectancy, compared to a situation in which primary schools would have been allowed to remain open. This modelling study was based on a model that connected, on one hand, school closures to reduced educational attainment and, on the other hand, such reduced educational attainment to (a decrease in) life expectancy.Footnote 59

While it appeared from the NBC News assessment that not all the numbers were bad—e.g., the NBC News pointed to the fact that the numbers on drug and alcohol abuse among young people were down, as were juvenile arrest and incarceration rates—for several other areas of socioeconomic life, the preliminary data collected by NBC News pointed to alarming signs that US children were in trouble because of Covid-19 and more in particular because of the Covid-19 containment measures:Footnote 60

  1. (1)

    Compared to the year 2019, emergency hospital rooms experienced a 24% increase of mental health-related visits of children aged 5–11 years. The increase of this same figure among older children was even higher, more precisely at 31%.

  2. (2)

    Food banks reported being overwhelmed by hungry families. An estimated 17 million children—many of whom did no longer receive free meals in school settings—were said of being at risk of having not enough to eat. Compared to the situation before the Covid-19 pandemic, this figure represented an increase of more than 6 million children facing hunger.

  3. (3)

    Most closed schools initiated distant learning programmes, which implied that children had to follow classes from home. In other schools, classes could still be attended in person, with children having to wear face masks and having to sit behind plastic shields. All of this appeared to have had a negative influence on educational performance. E.g., a national testing organization reported that an average third- through eighth-grader who was to undergo a maths assessment in the autumn of 2020, was likely to score 5 to 10 percentile points lower than students belonging to the same age and grade group who had been taking the same test in 2019. It, moreover, appeared that black, Hispanic and poor students were even falling further behind.

  4. (4)

    During times of Covid-19, many school classrooms were unusually empty, with lockdowns, personal quarantines and illness all having affected face-to-face school attendance, and with, moreover, computer and internet problems having disrupted online education. Some US districts even reported that the number of students who missed at least 10% of classes (either in person-classes or classes provided through a system of distant learning) had doubled because of Covid-19.

  5. (5)

    In addition, an estimated 3 million vulnerable students—e.g., homeless children, children put in foster care, children having disabilities, children still in the process of learning English …—have not been attending school at all.

NBC News made further reference to Mrs Barbara Duffield who is (or was at the time) the director of School House Connection.Footnote 61 In the opinion of Duffield, the whole situation with regard to Covid-19 resulted in a schooling catastrophe. Duffield in particular shared her fears that with so many schools closed, many families were facing the Covid-19 crisis alone, while struggling with issues that could impact them, as well as their schools and communities, for many years to come.Footnote 62 Among the children most affected by this situation, were those who already had to face a variety of racial, socioeconomic and other inequities that only had gotten enhanced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides suffering from these inequities as such, the students concerned were in many cases already running behind their peers with regard to school matters. As a further result of the Covid-19 pandemic and of the containment measures for fighting in, these students now also had to face inadequate learning, besides a lack of language acquisition in school settings outside of classes (e.g., in contacts with peer pupils) and of teaching materials they needed. There was, moreover, a general gross neglect of students with learning disabilities across the United States that these students had to deal with.Footnote 63

According to NBC News, there was, furthermore, growing evidence that, during the Covid-19 pandemic, children, as well as their parents, were experiencing a variety of mental health issues, such as increased depression, anxiety and trauma. According to experts referred to by NBC News, children who had no access to school settings because of the Covid-19 pandemic could even be compared to children who had experienced (and survived) a natural disaster.Footnote 64

By the end of 2020, it remained very difficult to measure the real impact of the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on the situation of children. This was, to a large extent, due to the fact that most official public health and child welfare metrics monitored by federal agencies did not yet include the data from 2020 in their reports. Data collection was, moreover, expected to be troubled given the large number of children who had not been in any contact with their schools and who had not been seeing doctors (due to the fact that their parents and families had no health insurance or were simply delaying medical treatment out of fear of the Covid-19 virus).Footnote 65

NBC News also made reference to Paul Gionfriddo who is (or at the time was) the President and CEO of Mental Health America, an organisation aimed at supporting people suffering from mental illnesses. In the assessment of Gionfriddo, it was clear that no part of the American population has been more affected by the mental health aspects of the Covid-19 crisis than children. Gionfriddo thereby referred to the Covid-19 pandemic as an “ongoing traumatic event”. Contrary to adults, children had to endure this “ongoing event” without the perspective of an older person who already has experienced other types of trauma in his life and who is thus, in normal cases, more able of putting the Covid-19 related events somehow in perspective. Mental Health America, moreover, declared that it witnessed about 10,000 people taking its online depression and anxiety screening every day throughout the year 2020. This number was twice as high as during previous years, with the biggest spike reported regarding children aged between 11 and 17. In the opinion of Gionfriddo, this group of young people was also the one most likely to point to recent and frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm.Footnote 66

Finally, the negative effects of Covid-19 regarding children were expected to be the worst for “ghost pupils”, i.e., children who appeared to have simply disappeared from the schools’ radars altogether, and for whom it was, hence, no longer clear what they were doing. When schools throughout the United States closed somewhere in mid-March 2020, that was also the last time when such ghost children had spoken to a teacher. Since then, they never picked up a laptop, never logged on to distant learning, and have no phone they could answer.Footnote 67

8.2.4 Health and Mental Problems of Teachers

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in many schools throughout the EU, teachers themselves faced significant mental health problems during the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of their work. These problems were caused by, among other things, a fear of being contaminated by the Covid-19 virus themselves, a fear of having colleagues and other school personnel admitted to hospital because of Covid-19, challenging behaviour of their students (such as non-compliance with Covid-19 social distance or other containment measures), being confronted with the fears and frustrations of parents, and an increased workload associated with absences of students (who then were in need of individual guidance afterwards), the adjustment of work routines in school settings and having to be available for students and their parents outside school schedules. Moreover, teachers had in many cases to adjust to distant or remote education themselves in circumstances that were far from ideal. One of the main issues teachers experienced in this regard concerned technical difficulties that were only gradually solved (e.g., not having timely access to the tools needed for distant teaching). Overall, teachers throughout the EU also had to face an increased workload, with ergonomic and other health-related problems to be expected in these circumstances.Footnote 68

In an “American Educational Resources Survey” (abbreviated as “AIRS”), which was conducted in May and June 2020 among a representative sample of teachers and principals associated with the RAND Corporation’s American Educator Panels, and with representative samples of educators taken from 12 states, teachers were presented with the opportunity to respond to the open-ended question, “In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge to teaching and learning related to COVID-19?” Teachers’ responses often described a combination of such challenges, leading to the suggesting that these challenges were deeply intertwined. The researchers conducting the survey identified the following four main themes in the teachers’ responses, with the first theme representing the most frequently reported challenge:Footnote 69

  1. (1)

    About 43% of the surveyed teachers indicated concerns connected to communication with students and student engagement, such as difficulties of reaching all students, concerns about students completing (or not completing) assignments, and difficulties holding students responsible for their schoolwork.

  2. (2)

    Some 31% of the surveyed teachers expressed concerns about teaching in the context of distant or remote learning settings, including how to teach new content online, provide feedback to students, engage in asynchronous teaching, monitor students’ progress and assess students’ understanding.

  3. (3)

    About 27% of the surveyed teachers indicated difficulties with regard to their students’ families, such as teachers’ inability to reach and support their students’ families, challenges students were facing in their home and family life situation, concerns about families’ ability to support students’ distance learning, and concerns about students’ families’ (in)ability to meet the students’ basic needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  4. (4)

    About 20% of the surveyed teachers reported difficulties with the technology available to their students, including students’ lack of access to the Internet, students’ lack of access to devices, and students’ or families’ difficulties using technology.

8.2.5 Problems for Parents

After an intense period of home-schooling because of Covid-19 lockdown and similar containment measures, parents from all over the world began to share their experiences of home-schooling, both with regard to their children as for themselves.

According to the already referred to research conducted by Thorell, Skoglund, de la Peña, et al., in all investigated countries, with the exception of Sweden, parents noted higher levels of positive experiences from the containment measures for themselves, than for their children. Differences between countries were in this context mostly small, except that the proportion of parents reporting negative experiences from home schooling on themselves was, e.g., lower in Sweden than in all other countries, except The Netherlands.Footnote 70

In terms of parental worry and stress, the proportion of parents experiencing these was higher than 40% in many countries.Footnote 71 In all countries that were part of the research, about a third of the parents was of the opinion that home schooling demanded too much from their children. Some parents also indicated that their child was not able to participate fully under home-schooling settings.Footnote 72

8.2.6 School Closures and Social Inequalities

In 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres declared that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused the greatest educational disruption in history, with schools having been closed in more than 160 countries by mid-July 2020, and with over a billion students affected worldwide.Footnote 73

During the period March-June 2020, some form of school closure—whether in institutions of higher education, secondary schools, primary schools and child day-care centres—had been resorted to in each of the EU/EEA member countries. It has been estimated that around 58 million primary and secondary school pupils throughout the EU had been deprived of their usual face-to-face school learning settings during several weeks in a row in March-April 2020. This was obviously considered detrimental for all children concerned, even in cases where online learning was offered as an alternative for physical school settings. However this situation was believed to be even more disadvantageous for children who had already been marginalised and/or belonging to minority or otherwise vulnerable groups prior to the pandemic. The most obvious example concerned pupils who were living in poverty. For these children, as already explained before, the school setting is not only a place of learning, but also a provider of some additional vital services, not in the least the provision of daily meals. It is no surprise then that research on the impact of Covid-19 has pointed to the fact that school closures due to Covid-19 exacerbated deprived students’ food insecurity and decreased their nutrient intake. This, in turn, was deemed likely to further influence said poor children’s ability to learn during the school closure periods in a negative manner.Footnote 74

These findings were, to a large extent, confirmed for the specific situation of the United Kingdom. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, it more precisely appeared that school closures in the United Kingdom resulted into increased pressure on family finances. This was in the first place attributed to the fact that free school meals had been suddenly withdrawn from 1.3 million deprived children. In response, authorities resorted to alternative food voucher systems for alleviating child hunger. However, it appeared that such alternatives did not succeed in successfully eliminating the problem of child hunger, leading to further reports of increased hunger and food deprivation among young people. E.g., the Food Foundation indicated that in households where there were three or more children, food deprivation increased from 12% in times before Covid-19 to 16% in the period between March and August 2020.Footnote 75

According to Borkowski, et al., schools generally fulfil an important role in directly providing health and nutrition services during the first 8000 days of a child’s life, which converge with the period in the life of a child that is essential for development. According to these authors, an estimated 1.6 billion school attending children in 199 countries around the world have since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic been negatively affected by school closures. For school meals in particular, this implied that nearly 370 million children, in 150 countries, had been deprived of their daily school meals. According to another estimation, all over 2020 and on a global scale, around 39 billion school meals have not been handed out because of school closures. It has, moreover, been estimated that children around the world were deprived of an average of 4 out of every 10 school meals that they would in normal circumstances—i.e., without school closures due to Covid-19—have received. In some countries, it was even estimated that children had missed 9 out of every 10 school meals.Footnote 76

Another problem that arose due to school closures was that pupils who were forced to learn from home during a period when their schools were closed due to Covid-19 containment measures, were in need of infrastructure—both a device suitable for following online classes and internet-connectivity–, as well as a quiet setting to follow online classes and study. This again proved the most problematic for children who were already deprived before Covid-19. E.g., from a study undertaken in several EU countries, it appeared that deprived pupils were more than three times more likely to have no connection from home to the internet than their richer counterparts. Based upon a reading achievement scale for fourth grade students, the study also pointed to a 5% increase in educational disadvantages because of school closures.Footnote 77

Similar trends were moreover identified in several other studies.Footnote 78

E.g., from a joint study undertaken by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Telecommunication Union, it appeared that in 2020, globally, around two-thirds of children and young people aged 25 and under were deprived of an internet connection in their home environment. However, from this same study, it also appeared that internet access varied greatly according to the relative wealth of the countries concerned: 87% of said children and young people living in high-income countries were said to have an internet connection available at their home setting, while this percentage only amounted to 6% in low-income countries. This pattern, moreover, held true for all relevant age groups that had been the subject of said study (i.e., school-going children aged 3 to 17, and young people aged 15 to 24). In addition, strong inequalities in digital connectivity could be observed in different regions of the world. E.g., in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, about 60% of the children and young people aged 25, or younger, were said to have access to the internet from their home setting. A comparable situation, albeit based on a percentage that was a bit lower, could be observed in the regions of East Asia, the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, where at least 50% of children and young people were reported to have access to an internet connection from their homes. However, in the regions of South Asia and Eastern and Southern Africa, only 13% of the children and young people were reported to have internet available at their home. In the regions of Western and Central Africa, this percentage was even lower and amounted to 5% only. Furthermore, the actual numbers behind these abstract percentages are even more striking: throughout 2020 and on a global scale, an inconceivable 2.2 billion children and young people aged 25 or younger—amongst whom around 1.3 billion school-going girls and boys aged between 3 and 17, and around 760 million other young people aged between 15 and 24—were deprived of an internet connection in their home setting.Footnote 79 Figure 8.6 gives an overview of the percentage of children and young people with internet access at home, by country income group. Figure 8.7 gives a similar indication of the percentage of children and young people with internet access at home, by region.

Fig. 8.6
figure 6

Percentage of children and young people with internet access at home, by country income group [Source: United Nations Children’s Fund and International Telecommunication Union 2020, p. 4]

Fig. 8.7
figure 7

Percentage of children and young people with internet access at home, by region [Source: United Nations Children’s Fund and International Telecommunication Union 2020, p. 5]

In 2020, globally, only 25% of people aged 25 and under living in the countryside had internet access at home. This percentage amounted to 41% with their urban counterparts, implying a 16% global difference between rural and urban youngsters. However, some world regions experienced a much larger gap. E.g., in the regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, 27% of rural youngsters were said to have access to the internet available at home, compared to 62% of their urban counterparts, a difference which amounted to 35 percentage points.Footnote 80 The presence of a rural-urban internet access divide was in many ways believed to be a function of a country’s income level. Indeed, from data in 2020, it appeared that such a divide was as good as non-existent in high-income countries, but was much more significant in low-, low- and upper-middle-income countries.Footnote 81

From other research, it appeared that even in the United States, access to the internet in home environments, while widespread, was far from ubiquitous. According to the “American Instructional Resources Survey” (abbreviated as “AIRS”) conducted in May and June 2020 among a group of teachers deemed representative for the whole country, it was found that, on a national scale, only half of the surveyed teachers were under the impression that “all or almost all” of their students had access to the internet at home, with, in addition, 29 and 14% of the surveyed teachers pointing out that respectively “about 75 per cent” and “about 50 per cent” of their students had internet available in their home environment. According to the researchers who conducted the survey, these responses indicated that teachers believed that students’ home internet access was “widespread”, but far from “ubiquitous”. However, the surveyed teachers’ estimates with regard to their students’ home internet access still varied considerably depending on the demographics of the schools in which they worked. Teachers in rural schools, in schools located in small towns, in schools with higher percentages of students of colour, and in high-poverty schools (i.e., schools with higher-than-average percentages of FRPL-eligible students) were significantly less likely to report that “all” or “almost all” of their students had internet access at their home settings. It, moreover, appeared that differences in internet access were most pronounced by school poverty level. More in particular, only 30% of the surveyed teachers employed by schools in the highest school poverty category (with between 76 to 100% of their pupils eligible for FRPL-support) indicated that they believed that all or almost all of their pupils had access to the internet in their home environment. This was 53 percentage points lower than the estimates of teachers employed by schools belonging to the lowest poverty category (with only between 0 and 25% of their pupils eligible for FRPL-support). Almost all respondents to the survey, moreover, reported that their school provided some form of support to students with accessing technology. Of these, 78% indicated that their school had provided devices suitable for online learning to students. In addition, it was pointed out that 73% of schools had provided information to families on how to obtain internet access, but that only 45% of schools had provided students with internet access hot spots. Given the number of teachers who indicated that their students did not have access to the internet in their home environment, it was however assumed that information alone would most probably not be enough to bridge the internet access gap between students from affluent families and students from deprived families. Teachers’ responses to the open-ended survey question, furthermore, suggested that, even with such additional support, household access to the internet and technology may not have been ideal for participating in distant education. E.g., internet connections were said to be too slow or unreliable in some cases, while families with more than one child may have been in need of more than one device.Footnote 82

Due to a range of reasons, children originating from lower socio-economic backgrounds were also less likely to have access to parental help—or help from other family members—with their homework. This competitive disadvantage is already of huge importance under normal circumstances, but became even more accentuated in a context of distant learning due to Covid-19. In addition, disabled children were facing particular difficulties due to school closures. One such additional problem was that children and young people with disabilities were likely to feel more isolated than other people. Another problem was that, because of lockdowns, the special support services that these children and young people with disabilities needed, were often closed. It was, similarly, pointed out that parents caring for children with chronic illnesses (e.g., asthma, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, diabetes …) and who had to get involved in home schooling or distant learning, in most cases had to endure higher levels of stress than the parents of children without these conditions. This may in turn have affected parents’ own job security and mental health, which could, ultimately, backfire on the safety of their child.Footnote 83

8.2.7 Costs to Schools and Economic Impact of School Closures

Research on the United Kingdom dating from before the Covid-19 pandemic and referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, already assessed the cost-effectiveness of school closures. From this research, it appeared that the economic costs of school closures in the United Kingdom amounted to between EUR 0.28 billion and EUR 1.68 billion on a weekly basis. From other research dating from before the Covid-19 pandemic, it appeared that when school closures are resorted to as part of a package of containment measures, next to, e.g., antiviral prophylaxis and preventive vaccination, although such school closures added to health improvement, they were at the same time the least cost-effective of the measures evaluated. From a modelling study regarding Canada referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, it had similarly appeared that packages of measures for fighting a disease that included school closures were the least cost-effective. The latter was attributed to the significant costs that arise because of lost working (for staff members) and schooling (for students) days, while said packages resulted into relatively low gains in terms of years of life saved. From two other studies referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, it, furthermore, appeared that school closures of a very limited duration, in combination with certain other measures, such as home-based antiviral prophylaxis, were the most cost-effective.Footnote 84

The OECD attempted to make a cost-estimate of the actual school closures that were resorted to in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. From this, it appeared that the estimated economic cost of these school closures has been enormous. The long-term economic loss was estimated in terms of decreased GDP due to lost learning opportunities in the Covid-19-year 2020 for students belonging to grades 1-12, under a first assumption that lost learning had occurred with regard to one third of an academic year and under a second assumption that these closures had led to a decrease in labour force skills and in economic productivity. The estimated costs under this OECD projection were considerable: over USD 3087 billion (or EUR 2546 billion) as regards Germany, and over USD 2137 billion (or EUR 1762 billion) as regards France.Footnote 85

There are also indirect costs economic resulting from school closures. An estimate of these indirect costs resulting from school closures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been made for the UK economy. This was based on a simulation of two scenarios: a “mitigation scenario” for a duration of 12 weeks, and a “suppression scenario” for a duration of seven months, in both cases with as starting date 23 March 2020. The first impact measured was labour lost by labouring parents of school-going children attributable to the Covid-19 school closures. This estimation amounted to EUR 74 billion (equalling 2.9% of GDP) in case of a mitigation scenario and to EUR 186 billion (equalling 7.3% of GDP) in case of a suppression scenario.Footnote 86 A second impact that was measured was the health-related burden on the UK economy. This estimation amounted to EUR 45 billion (equalling 1.73% of GDP).Footnote 87

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, furthermore, referred to a Cochrane systematic review of 42 other studies dealing with school closures. From this Cochrane review, it appeared that five of said other studies had assessed the socioeconomic implications of the Covid-19 school closures. In these studies, it was remarked that the loss of parental labouring activity resulting from prolonged school closures and/or from resorting to distant learning, led to an immediate economic harm on two levels. First, to the families in which the parents were no longer able to work (as usual). Second, on the macro-economic level, school closures resulted into reduction in GDP. From this, it was concluded that the economic cost of school closures far exceeded direct health costs for dealing with the Covid-19 disease as such.Footnote 88

When performing such assessments, it had to be taken into account that a successful reopening of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic required sufficient means for implementing and maintaining containment or mitigation strategies, avoiding the further spread of the Covid-19 virus. This has been measured in terms of financial impact regarding the United States. From these measurements, it has appeared that the estimated average cost per “pre-kindergarten to grade 12” student for implementing measures that were recommended by the CDC, on average, amounted to USD 55 per student for materials and consumables. However, this cost increased to an average of maximum USD 442 per student in cases where a school district was either mandated or voluntarily choosing to employ the maximum number of additional custodial staff per school out of safety concerns and to add additional means of transportation in order to optimise physical and social distancing.Footnote 89

8.2.8 Specific Problems Related to Higher Education

With regard to HEIs in particular, in their HEI survey (as conducted in March-April 2020) referred to before, Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen came to the following general conclusions (based on their previously cited survey):Footnote 90

  • Almost all of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey said that they had been affected by Covid-19: 59% of said HEIs declared that that they had stopped all campus activities and that they had completely closed their institution.

  • Almost all of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey (91%) declared that they had the infrastructure in place needed for effective communication with both their students and staff members about Covid-19. Despite this, HEIs responding to the HEI survey also declared that clear and effective communication with both staff members and students remained challenging.

  • Almost 80% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey were of the opinion that Covid-19 would have an impact on students’ enrolment. Almost half of the HEI survey respondents (46%) was of the opinion that this impact would affect both international and local students. Some of the HEIs that responded to the HEI survey, in particular private HEIs, indicated that this impact was likely to lead to negative financial consequences.

  • Two-thirds of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey mentioned that their managerial and administrative staff and/or members of their faculties had been consulted by government (or other public) officials on public policy matters relating to Covid-19.

  • Almost half (48%) of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey pointed out that their supervisory public authorities (e.g., governor or minister of education) would support their school in mitigating the disruption on academic learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The most common support referred to was assistance for allowing students to complete the running academic year.

  • With regard to partnerships, 64% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey declared that Covid-19 was expected to have various effects. Half of said HEIs believed that Covid-19 would have a weakening effect on such partnerships, while 18% of the responding HEIs were of the opinion that Covid-19 would have a strengthening effect. However, 31% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey, indicated that the Covid-19 pandemic could create new opportunities for cooperation with partner institutions.

  • By almost all of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey, Covid-19 was reported to have impacted teaching and learning in a severe manner. The most reported impact, reported by two thirds of the correspondents, concerned the fact that traditional methods of physical teaching and learning had mostly been replaced by distant or remote teaching and learning. In addition, it was indicated that the transition from face-to-face teaching and learning to distant or remote teaching and learning was not without its challenges. The main challenges concerned (insufficient) availability of technical infrastructure, skills and pedagogic qualities needed for implementing distant or remote teaching in general and unaddressed requirements with regard to teaching specific fields of academics in particular.

  • It was also indicated that the mandated shift to distant or remote teaching and learning had many advantages as well, such as: vast opportunities to provide more flexible learning opportunities to students, introducing and encouraging blended or hybrid learning models (based on a combination of physical teaching and learning, and distant teaching and learning), and combining synchronous (“life”) with asynchronous (“pre-recorded”) teaching.

  • Covid-19 was reported to have impacted international student mobility in 89% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey (cf., furthermore, below). The nature of this impact was diverse and varied from HEI to HEI, although it had been negative everywhere. The majority of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey, moreover, reported that they had contingency plans in place for mitigating this impact.

  • 60% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey reported that Covid-19 had led to an increased virtual mobility between institutions and/or to new forms of collaborative online teaching by means of alternatives to student mobility of a physical nature. HEIs indicated that these possibilities may have saved internationalization, although the authors of the survey pointed out that this matter still needed to be analysed in more detail.Footnote 91

  • Just over half of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey indicated that they intended to go through with semester examinations as planned, albeit in the majority of cases based upon new measures. There were, however, substantial regional variations on this matter: 80% of the European HEIs that partook in the HEI survey indicated that they were planning to effectively organise examinations, while 61% of the African HEIs that partook in the HEI survey had indicated that they were most likely to postpone or cancel examinations.

  • With regard to academic research, 80% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey indicated that research activities had been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic at their institutions. Cancellations of international academic exchange visits were reported by 83% of said HEIs, while the cancellation, or postponement, of academic conferences was reported by 81% of said HEIs. In addition, 52% of said HEIs indicated that academic research projects might not be completed.

  • 41% of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey declared that they were involved in Covid-19 related research. By contrast, a large majority of HEIs that partook in the HEI survey indicated that one or more of their staff members were contributing to Covid-19 related public policy. More in particular, about three quarters of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey declared that they contributed to public policy either through their institutional leadership or through their researchers. A quarter of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey declared that they were considered important players in the development of public policy in their country, both on an institutional level and at the level of individual experts.

  • For the vast majority of the HEIs that partook in the HEI survey, Covid-19 had a huge impact on their so-called “community engagement initiatives”. In half of the cases, this impact was believed to be positive, with, e.g., the Covid-19 crisis leading to increased HEIs’ community engagement, while in about a third of the cases, this impact was believed to be negative to the extent that it had decreased HEIs’ community engagement activities. Considered regionally, the impact of Covid-19 on community engagement was uneven, with Covid-19 mainly having increased community engagement in the Americas and mainly having decreased it in the Asia-Pacific region.

International students at HEIs faced some further specific problems, including:

  1. (1)

    International students being trapped in a host HEI.

  2. (2)

    Travel difficulties.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic, many international students studying in other countries faced problems travelling back to their home countries. Some HEIs even had advised international students not to travel abroad but to continue their studies in, e.g., hostels.Footnote 92 As HEIs closed their campuses, it then appeared that many of these “stranded” foreign students did not have access to alternative facilities for a variety of needs (such as housing, meals, studying …) outside the campuses of the HEIs they attended. The main challenges that HEI administrations in this regard were facing, concerned practical matters, such as the provision of housing accommodation and meals, as well as security services. The foreign students stranded at HEIs outside their country were also in need of appropriate advice and support on how to protect themselves from contacts with other people and on how to isolate themselves until the public health situation would turn to normal, or sufficiently normal. Another practical problem concerned the financing of extensions for staying in the country where the host HEI was located in case of suspension of curriculum activities and/or postponements of examinations. Foreign students who had managed to return home often feared that their studies would be interrupted. Such students often faced the difficulty that they no longer had sufficient access to adequate equipment (e.g., libraries, books, computers, a broadband internet connection …) for continuing their studies (e.g., through distant learning). The disruptions caused by Covid-19 also posed specific administrative problems for international students, e.g., in gaining admission for a coming academic session or year.Footnote 93

Most of these findings have been confirmed by another survey conducted by Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen.Footnote 94 The survey conducted by these researchers has indicated that in Europe, almost all HEIs surveyed (i.e., 95%) had been affected by Covid-19. These percentages were also high in the Americas (namely 91%) and with regard to the Asia-Pacific region (namely 85%), but somewhat lower in the African region (namely 78%).Footnote 95 The type of impact of Covid-19 on international student mobility reported in this survey, appeared to be diverse and varying across the four regions.Footnote 96

8.3 Search for Alternative Solutions

8.3.1 General

In light of the various problems schools faced, both policymakers and schools themselves began to address lost learning opportunities, leading to a diverse range of policy responses. More than a third of the countries that partook in the survey on which the Joint Report was based, thus introduced remediation programmes for helping children in their studies.Footnote 97

8.3.2 Distant Learning

8.3.2.1 Distant Learning in General

According to the Joint Report, one of the most widely used measures to address the problems caused by school closures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, has been distance (or distant) learning. This method of learning allowed children to continue their education through a variety of alternative modalities for physical classes, including online platforms, educational programmes broadcasted on traditional media (namely TV and radio) and take-home paper packages.Footnote 98

According to the Joint Report, it is widely acknowledged that even a brief interruption to children’s schooling may have a lasting negative effect on their education. When all around the world schools had to close at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, this insight made the deployment of alternatives for physical schooling a matter of primary policy concern. This would soon result in the activation of a variety of learning methods that got referred to as “distant”, “distance” or “remote” learning. In addition, some key guiding principles were established on the use of the variety of delivery channels deployed for such distant learning, including (1) the need for dealing with what has been referred to as “the digital divide”, (2) the selection of existing (open) accessible content, where available, and (3) the provision of appropriate support to students, teachers, parents and caregivers for delivering and accessing distance learning systems.Footnote 99

Overall, e-learning and television were indicated as the most widely resorted to means for distant learning. These methods were more in particular offered in 90% and 87% of the countries that partook in the survey of the Joint Report respectively. These methods were followed by paper-based take-home materials (resorted to in 85% of the surveyed countries) and radio-based distant learning (resorted to in 61% of the surveyed countries). The Joint Report in this regard mentions that the differences in economic and financial strength between income groups of countries caused wide inequalities for accessing the technologies needed for distant learning. It was also pointed out that, although these differences were already in place in times before Covid-19, the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these differences, resulting in what has been referred to as a “digital divide” that especially affected the poorest communities within and between countries in a disproportionate manner.Footnote 100

These findings of the Joint Report have been largely confirmed by another report from UNICEF that appeared in 2021 under the title “COVID-19 and the School Closures: A Year of Education Disruption” (hereafter referred to as the “UNICEF 2021-report”).Footnote 101 The UNICEF 2021-report more in particular states that in the period from 11 March 2020 until 2 February 1921, more than 90% of the world’s competent authorities (i.e., in most cases, ministries of education) mandated schools to resort to some form of distant learning through radio, television or the internet, as an alternative for physical schooling. According to the UNICEF 2021-report, while no distant learning technology is equivalent to the classroom learning experience itself, some of the technologies have features that make it possible to better mimic the physical classroom experience than others. E.g., television and radio only allow for a limited educational experience to the extent that they usually require that programmes are pre-recorded. They, moreover, make live interaction between those who speak and/or give explanations during said TV- or radio programmes and the students following the programmes in their classrooms, difficult. By contrast, modern digital technologies, usually based on accessing the internet through personal computers, tablets and/or mobile phones, do not require that programs are pre-recorded (although they neither exclude this possibility) and, in addition, allow for direct life-interaction between teachers and students. They were, for these reasons, deemed more suitable for emulating the classroom experience.Footnote 102

According to the UNICEF 2021-report, however, it appeared that many (of especially the low-income) countries where schools were closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic for the longest periods of time, were also the countries having the lowest levels of internet connection in students’ home settings. As already indicated before (cf. Sect. 8.2.6), many of the students living in these countries had no at home internet connection at their disposal, which implied that these students were unable to benefit from distant teaching and learning opportunities that were based upon internet technologies. This was believed to put this group of already deprived students even more at risk of falling behind in their education.Footnote 103

UNESCO and the International Telecommunication Union jointly estimated that 40% of students registered in closed schools, did not have access to the internet at home. However, this digital gap was not the only obstacle for assuring equal access to distant learning opportunities. Around the world, access to the more traditional technologies for spreading information, such as television and radio, also significantly varied between and within countries. According to Roe, Blikstad-Balas and Pedersen, in 40 of the 88 countries for which recent survey data were available, it appeared that television ownership in urban households was more than double that of rural households, with the largest disparities occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.Footnote 104

In high-income countries, the reported hierarchy among the methods used for delivering distant learning was as follows: (1) use of online platforms (use in 95% of the cases); (2) use of paper-based take-home materials (use in 89% of the cases); (3) use of television programmes (use in 63% of the cases) and (4) use of radio programmes (use in 22% of the cases). By contrast, the reported hierarchy among the methods used for delivering distant learning in low-income countries was as follows: (1) use of radio programmes (use in 93% of the cases); (2) use of television programmes (use in 92% of the cases), (3) use of online platforms through the internet (use in 64% of the cases).Footnote 105

It was in the quoted research reports assessed that the total impact of school closures and the relative effectiveness of distant learning methods were far from clear already, and that this matter still required further research. Still, the perceived effectiveness of distant learning methods could already be temporarily assessed, from which it, furthermore, appeared that huge variations by modality and origin group occurred. The Joint Report in this regard provided the following insights:Footnote 106

  1. (1)

    Globally, internet-based e-learning platforms were perceived as “very effective” (36%) or “somewhat effective” (58%), particularly in high-income and upper-middle-income countries. In addition, no high-income countries, and only 6% of the upper-middle-income countries, had qualified e-learning as an ineffective method for delivering distant learning.

  2. (2)

    From the Joint Report, it moreover appeared that television was widely used for delivering distant learning in low- and middle-income countries. These two groups of countries, moreover, reported varying degrees of effectiveness. More in particular, 37% of the upper-middle income countries, compared to 16% of the lower-middle income countries and 27% of the low-income countries, indicated television as a very effective means for delivering distant learning.

  3. (3)

    On a global scale, radio was rated as an ineffective means for delivering distant learning by more than one of five countries worldwide, although it was believed that this negative assessment was correlated to the prevalence of its use across income groups. More in particular, high-income countries were the least likely to use radio as a means for delivering distant learning, with a third of those who had used it, considering it an ineffective method. By contrast, among low and lower-middle income countries, radio was both widely used as a means of delivering distant learning and considered “very effective” by about 16% of these countries and “somewhat effective” by 65%.

  4. (4)

    Globally, a majority of high- and middle-income countries resorted to take-home paper-based kits, with most (>70%) of these countries rating them as “fairly effective”. By contrast, although such paper-based materials were almost as commonly resorted to as online platforms by low-income countries, the latter group of countries judged them in a far more negative manner, with 43% of low-income countries that had used them, having rated them as ineffective.

According to the Joint Report, low-income countries were generally more inclined than other countries to indicate all distant learning methods and modalities as ineffective, with the exception of radio. This has been attributed to wider issues of availability of prior infrastructure, as well as to a general lack of household access to the technology necessary for using said distant learning methods, as all this technology is generally lacking in low-income countries. Distant learning methods were, in addition, widely accepted as valid methods of delivering education. This explains why, in a variety of countries, days on which these methods had been used even counted as official school days. The latter appeared to have been the case in 73% of the countries that partook in the survey on which the Joint Report was based, all having indicated that distant learning qualified as formal schooling. There were, however, once more considerable differences between income groups. According to the Joint Report, only 20% of the group of low-income countries deemed distant learning days sufficient for replacing formal school days. This percentage amounted to 70% in lower-middle income countries, 82% in upper-middle income countries and 86% in the group of high-income countries. Still, over 90% of all countries in all of the income groups indicated that distant learning (regardless of the methods or modalities, i.e., whether through online platforms, television, radio or take-home packages) was likely to continue once schools would reopen.Footnote 107

It was, hence, suspected that distant learning systems would prove resilient and adaptable, so that its use could be expanded beyond being a mere stopgap in case of localised or widespread school closures.Footnote 108 Goodman has in this regard argued that Covid-19 was an ideal experiment for delivering distant learning on such a large scale, which will likely have enormous long-term benefits. Goodman refers to the following, possible long-term positive effects: (1) the fast development and implementation of a wide variety of online learning methods and solutions, and (2) a possible expansion of virtual schools and other virtual learning environments. Goodman is of the opinion that this could, in practice, revolutionise traditional education. Without denying that traditional school settings play an important social role for children and young people, and that physical “face-to-face” teaching and listening is still vital for personal development, especially to the extent that teaching and learning are essentially social activities, Goodman at the same time argues that the potential of distant education for future gains is impossible to deny. As distant learning is a very young development, Goodman expects that the increased application of information technologies to everyday learning, such as establishing virtual schools and introducing artificial intelligence technology in educational settings, will further enhance educational possibilities. The technology has great potential to support a more personalized virtual teaching and learning experience. This could even result in the creation of truly individualised virtual educational settings that are perfectly suited to the learning curves of each individual student, which may contribute to a more rapid learning progress. The further adaptation of new technologies could, furthermore, result in the development of age- and ability-based learning models, making it possible to tailor school curricula to the needs of gifted students or those with learning difficulties. Further developments may include new ways of personal studying, homework, assessment and monitoring for students, or of communicating and interacting with parents. All of this could contribute to a fast development of the concept of “mastery of learning”, based on increased personal motivation, leading to greater independence and better results for students.Footnote 109

8.3.2.2 Distant Learning in HEIs in Particular

For most HEIs, online teaching and learning was not an entirely new mode of content delivery as these techniques had already, to various degrees, been resorted to by many HEIs all over the world. Many faculty members of various HEIs had already received training on, and been making effective use of, specialised online learning platforms, either as the sole mode of delivery of a given course, or as a complement to more traditional, face-to-face teaching. However, it was also true that other faculty members, even at HEIs which had played a pioneer role with regard to these evolutions towards distant learning environments, were not particularly in favour of using these teaching methods and would even during Covid-19 related HEI closures themselves, remain resistant to adapt to these teaching modes. The transition to the online teaching and learning environments had, consequently, already in times pre-Covid-19 raised questions for some HEIs about the ability to introduce and enhance the new technological systems for every-day use. In addition, Covid-19 created some new concerns, such as the fact that computers and other hardware devices that are suitable for online learning from home, suddenly became in high demand for all members of a given household, ranging from parents and children to other family members who all had to start either working or following courses from home. This implied that working from home could in some cases become a huge challenge for academics. Moreover, many HEIs, especially those located in low(er)-income countries, did not have all the necessary infrastructure or other resources for enabling online teaching and learning with immediate effect. Consequently, the quality of online teaching became a critical issue for HEIs all over the world. This required appropriate policy attention, in some cases for dealing with problems similar to those encountered in other types of schools (cf. Sect. 8.3.2.1).Footnote 110

In their March-April 2020 survey, Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen found that in almost all of the surveyed HEIs, Covid-19 had effectively affected teaching and learning, with only 2% of the surveyed HEIs (amounting to a mere 7 HEIs) having indicated that teaching and learning had not been affected.Footnote 111 Two-thirds of the surveyed HEIs, moreover, indicated that face-to-face teaching in a classroom had been effectively replaced by distant teaching and learning methods. A quarter of the surveyed HEIs, by contrast, reported that most teaching and learning activities had gotten suspended at the time of the survey, but that the HEI was working on solutions to rekindle teaching and learning, either by resorting to digital teaching or learning settings, or through self-study. Only 7% of the surveyed HEIs said that all teaching had been cancelled (until further notice).Footnote 112 These survey results implied that two thirds of the surveyed HEIs had effectively succeeded in mitigating teaching to an online environment, while one third had not been able to accomplish this. However, the majority of the surveyed HEIs remained concerned about the further development of solutions to continue or support teaching online. According to the authors of the survey, these survey results have been largely confirmed by several other research (articles) on the digitization of higher education in times of crisis.Footnote 113 However, the survey conducted by Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, also found that two-thirds of the African surveyed HEIs were not prepared to move teaching online and that when they had closed their campuses, they also had suspended teaching.Footnote 114

Still according to the survey conducted by Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, most HEIs were early 2020 confronted with what has been referred to as “a sudden and unprepared transition to online teaching”. This transition was undertaken in order to address the need for continued teaching and learning activities when institutions had to close and to keep engaging and motivating their students during periods of time when physical or social distancing measures were in place. According to said authors, this transition was, moreover, determined by three interconnected dimensions that all impacted both the feasibility and the quality of the distant learning offered, namely:Footnote 115

  1. (1)

    Technical infrastructure and accessibility.

  2. (2)

    Skills and pedagogic qualities for giving distant learning lessons.

  3. (3)

    The field of study.

Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, furthermore, identified two different trends in the responses that dealt with issues of infrastructure and online access as preconditions for the transition to a distant teaching and learning environment. The survey identified, on the one hand, a number of HEIs that could not make the transition to online teaching and learning due to the fact that their students lacked access to the internet in their home settings. This matter was of particular concern for African HEI’s, but also for HEIs located in other low- and middle-income countries. When in such countries lockdown or containment measures were resorted to, HEIs could simply no longer provide teaching and learning, as a further result of which it became, gradually, unlikely that their students would be able to complete the running academic year. The survey, on the other hand, identified a second group of HEIs that faced problems with mitigating to an online teaching and learning environment, notwithstanding the fact that said HEIs were located in countries characterized by good internet penetration. With regard to this second group of HEIs, it appeared that these, in many cases, lacked the technical infrastructure and/or the technical tools necessary for mitigating to a (full) distant learning environment. Some HEIs belonging to this category indicated that they were confronted with restrictions of a financial nature for investing in state-of-the-art online tools and software licenses. Finally, there was also a group of HEIs that, within the same institution, had to deal with a gap between groups of students who had access to the internet from home and groups of students who did not. For the HEIs belonging to this category, it was especially challenging to ensure equal access to online teaching services that would allow all students to complete their academic year. Some of these HEIs reached the decision to suspend all teaching activities for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, under the motivation that they would not succeed in reaching a sufficiently large enough group of their students for being able to resort to distant learning without endangering equal treatment.Footnote 116

Several of the HEIs surveyed by Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen’s pointed to the fact that their staff members had been confronted with different pedagogical needs for ensuring distant teaching and learning, and that it had been a huge challenge for many of their educators to accomplish the urgent and in most cases unprepared transition from a face-to-face physical learning environment to a distant teaching and learning environment. In general, the level of preparation, readiness and/or willingness of educators to make this transition to an online teaching and learning environment, moreover, varied widely. This variation occurred between regions, countries, HEI’s of a given country and even within a given HEI itself. Yet, even to the extent that resorting to education in an online environment did not guarantee the same level of quality and continuity as face-to-face physical teaching, most HEIs and policy makers still considered it preferable to no teaching at all.Footnote 117

Another problem has been that HEIs often lacked the management structure to ensure a smooth transition to an online learning environment. This often required a wide variety of adaptations, such as making sure that the teaching staff acquired the skills for moving into e-learning, and acquiring the necessary equipment and software (cf. above). For many HEIs, instead the transition often came down to a “learning by doing” approach, or simply emulating a face-to-face mode of teaching, in a rudimentary online setting.Footnote 118

Another challenge was that the required technical equipment could widely differ from one academic field to another within a given HEI. This appeared to be especially challenging for diversified HEIs, who pointed to limitations of distant learning in specific academic domains. A good example is the wide variety of academic disciplines that, both for purposes of teaching and research, are highly depend on the use of laboratories. Fields like clinical medicine and veterinary studies spring to mind. Other academic fields concerned those requiring a lot of (personal) creativity, and specialized materials, such as arts, music and design.Footnote 119

All of the foregoing implied that even in HEIs where both the technical infrastructure and the pedagogical skills required for the transition to online teaching and learning were available and sufficiently reliable, and even where a given faculty was fully committed to adapt to the required change in delivery mode, ensuring the quality of the distant learning experience often depended to a large extent on the characteristics of one discipline to another. This helps to explain why the reported reliability and quality of distant education varied so greatly. A wide variety of factors was at play here, the most important being (1) the infrastructure in place (both within the HEIs themselves as in the home settings of students and teachers), (2) the ability and willingness of teaching staff members to make the transition to online teaching and (3) the peculiarities of the academic field of study.Footnote 120

Notwithstanding all these difficulties and challenges, many of the HEIs that had partaken to Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen’s survey still considered the experience of making the transition to a distant teaching and learning environment as a great opportunity, amongst others, for investing financial resources and people’s skills in offering more flexible learning solutions, to explore blended and/or hybrid learning methods and for mixing systems of synchronous and asynchronous learning. The unplanned and unprepared transition to online teaching and learning at a distance has serendipitously led to a fast build-up of capacity. According to Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, a change of mindset may have set in among HEI’s around the world. These experiences opened up a new horizon of possibilities in teaching and learning. Some of the surveyed HEIs have indicated that e-learning methods should, also post-Covid-19, become a more integral part of HEI curriculums. Other surveyed HEIs also expected to see a new approach to teaching pedagogical skills, as well as to teaching and learning modalities. Some of the surveyed HEIs also pointed out that the experience with the Covid-19-imposed transition to online teaching and learning environments, could help in breaking the still strongly present taboo on working at home.Footnote 121

According to Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen, HEIs are now faced with the challenge to keep investing more in technical infrastructure in order to enable a permanent shift to even more advanced digital learning environments, e.g., based on cloud-based services, digitization of business processes and universal online access to all documents, resources and libraries. According to said authors, this will ultimately enhance the possibilities for distance working in the field of academics and provide lifelong learning opportunities for all concerned learners and, by extension, for society as a whole.Footnote 122

8.3.3 Policies to Improve Access to Online Learning

According to the Joint Report, the tools needed to allow everyone to enjoy distant learning are not equally spread. This applies to a wide variety of tools, technologies and infrastructure, even very basic necessities such as internet-access and electricity. It especially appears that children and young people living in conflict zones, and rural areas of low(er)-income countries, as well as those from poor households, are most likely to be disproportionally deprived. While, still according to the Joint Report, 53% of households around the world have access to the internet available in their home setting, the proportion of students deprived of internet access at home ranges from less than 15% in the regions of Western Europe and North America, to 80% in the sub-Saharan Africa region. The latter category of students, most often originating from rural locations and/or from low-income households, were de facto excluded from participating in any online distant learning.Footnote 123

The matter is even made more complex due to gaps in access to online learning stemming from a variety of socioeconomic determinants. The Joint Report has pointed to the fact that, from analyses about household-level data in eight sub-Saharan countries, it has appeared that, even when both technology and internet connectivity are available, girls are far more disadvantaged in acquiring ICT skills both in school and at home. This makes enhancing equal access to technology all the more important for tackling inequalities and, through this, for reducing loss of learning opportunities.Footnote 124

An important trend in enabling access to online learning has become the provision of internet access at a (governmental) subsidised or zero cost (for the end user). From the Joint Report, it appears that at least two-thirds of the surveyed high-income and upper-middle-income countries have implemented this measure for parts of their population, although the measure appeared to be less common in most low- and lower-middle-income countries (38% and 42% respectively). It was, furthermore, reported that during the Covid-19 pandemic, some countries made access to a variety of national online digital platforms completely free of charge, while other countries resorted to indirect subsidies, e.g., by providing a lump sum of money to students and/or teachers aimed at participating in the financial burden of purchasing an internet subscription.Footnote 125 Another measure that has been applied for enhancing access to online learning consisted of the provision of low-cost devices, such as portable computers, tablets or smartphones, for educational purposes. Once more, the Joint Report pointed to large differences between income groups. It appeared that the measure was resorted to by 72% of the group of high-income countries, 53% of the group of upper-middle-income countries, 21% of the group of lower-middle-income countries and none of the group of low-income countries that responded to the survey mentioned in the Joint Report.Footnote 126

Ensuring easy access to e-learning platforms through mobile phones has been another measure resorted to by the majority of high- and middle-income countries. Although ensuring access to online learning platforms by phone was also the main measure resorted to by low-income countries, it was only used in 44% of these countries that, moreover, in about a third of the cases, did not report having offered any specific support measure for stimulating access to online connectivity at all. This lack of policy measures for ensuring access to online learning settings was in some of these low-income countries somewhat mitigated by the widespread use of television and radio, or the use of paper-based take-home packages. In said low-income countries, the latter measure was moreover indicated as the only short-term alternative for actual face-to-face schooling at locations without electricity, let alone internet connectivity.Footnote 127 A less frequently implemented measure for ensuring general access to online learning consisted of the use of fixed phone lines for providing access to the internet, and hence to distant learning platforms as well. However, the Joint Report indicated that the latter measure was used by only 19% of low-income countries and by about one in four high- and middle-income countries.Footnote 128

8.3.4 Teacher Support Policies

According to the Joint Report, during the first half of the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated 63 million primary and secondary school teachers were affected in their daily functioning. According to the same report, especially during the initial phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers had been severely challenged to quickly innovate their teaching approach, especially when they had been obligated to make the transition to distant teaching, with or without access to qualitative digital technologies. Teachers similarly had to take up a key functions for communicating measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, in this manner helping to ensure that children and young people were kept safe and felt supported.Footnote 129

In at least 75% of surveyed countries for the Joint Report, teachers had been required to continue to teach notwithstanding school closures. For the majority of these teachers, it was reported that there had not been any change in their salaries or other benefits. Still, the proportion of surveyed countries where teachers were mandated to continue to teach, again varied by income group. This was more in particular the case with over 90% of the group of high and upper-middle income countries, 60% of the group of lower-middle income countries, and a mere 39% of the group of low income countries. Moreover, about half of the group of high-income countries had allowed teachers to continue to both teach and work on school premises, compared with 27% of the group of middle-income countries (i.e., the group of upper-middle countries and the group of lower-middle income countries combined). It thereby appeared that teaching from school premises had been most common for upper secondary school teachers, especially teachers who were in the process of preparing their students for national examinations. In some other cases, schools were kept physically open in order to continue face-to-face classes to the benefit of the children of frontline labourers and of certain other priority groups. A special measure for dealing with the challenges posed by the transition to Covid-19 suitable teaching and learning environments consisted of attracting additional staff members. The Joint Report mentions that in one out of three of the surveyed countries, schools could (temporarily) appoint additional teachers and other staff members for supporting the transition to distant education systems, both during periods of school closure and school reopening. However, such measures were only reported on in upper-middle and high-income countries.Footnote 130

Similarly, 77% of the surveyed countries in the Joint Report mentioned that a variety of auxiliary staff members continued to work during times of school closure. These included, first and foremost, computer technicians whose main tasks became ensuring a smooth transition to online distant learning and to assist teachers and students in the acquisition of appropriate devices suitable for online teaching and learning. In some countries, schools were allowed to recruit additional psychologists and educational experts in order to mentally support both teachers and students. A special task of such psychologists and pedagogical experts consisted of assisting deprived and vulnerable children, such as children whose parents are employed in vital sectors and children living in (known) precarious conditions at home. Moreover, about one in four countries mentioned that their schools were provided with the (financial) means to recruit other additional staff members, such as cleaning and administrative personnel. This was a measure that was especially resorted to when schools reopened.Footnote 131

Overall, measures for supporting teachers varied largely across income groups. The majority of the countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report (namely 66% of said countries) indicated that the teachers at their schools had been provided with clear instructions on how to organise and deliver courses through systems of distant (online) teaching and learning. In low-income countries in particular, this kind of support was by far the most common support measure that had been provided to teachers.Footnote 132 About two-thirds of the group of high-income countries, almost half of the group of middle-income countries but only about 20% of the group of low-income countries, made mention of the fact that they had provided special training to teachers. Such special training generally involved enhancing teachers’ ICT skills and reworking the teachers’ pedagogical approaches to ensure that they would be able to deliver learning content in a distant (online) learning environment. In countries where online teaching and learning platforms had already become common practice in times preceding the Covid-19 crisis itself, teachers most commonly received additional training on these platforms themselves.Footnote 133 In addition, more than 60% of the group of high- and upper-middle-income countries reported that they had provided the teachers at their schools with updated learning content that was more suitable for distant teaching. This form of support occurred by contrast only in 48% of the group of lower-middle-income countries and in a mere 33% of the group of low-income countries. Overall, one in three countries that partook in the survey indicated in the Joint report, declared that it had provided teachers at its schools with both ICT tools and free internet connection aimed at ensuring that teachers could continue to work while schools were (physically) closed.Footnote 134

A final measure resorted to by a variety of surveyed countries, consisted in the provision of psychosocial and emotional support to teachers, which was in many cases aimed at complementing more technical support forms provided to said teachers. The Joint Report indicates that this form of support was provided by more than half of the group of high- and upper-middle-income countries, and by about 26% of the group of lower-middle-income countries. In some countries, social media groups were set up (with or without the support of schools themselves) in order to facilitate peer support and the exchange of best practices among teachers.Footnote 135

8.3.5 Further Public and Private Initiatives to Ensure Access to Technologies

According to Roe, Blikstad-Balas and Pedersen, the lack of pre-existing digital infrastructure in both schools and societies as a whole has, notwithstanding all of the foregoing, around the world been indicated as one of the most major obstacles for the transition to online educational strategies.Footnote 136

This explains why, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many international providers of educational materials, both of a public and private nature, made their resources available free of charge. E.g., UNICEF launched the so-called “#LearningAtHome” initiative that provided free daily educational activities that parents could then adapt and share with others. However, one of the main vulnerabilities of this initiative was that accessing it, in a similar manner as accessing online teaching and learning provided by schools themselves, remained dependent on having access to the internet.Footnote 137

8.3.6 Support for Parents

The Joint Report stresses the importance of parental engagement in their children’s education. Also regarding this matter, there appeared to be striking and persistent disparities in home settings between the groups of countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report. During times of school closures, the importance of parental support while learning at home was even further amplified. This at the same time implied an increased supportive role for parents (and other caregivers). Moreover, in addition to home learning itself, vulnerable and deprived households had to take on additional responsibilities for their children’s welfare, such as having to prepare meals that previously had been provided at school.Footnote 138

According to the Joint Report, 62% of the countries that partook in the therein mentioned survey, reported that they had developed and provided informative materials in order to guide parents with regard to home learning. This appeared to be a common form of support across countries from all income levels, with 71% of the group of high-income countries, 66% of the group of upper-middle-income countries, 53% of the group of lower-middle-income countries and 44% of the group of low-income countries having mentioned that they had developed and provided such materials to at least some parents. Several countries, similarly, made mention of the fact that they had set up additional parental guidance to support learning at home, e.g., through regular telephone follow-up aimed at reinforcing parental involvement. Such a practice was resorted to by schools in 45% of the group of high-income countries, 44% of the group of upper-middle-income countries and 41% of the group of lower-middle-income countries, but, by contrast, only in 22% of the group of low-income countries.Footnote 139

The Joint Report also indicates that especially younger children are often in need of additional parental support and guidance while learning at home. This appeared to be a luxury that was not commonly available in low-income households, as well as in home settings where either parents or caregivers had to continue to work outside the home settings (or, phrased differently: had to continue to perform labour on the physical working floor of their employer). The Joint Report, similarly, points to the fact that early learning (at home) and play guidance and assistance may constitute another important support measure for young children. This however happened to be a rarer form of child support, with around 34% of the countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report having indicated that this support was commonly provided in home settings, but with only 17% of low-income countries reporting such a support provision. Overall, 39% of the low-income countries that partook in said survey indicated that no action was taken to promote the home learning environment.Footnote 140

As has already been elaborated upon before (cf. Sect. 8.1.1), schools are not only a place for learning. Schools, to an increasing extent, also provide a wide variety of other essential services to children, ranging from childcare to providing nutrition through daily school meals. The sudden disappearance of these services due to Covid-19 imposed school closures was reported to have placed an additional both practical and financial burden on vulnerable and deprived households. According to Joint Report, 27% of the countries that partook in the therein referred to survey, indicated that their schools had kept regularly providing meals and/or food rations to vulnerable families during school closures. 25% of the surveyed countries indicated that they even provided financial support to vulnerable households. According to the Joint Report, such types of support became thus the more essential to the extent that parents and caregivers had to take on additional responsibilities in supporting their children to learn at home and because of the loss of livelihoods because of lockdown measures.Footnote 141

According to the Joint Report, the provision of psychosocial support and childcare became one of the main domains of child and family support provided by governments during the Covid-19 related lockdowns. However, this type of support, once again, varied by income level. While 61% of the group of high-income countries declared that they provided such psychological support to parents and children (or to some categories of parents and children), only 26% of the group of lower-middle-income countries reported doing the same. Similarly, childcare services were reported to have been offered by 55% of the group of high-income countries, compared to a mere 17% of the group of low-income countries. Between 28% and 38% of the group of middle- and low-income countries indicated that they had not implemented any of these mitigation measures, suggesting that these countries lacked themselves the financial resources needed for providing these essential services to their citizens.Footnote 142

8.3.7 Government Support for HEIs

With regard to HEIs in particular, Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen also examined the issue of government support measures.Footnote 143

Almost half (more precisely 48%) of the HEIs that partook in the survey of Marinoni, van’t Land and Jensen indicated that their government (or ministry of education) had declared that it would financially or otherwise support HEIs in facing Covid-19. However, a quarter of the surveyed HEIs by contrast indicated that their government or competent ministry had denied any support, while the remainder lacked all information on the matter.Footnote 144

The most common support granted by governments or other public authorities was handed out to HEIs in order to allow them to cope with the end of the academic year. Three quarters of the surveyed HEIs had indicated that they would obtain this kind of support. Only a few of the surveyed HEI’s mentioned that they would be granted other forms of support. E.g., government financial support for allowing the HEIs to cope with the expected or unexpected financial income losses due to Covid-19 (and to the measures for dealing with it), were only mentioned by 13% of the surveyed HEIs.Footnote 145

Of the surveyed HEIs, 53% in the European region indicated receiving support from their government, or other competent authority (e.g., the ministry of education). By contrast, the amount of HEIs from the African region indicating that they received such support was much lower, only amounting to 39%. This was, moreover, only slightly higher than the percentage of surveyed African HEIs that had indicated that their government (or ministry of education) would not be handing out support to HEIs, the latter percentage amounting to 31%.Footnote 146 For the Asia-Pacific and American regions, these percentages were, generally speaking, more in line with the European ones. However, the percentage of HEIs in the Americas indicating that their government (or ministry of education) would not be handing out support to the HEIs was close to the one of the African region (amounting to 29%).Footnote 147

Regarding the types of support, governmental support handed out to allow HEIs to complete the current academic year appeared to be the most common, as indicated by more than 75% of the surveyed HEIs in the African and European regions. This was also the most common support in the Asian and the Pacific regions, granted to 62% of the surveyed HEIs, and in the Americas, although only granted to a mere 41% of the surveyed HEIs in this region.Footnote 148

Overall, advice on how to mitigate missing credits for courses or other academic achievements required for admission to the next academic year or for graduation appeared to be the second most common type of assistance that had been granted in the Asian and the Pacific regions, with 41% of the surveyed HEIs in these regions indicating that they were granted this kind of support, as well as in the European region (with 34% of the respondents indicating that they were granted this kind of support) and the Americas (also with 34% indicating this type of support). By contrast, only 11% of the surveyed African HEIs indicated that they were granted this kind of support.Footnote 149

8.4 Reopening of Schools

8.4.1 Policy Considerations

According to Lo Moro, et al., as of October 2020, there were more than 34 million Covid-19 contamination cases and more than one million Covid-19 related deaths globally. Around that time period, the majority of the Covid-19 related deaths had occurred in the WHO’s Region of the Americas (accounting for 55% of the total Covid-19 related deaths) and the European Region (accounting for 23% of the total of Covid-19 related deaths). Moreover, in a large number of countries belonging to these WHO Regions, it appeared that the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was even larger than the first wave, which (according to the quoted authors) may in part have been due to improved testing capability in said regions. Nevertheless, in most parts of the European Region, the incidence of new Covid-19 contamination cases and Covid-19 related deaths had been steadily increasing after the summer of 2020. Countries such as France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Spain and Israel were all among the countries that reported their highest numbers of new cases in the first week of October 2020.Footnote 150

However, at that time, less than 5% of the Covid-19 contamination cases that had occurred in the combined population of the European Economic Area and United Kingdom, had been diagnosed among people aged 18 years or younger. It further, appeared that even when youngsters and children contracted the Covid-19 virus, they were in most cases asymptomatic. It was unclear at the time whether asymptomatic Covid-19 patients were themselves contagious, i.e., capable of spreading the Covid-19 virus to others.Footnote 151 Although Covid-19 outbreaks had been reported in schools, their detection remained extremely difficult because most young people and children did not display any symptoms, as a result of which many of them did not even know that they could have contracted the virus, as there was no systematic testing taking place in schools. There were therefore no reliable data available on Covid-19 transmission dynamics in school settings. It was at the time, moreover, assumed that child-to-child Covid-19 transmission in schools was, most likely, uncommon. In light of these insights, it was assumed that it should be feasible to establish effective protocols for school settings to prevent school-based transmission of the Covid-19 virus.Footnote 152

There were, in addition, other insights on the effectiveness of NPIs that entered the equation. More precisely, modelling studies regarding the effectiveness of NPIs had pointed to the fact that stand-alone (i.e., not combined with other NPIs) school closures “only” prevented 2 to 4% of the Covid-19 related deaths. This appeared to be a much lower percentage than other NPIs, such as general social distance measures. It was, hence, assumed that school closures were unlikely to be effective as a single containment measure, but should at best be considered as part of an overall strategy for containing Covid-19. From other data on the reopening of schools in particular, it, furthermore, appeared that, even during periods of low incidence and despite hygiene measures resorted to in schools, school outbreaks still did occur, but that in such cases, the number of Covid-19 contamination cases was lower than before the school closures, indicating that containment measures applied in school settings could be more effective than NPIs applied elsewhere.Footnote 153

According to further findings gathered by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Covid-19 transmission in school settings was in general a rare phenomenon.Footnote 154

In light of these findings, most neoliberal Western countries found it wise to alter their policy approach towards schools (other than HEIs), whereby school closures were no longer considered as a main measure for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, governments began to consider less disruptive strategies than school closures, taking further into account that school closures were likely to result in learning backlog, besides resulting into other high socioeconomic costs as well. Avoiding these side-effects of school closures soon was considered more important than avoiding the small percentage increase of Covid-19 contaminations and deaths prevented by school closures. It was, thereby, in particular taken into account that school closures could also have several negative consequences for children, adolescents and their families, to the extent that—as explained before (cf. Sect. 8.1.1)—schools are not only an educational setting, but also a source of (mental) health services, food aid, obesity prevention and support systems in case of all kinds of (family) abuse and homelessness.Footnote 155

UNESCO was particularly concerned that the longer deprived or marginalised children were out of school, the less likely they were to return afterwards. UNESCO also pointed to the fact that, considered on a global scale, children stemming from the poorest households were already in times pre-Covid-19 almost five times more likely to fall out of primary school than children from rich households. In addition, marginalised children that stopped attending school were more at risk of teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation, child marriage, violence and other threats. Moreover, school closures resulted in a prolonged disruption of a wide variety of other essential school services, such as school meals and access to mental health and psychosocial support systems. School closures themselves were also reported to cause stress and anxiety due to, amongst others, loss of peer interaction and disruption of daily routines. These negative impacts of school closures were, moreover, significantly higher for deprived or marginalised children which, on a global scale, included many categories, such as children living in countries affected by conflict or other protracted crises, children with a migrant or refugee background, forcibly displaced children, children belonging to minority groups, children with disabilities, and children placed under youth protection or put in institutions.Footnote 156

Based on all of this at the time emerging evidence regarding the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as on experiences with previous (health) crises, it was more and more feared that again resorting to school closures after the summer of 2020, would have a lifelong negative impact on children’s learning, as well as on their general socioeconomic well-being. It was hereby, furthermore, taken into consideration that many children could not benefit from the continuity of teaching efforts that schools in richer parts of the world had resorted to (particularly advanced systems of online teaching and learning). In light of all these factors and considerations, a UN Secretary-General’s policy note, therefore, urged for a quick reopening of schools in all places where the local Covid-19 crisis was brought under control in a manner deemed sufficient.Footnote 157

Given, on one hand, the allegedly limited evidence on the effectiveness of school closures for containing the Covid-19 pandemic, and, on the other hand, the significant negative impact of school closures on the lives of children and young people all around the world, from September 2020 onwards, most neoliberal Western governments opted for the reopening of their schools, notwithstanding the fact that in their countries the so-called “second wave” of the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to emerge (to reach its high point during the months of October and November 2020).

It thereby also became of vital importance to implement preventive measures specifically designed for reopening schools, as well as clear strategies for managing potential cases and outbreaks of Covid-19 in school settings.Footnote 158

As a result of all of this, by September 2020, at the start of the 2020/2021 academic year, the vast majority of countries belonging to the WHO European Region fully reopened schools,Footnote 159 albeit with plans for such school reopenings varying widely: e.g., high-income countries succeeded better than their lower income counterparts to reopen according to plans designed on beforehand and also succeeded better at prioritising school reopenings at pre-primary levels. The manner of school reopenings also varied widely, with more of the richer countries resorting to systems of “hybrid” or “blended” learning, i.e., based on a combination of distant and face-to-face learning.Footnote 160

8.4.2 Re-Opening Plans and Strategies

According to information provided in the Joint Report, by September 2020, most countries in the world had, either in full or in part, reopened their schools.Footnote 161

The Joint Report, moreover, mentions that there has been considerable variation in reopening methods and strategies across income groups. E.g., high-income countries succeeded far better in reopening their schools according to pre-drafted time schedules, while their counterparts belonging to other income groups had been more likely to fail in complying with pre-set reopening dates.Footnote 162 More than half of the countries in the world had, furthermore, based the reopening of their schools on systems of “hybrid” or “blended” learning, which came down to applying a combination of distant teaching and learning and face-to-face teaching and learning. Again, the approach a country chose varied largely by income group: In most schools from low-income countries, reopening was based on face-to-face teaching and learning alone. By contrast, schools from high and upper-middle income countries were more likely to resort to a combination of distant and face-to-face teaching and learning.Footnote 163

The countries’ re-opening plans in most cases included a widespread use of a variety of hygiene, physical and social distance and other measures for containing the spread of the Covid-19 virus. E.g., most countries resorted to adjusting the physical layout of schools and/or classrooms. Most low-income countries decided to prioritise certain grades, mainly at an upper secondary level. Most middle-income countries were, by contrast, more inclined to prioritise certain geographical areas (mainly based on the geographic spread of the Covid-19 virus). About 4 in 10 countries implemented student rotation aimed at reducing class sizes, albeit this measure was resorted to at slightly higher rates in middle-income countries.Footnote 164 The foregoing is further illustrated in Fig. 8.8, which gives a representation of the teaching and learning approaches as schools reopened, by income group.

Fig. 8.8
figure 8

Teaching and learning approaches as schools reopened, by income group [Source: UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank 2020, p. 35]

While most countries started reopening schools or set dates to do so, experiences with school reopening varied across countries: Low- and middle-income countries were more likely to face delays in school reopening. The return to school also looked different for children in different countries: Wealthier countries were more likely to reopen schools with a hybrid approach, and lower income countries were more likely to return to fully in-person teaching and learning.Footnote 165

Figure 8.9 gives an overview of the measures that were taken to manage school reopenings, by income group.

Fig. 8.9
figure 9

Measures to manage school reopening, by income group [Source: UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank 2020, p. 36]

8.4.3 Safeguard Measures and Health Protocols

8.4.3.1 General

The Joint Report mentions that all countries that participated in the survey referred to in this report had developed and approved specific health and hygiene (H&H) guidelines and measures for the reopening of their schools. These were in most cases very detailed and included a wide variety of practical measures such as: physical separation of students (in and outside classrooms), hand washing policy, cleaning and disinfection rules (especially with regard to furniture and other items), policies for the isolation of contaminated staff members or students … The H&H-guidelines, however, rarely mentioned testing for Covid-19 in school settings.Footnote 166

A matter of particular concern regarded the availability of the financial means necessary for financing these H&H-measures. Most of the high-income and upper-middle-income countries that partook in the survey referred to in the Joint Report, reported that they had sufficient resources to reopen schools safely. By contrast, most of their low-income and lower-middle-income counterparts indicated that this was not the case. Still, the schools of almost all countries were in need of additional financial resources above their usual budgets to ensure a safe return to physical, face-to-face teaching and learning. In countries where these additional financial needs could—at least in part—be met, this usually happened through additional public funding, in combination with support provided by external donors, the latter practice especially having occurred in low- and lower-middle-income countries. More than a third of the countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report, moreover, indicated that they expected increases in education budgets, e.g., in the form of support to households for spending on education. By contrast, one out of five of the countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report, reported reductions in education budgets, a practice that most frequently had occurred in low- and lower-middle-income countries.Footnote 167

8.4.3.2 Prevalence and Content of Health and Hygiene Protocols

As good as all of the countries surveyed in the Joint Report had developed and approved health and hygiene guidelines and measures that were specifically designed for school reopenings and that, moreover, showed little variation by origin group.Footnote 168 Of the 132 surveyed countries that had such health and hygiene guidelines and measures in place, (1) 98% declared that their guidelines and measures included one or more measures aimed at reducing person-to-person transmission of the Covid-19 virus, (2) 93% indicated that their guidelines and measures included one or more measures aimed at reducing exposure to the Covid-19 virus, and (3) 91% indicated that their guidelines and measures included one or more measures aimed at isolating infected or exposed staff and students (91%).Footnote 169

Among the measures most commonly included were the promotion of physical and social distancing, hand washing, and good respiratory hygiene. Measures that were only included in a bit more than half of the cases were general temperature monitoring, self-isolation of staff and students showing Covid-19 related symptoms, and the follow-up on contaminated or exposed staff and students. A mere 19% of the surveyed countries announced plans to start testing for Covid-19 at school level. In addition to these most commonly enforced measures, there was a variety of other measures that got resorted to in many cases and that were designed for protecting students on their way to and from school, such as regulating public transport, staggering student entry and exit times, and providing designated student drop-off areas.Footnote 170

Lo Moro, et al., made detailed lists of some of the most commonly resorted to measures in school settings, which have been summarized hereafter:Footnote 171

  1. (1)

    Physical distancing measures: Many authorities and/or schools themselves imposed physical distance riles, with distances that had to be kept between people present on school premises ranging from a minimum of 1 metre to a minimum of 2 m. Generally speaking, the distance that one was required to keep was greater between members of staff and students than between students among each other. More detailed and often imposed physical distancing measures included (1) guidelines with regard to the best using and/or reconfiguration of all available space in order to maximise physical distance in all circumstances, (2) signposting routes, (3) keeping measured distances, and (4) indicating specified waiting points (e.g., between school activities). The design of classrooms was in many cases re-adapted, e.g., by placing students side by side and facing in one direction, by removing all unnecessary furniture from classrooms in order to make space available for enhanced physical distancing, and by placing as few students as possible in a classroom at the same time.Footnote 172

    According to a further ECDC report (based on a survey conducted in EU/EEA countries), other recurring physical distancing measures were about not allowing children re-entry to the school premises after the formal start of the school day, closing communal play areas, and reducing class sizes as much as possible.Footnote 173

  2. (2)

    Measures to reduce physical and social interaction: Further measures aimed at reducing physical and social interaction could include reorganising school activities in order to limit social contact and to avoid mixing between pupils and staff members, reviewing timetables (e.g., based on staggered start and finish times for different groups of students), and using all entrances around the school to reduce crowds of students and staff members arriving and leaving at the same place and at the same time. Other measures concerned: regulating access to common areas—e.g., by staggering lunch and break times, by assigning fixed seating, and by the signposting of seats to be occupied. Some schools also had rules that mandated that, as far as possible, pupils and staff members had to remain in the same classroom, or had to be assigned to fixed clusters/groups, whose composition had to remain constant and whose members had to be separated as much as possible from other groups.Footnote 174

  3. (3)

    Respiratory etiquette and behavioural measures, such as: respiratory etiquette instructions, including with regard to sneezing, coughing and blowing into disposable tissues that had to be disposed of immediately in a closed waste bin; rules mandating that if a tissue was not (immediately) available, one had to sneeze or blow into a bent elbow; rules about avoiding certain forms of direct physical contact (e.g., touching, kissing, hugging or shaking hands); rules about avoiding to touch one’s face and/or face mask … Other measures that were resorted were aimed at avoiding the touching of certain publicly accessible objects (e.g., door handles or lift buttons), encouraging students to avoid behaviours that required hand-to-mouth contact (e.g., putting pens/pencils in the mouth), and discouraging the sharing of personal or educational materials.Footnote 175

  4. (4)

    Detailed hand hygiene measures: More detailed hang hygiene rules dealt with the promotion and reinforcement of hand hygiene practices, such as recommendations to always use warm water and soap and to always dry one’s hands with a disposable paper towel or tissue, or in the open air. Hand hygiene was in many schools carefully monitored and performed at regular intervals, including at arrival at school, before eating or drinking, after using the toilet, after playing outside, when hands were physically dirty, and after coughing or sneezing. In many schools, more hand sanitiser dispensers than before were installed at many locations, such as at school and classroom entry and exit points. Hand hygiene in many schools, moreover, occurred under strict adult supervision, which was especially the case in primary schools or for pupils with special needs.Footnote 176

  5. (5)

    Guidelines on ventilation, cleaning and disinfection: The importance of ensuring adequate ventilation of all areas of the school premises was widely recognized by most schools.

    Measures of enhanced ventilation, e.g., concerned ventilation before and after the use of entry and exit points, during break times, at the end of the day, at the beginning and end of all classes, during cleaning operations, and, in general, every so many—e.g., 3—hours. In some schools, it also got mandatory to resort to ventilation for at least 15 min in a row. Some schools also mandated that windows and/or (certain) doors had to be left open at all times.

    In a similar manner, cleaning and disinfection were considered essential in all schools. Guidelines were issued that mandated that floors, surfaces and a variety of accessories (used in classes) had to be cleaned at least once a day, with further rules about enhanced or additional cleaning, and/or more frequently cleaning of certain objects, such as often touched surfaces (e.g., door handles, desks …). Many schools also resorted to rules on the frequent cleaning of toilets (e.g., at least two or three times a day). There were in many schools also detailed rules on the cleaning of classrooms and tools between usage by different groups/clusters.Footnote 177

  6. (6)

    Measures concerning physical activity at school: Many schools had rules saying that outdoor activities, when possible, were to be preferred above inside activities. In the latter case, it was ruled that in rooms where physical activities took place, ventilation had to be maximised and that, during such physical activities, a sufficient physical distance between students had to be maintained, e.g., 2 or 3 m. In many schools, it became policy that during physical activities, pupils did not have to wear masks or headgear. There were also rules stipulating that physical activities could only occur between the same groups/clusters of students. Other rules held that individual sports were to be preferred above group sports, and that hand hygiene had to be ensured at all times. There were also rules aimed at minimising the sharing of equipment and about the cleaning of shared equipment.Footnote 178

  7. (7)

    Measures concerning school transport: With regard to school transport, school rules often made the wearing of face masks compulsory, especially for children above a given age threshold, often 11 years but in some cases even 6 years. A variety of other measures were in many cases resorted to for making school transport safer, such as: the provision of staggered drop-off/pick-up times; imposing discretion during boarding/disembarkation and travel; imposing hand hygiene before boarding and upon disembarkation … In some countries, there were rules about the maximum occupation of school vehicles, in many cases limiting it to two-thirds of the vehicle’s normal capacity. Other rules dealt with the provision of adequate and frequent cleaning and ventilation of transport vehicles, and/or mandated that disinfectants had to be available at all times aboard the vehicles. There were also rules about the use of seat markers and/or the assignment of fixed seats for the duration of the entire academic year. Other measures were aimed at ensuring that the same cohort/group of students was formed for each trip. Finally, many school simply encouraged walking and bicycling to school.Footnote 179

  8. (8)

    Measures concerning school canteens: Upon school reopenings, school canteens were reopened in most countries as well. The main measures that got issued for canteens included a face mask wearing requirement until sitting down, keeping physical distance, banning buffets, resorting to staggering serving times, offering students the possibility of eating in classrooms, organising separate mealtimes and/or areas for bubbles/clusters of students, and strict policies on cleaning up after each use.Footnote 180

  9. (9)

    In the above-mentioned ECDC survey, Covid-19 testing and screening has been indicated as one of the measures least frequently resorted to as part of the public policy with regard of the reopening of schools. In the rare cases that such testing was available, this included general temperature screening, besides more targeted screening of pupils (e.g., symptom screening, testing of students showing symptoms, and isolation of students that tested positive).Footnote 181

8.4.3.3 Resources for Implementing Health and Hygiene Protocols

Overall, 74% of the countries that partook in the survey mentioned in the Joint Report indicated that they had sufficient resources at their disposal for complying with school-specific hygiene and containment measures, ranging from basic items, such as soap, disinfectants and face masks, and basic infrastructure, such as clean water and hand-washing facilities. However, there were again wide variations between countries by income level. More in particular, the percentages of countries having enough resources at their disposal amounted to about 50% for the group of low- and lower-middle-income countries, compared to 80% for the group of upper-middle-income countries and to 95% for the group of high-income countries.Footnote 182

The sources of financial funding that schools had access to for acquiring the resources, commodities and/or infrastructure needed for ensuring a sound health and hygiene policy, mainly came from their own government allocations or from a combination of such allocations and other income sources. E.g., external donors, were reported to contribute to schools’ health and hygiene funding in one out of two countries, mainly low-income countries. More in particular, 89% of the group of low-income countries and 80% of the group of lower-middle-income countries declared that they received external funding for implementing their health and hygiene policy, while this percentage only amounted to 50% for the group of upper-middle-income countries and to 21% for the group of high-income countries.Footnote 183

8.4.4 Risks to Staff

In the ECDC-report already referred to before, reference was made to findings by the WHO that in schools (1) staff-to-staff transmission was more common than other forms of transmission and (2) when outbreaks occurred, the Covid-19 virus had been most likely introduced by an adult staff member rather than by a student.Footnote 184

8.4.5 Evaluation of the Impact of the Reopening of Schools

To the extent that schools (other than HEIs) were not the primary site of Covid-19 transmission, an increase in cases was unlikely to occur upon the reopening of schools, at least provided that general community transmission was at sufficiently low levels. However, it was at the same time assumed that an increase in cases was not likely to occur within a time frame of two months after the relaxation of any given NPI measure. In addition, the effect of the reopening of schools was hard to measure due to collateral effects of such a measure, notably the fact that the reopening of schools for physical, face-to-face teaching and learning at the same time allowed more other people—notably the parents of small(ler) children—to return to their physical (on-site) work environments and to have more social contracts within the wider community, especially with colleagues at work.Footnote 185

In cases where the school reopenings went hand in hand with the relaxation of other NPIs, modelling studies referred to by the ECDC, have indicated that there has been a subsequent increase in Covid-19 contamination cases. This, e.g., helps explaining the peaks in Covid-19 contamination that occurred in December 2020. However, this finding still does not make it easy, or even possible, to isolate the effect of school reopenings on Covid-19 contamination case rates, particularly to the extent that school reopenings went accompanied by the relaxation of a variety of other NPI measures as well.Footnote 186

Still according to the ECDC, the start of the school year in a setting of reopened schools that occurred throughout the countries of the EU/EEA somewhere between mid-August and mid-September 2020, has not been associated with increased Covid-19 contamination cases in children.Footnote 187 Similarly, in spring 2020, when on 15 April 2020, after school closures with a duration of a month, Denmark had allowed children aged 2 to 12 years to physically return to school, there was no increase in contamination cases.Footnote 188

8.5 Conclusions

The debate on the closure and reopening of schools is probably one of the most difficult to grasp.

What is abundantly clear is that the international agencies that oversee learning and education (i.e., UNESCO) and children (i.e., UNICEF), supported by The World Bank and the United Nations, were unanimous in their view that school closures were detrimental in many aspects, a view they made known to the world shortly after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For these international institutions, the small impact of keeping schools open on Covid-19 contaminations and deaths did not outweigh the many disadvantages of closing schools, even in cases (such as in the Western world) where remote learning systems could be easily deployed.

However, it is less clear whether these views were motivated solely by concern for the welfare of school-age children themselves, or also by other (socio)economic concerns. Be this as it may, research has indicated that school closures, for a variety of reasons, came at an enormous economic cost. In addition, school closures also became a factor of concern in the debate on the reopening of economies (cf., furthermore, in Sect. 7.10) that erupted in many Western countries briefly after the first lockdowns, with on the one hand neoliberal politicians and business leaders calling for such a reopening, and on the other hand many scientists and experts, urging that a sufficient degree of caution be maintained. In this process of reopening economies, it should be noted that for many proponents of reopening the economy, the reopening of schools formed an ideal solution to some perceived problems of working at home. Having your children home while working was seen as a hinderance to productivity. Insofar as the call to reopen schools came in the wake of the call to reopen economies, this element remains difficult to ignore.

In all of this, the fact that the risk of Covid-19 contamination was low in the context of school settings, has in our view, been treated somewhat lightly. Even if the risk of Covid-19 contamination and transmission was low in the context of school settings, it still remained a risk. This risk also had to be balanced against the reality that the Covid-19 virus follows exponential (and non-linear) contagion and mortality curves, so that any degree of contagion was by definition one too many. These concerns, moreover, applied all the more in the context of the emergence of new variants of the Covid-19 virus - with all their unknown consequences (such as a different degree of contagiousness; a different evolution of the disease, e.g., with regard to young people; resistance of the variants to vaccines …).Footnote 189

The question, therefore, remains, especially for Western countries, whether the possibilities offered by the new technologies have not been dismissed too quickly. It is to be hoped that the various developments in technologically enabled remote learning will be further explored in the post-Covid era. Aside from the pedagogical potential, today’s e-learning tools, could contribute to solving a variety of other societal problems. E.g., alleviating traffic jams and the resulting pollution, better planning of lessons and better management of teachers’ and students’ time, dealing with staff shortages, solving the problem of a lack of space in many schools and HEIs, saving on buildings (a huge cost for many institutions) and all that goes with it (maintenance, heating, etc.).

Without arguing for the disappearance of physical schools altogether, one could at least try to aim at hybrid organizational forms based on a mix between physical and virtual school settings, which could also help with pulling education from the dusty blackboards of the past, into a twenty-first century technological environment.

Notes

  1. 1.

    This report was based on a survey among 108 countries for which responses were received from 15 July 2020 until 15 October 2020, with 20 August 2020 being the average date on which countries responded. (Cf. UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 6.)

  2. 2.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 12.

  3. 3.

    Roe et al. (2021); Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 8.

  4. 4.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 1.

  5. 5.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 1.

  6. 6.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 5.

  7. 7.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 12.

  8. 8.

    Roe et al. (2021).

  9. 9.

    International Labour Organisation (2020).

  10. 10.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 6–7.

    For a similar global survey, focusing in particular on higher education, cf. Marinoni et al. (2020). Indeed, in order to better understand the disruption caused by Covid-19 on higher education and to investigate the first steps taken by higher education institutions worldwide for responding to the Covid-19 crisis, already at an early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, the International Association of Universities (IAU), decided to launch the so-called “the IAU Global Survey on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education around the world”. This survey was available online and open from 25 March 2020 to 17 April 2020 (cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 8). What made the IAU global survey unique was that it attempted to capture a description of the impact of Covid-19 globally and on higher education in a broad sense, including all areas of teaching and learning, research and community engagement missions of universities and other higher education institutions (“HEIs”). (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 9.)

  11. 11.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 6.

  12. 12.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 7.

  13. 13.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 11.

  14. 14.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 16.

  15. 15.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 16.

  16. 16.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 16.

  17. 17.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 16.

  18. 18.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 7–8.

  19. 19.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 7–8.

  20. 20.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 9.

  21. 21.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 9–10.

  22. 22.

    According to the Joint Report, reallocations within the education budget were announced to take place in about two-thirds of middle-income countries, and half of high-income countries. While, moreover, only 19% of the responding high- or middle-income countries had already experienced, or anticipated, decreases in the education budget for 2020 and 2021, more than a third of low- and lower-middle-income countries had reported this situation. (Cf. UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 10.)

  23. 23.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21; European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2021), pp. 13–14.

  24. 24.

    According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, there still were many modelling studies on the impact of school closures on reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission which share some common limitations, such as: varying assumptions about children’s susceptibility and infectiousness; difficulties in distinguishing the impact of school closure from that of other NPIs (including workplace closures and teleworking policies); the scale of analysis tends to be national, whereas transmission and NPI measures may vary at sub-national levels; and difficulties in accounting for (or not accounting for) different mitigation measures at school. Another general limitation was that models did not generally distinguish between the closure of different types of schools, e.g., between primary and secondary schools. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 21.)

  25. 25.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  26. 26.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  27. 27.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  28. 28.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  29. 29.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2021), p. 14.

    A Danish study of a much later date was based on the assumption that children under 10 years of age were 50% less susceptible to Covid-19 infection than adults. This modelling study indicated that, under the presumption that all other containment measures were kept constant, the opening of only primary schools (grades 0-4) in February 2021 would not have led to a substantial increase in new Covid-19 contamination cases or hospitalisations, provided that the transmissibility of the B.1.1.7. variant increased by only 40% compared to previously circulating strains of the Covid-19 virus. By contrast, if the relative infection rate was 1.55 or 1.7, there would be a substantial increase in new daily cases and hospitalizations by April 2021. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2021, p. 14.)

  30. 30.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  31. 31.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  32. 32.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  33. 33.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

    According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, more powerful empirical and modelling studies comparing the first and second waves of Covid-19 with regard to several countries were expected to provide additional information on the effects of school closures on Covid-19 transmission. E.g., studies that model a range of assumptions about child infectivity, distinguish between primary and secondary school closures, consider school closures in a range of community transmission scenarios, and distinguish between the direct and indirect impact of school closures on Covid-19 transmission if other measures (such as workplace closures and telecommuting) are in place, were thereby to be given priority. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 21.)

  34. 34.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 14.

  35. 35.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 14.

  36. 36.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 14.

  37. 37.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 14.

  38. 38.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 15.

  39. 39.

    “Respondents answered the surveys during the period July–October. While there is a possibility that durations of school closure could be correlated to when the survey was filled out, there is no clear pattern in the data that would indicate a bias in either direction in the numbers reported here. Caution is advised in generalizing the results represented in the figure as the countries that responded to this question cover less than 50% of the total 4–17 year old population” [UNESCO, UNICEF, The World Bank 2020, p. 15]

  40. 40.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 16.

  41. 41.

    Borkowski et al. (2021), p. 6.

  42. 42.

    Marmot et al. (2020), p. 32.

  43. 43.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 16.

  44. 44.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 16.

  45. 45.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 17.

  46. 46.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 17–18.

  47. 47.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 17–18.

  48. 48.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 17–18.

  49. 49.

    Cf. Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 30.

  50. 50.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), pp. 30–31.

  51. 51.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

  52. 52.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

  53. 53.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

  54. 54.

    Marmot et al. (2020), p. 30.

  55. 55.

    It has indeed been found that children were at increased risk of domestic violence during times of school closures. In these circumstances, children no longer had regular face-to-face interaction with teachers and other school staff members who, in normal circumstances, can be the ones to detect and report such abuse. An important element in this regard is that, outside school settings, children do not have an external social network or other support system for dealing with abuse at home. Beyond the immediate damaging effects, child abuse and neglect can also have long-term effects, including mental health problems, sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancies and substance abuse. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 18.)

  56. 56.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 18.

  57. 57.

    Marmot et al. (2020), p. 30.

  58. 58.

    Einhorn (2020).

  59. 59.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 18.

  60. 60.

    Einhorn (2020).

  61. 61.

    Cf. https://schoolhouseconnection.org. Accessed on 15 May 2021.

  62. 62.

    Einhorn (2020).

  63. 63.

    Einhorn (2020).

  64. 64.

    Einhorn (2020).

  65. 65.

    Einhorn (2020).

  66. 66.

    Einhorn (2020).

  67. 67.

    Einhorn (2020).

  68. 68.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 18.

  69. 69.

    Stelitano et al. (2020), p. 2.

  70. 70.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

    According to the study undertaken by these authors, a substantial proportion of parents reported positive experiences of home-schooling for the children and for themselves. E.g., the proportion of parents reporting positive experiences of home-schooling was even higher than that of parents reporting negative experiences in both Sweden and the Netherlands. (Cf. Thorell et al. 2021.)

  71. 71.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

  72. 72.

    Thorell et al. (2021).

  73. 73.

    United Nations (2020).

  74. 74.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), pp. 18–19.

  75. 75.

    Mamot et al. (2021), p. 30.

  76. 76.

    Borkowski et al. (2021).

  77. 77.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), pp. 18–19.

  78. 78.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

  79. 79.

    United Nations Children’s Fund and International Telecommunication Union (2020), p. 4.

  80. 80.

    United Nations Children’s Fund and International Telecommunication Union (2020), p. 7.

  81. 81.

    United Nations Children’s Fund and International Telecommunication Union (2020), p. 7.

  82. 82.

    Stelitano et al. (2020), p. 3.

  83. 83.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), pp. 18–19.

  84. 84.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

  85. 85.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19. Cf., for the OECD study on which this assessment has been based: Hanushek and Woessmann (2020).

  86. 86.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

  87. 87.

    Hanushek and Woessmann (2020). Cf., furthermore, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

  88. 88.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

  89. 89.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 19.

    Costs could however also be lower, depending on the evolution of the educational model resorted to, especially when schools moved from “virtual learning” to “blended” or “correspondence” learning. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 19.)

  90. 90.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), pp. 10–11.

    These results were based on 424 complete responses from single HEIs located in 109 countries and two special administrative regions of China (notably Hong Kong and Macao). The results were analysed both globally and regionally with regard to four world regions (namely Africa, the Americas, Asia & Pacific and Europe). However, the authors of the study pointed out that while Africa and Europe were over-represented in their survey, the Americas and Asia & Pacific were under-represented. The authors of the study also pointed to the fact that the profile of respondents was broad, with faculty members (20%), head teachers (17%) and international office heads (16%) being the most common respondents. (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 10.)

  91. 91.

    According to Sahu, the Covid-19 outbreak had, obviously, led to chaos for airlines on a global scale. As countries around the world started closing their international borders in order to mitigate or contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, HEI administrations started urging their staff members to postpone all participation in any event that would require international travel until normalcy would again be restored. However, many staff members had already made expenses related to such international activities, such as having paid for conference fees, hotel or other living accommodations and airway tickets. There was, obviously, much confusion among staff members how to deal with such situations. (Cf. Sahu 2020.)

  92. 92.

    Sahu (2020).

  93. 93.

    Sahu (2020).

  94. 94.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 27.

  95. 95.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 27.

  96. 96.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 28.

    Only with regard to Europe was the survey option “International students are anchored in our own institution” indicated by more than half of the HEIs concerned (53%). This was also a common impact reported by HEIs based in Africa (but with a lower percentage of HEIs, namely 38%), Asia and the Pacific (with 45% of HEIs, where the percentage was the same as for “Student exchanges with certain countries have been cancelled”), while in the Americas it concerned the third most common impact (having occurred in 40% of the surveyed HEIs). The most common impact in the Americas was “Student exchanges with some countries have been cancelled” (namely in 49% of the surveyed HEIs). (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 28.)

  97. 97.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 19.

  98. 98.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 20.

  99. 99.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 21.

  100. 100.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 21.

  101. 101.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 10.

  102. 102.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 8.

  103. 103.

    UNICEF (2021), p. 8.

  104. 104.

    Cf. Roe et al. (2021). Cf., furthermore, UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 21.

  105. 105.

    Cf. UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 21–22; Roe et al. (2021).

    E.g., while Rwandan children were receiving educational content via radio, several other African countries, including Côte d'Ivoire, implemented televised classrooms, an initiative that was based on recording lessons for broadcast on national television. (Cf. Roe et al. 2021.)

  106. 106.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 22.

  107. 107.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 23.

  108. 108.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 23.

  109. 109.

    Goodman (2021).

  110. 110.

    Sahu (2020).

  111. 111.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 23.

  112. 112.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 23.

  113. 113.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 23.

  114. 114.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 24.

  115. 115.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 24.

  116. 116.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), pp. 24–25.

    An interesting solution for this problem that was pursued by one of the surveyed HEIs consisted of providing and distributing technical equipment (such as tablets or phones) to students in order to minimise disruption and inequal treatment. (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 25.)

  117. 117.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 25.

  118. 118.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 25.

  119. 119.

    E.g., music students can usually not achieve good results when only working at home and when being deprived of the necessary equipment for enhancing their skills. Indeed, practice in and with orchestras, and/or practice in the physical presence of a teacher or of fellow students, could not be replaced at the same level by solely relying on isolated practice. Performing the more practical aspects of such studies was therefore particularly challenging, especially to the extent that the teaching provided during a closed online session was often limited to the theoretical dimension of the study curriculum. (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 26.)

  120. 120.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), pp. 25–26.

    Obviously, the minimum-prerequisite concerned the availability of a technical infrastructure. It is, hence, not surprising that HEIs operating within areas with unreliable infrastructure experienced more difficulties during the Covid-19 crisis. Similarly, students who did not have the necessary access to online communication tools (including the internet) were among those hardest hit. This has been indicated as one more reason why the Covid-19 crisis has further exacerbated already existing inequalities. (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 26.)

  121. 121.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 26.

  122. 122.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 26. The authors added: “Time will show to what extent these opportunities will be explored or whether there will be a return to business as usual.” (Cf. Marinoni et al. 2020, p. 26.)

    To address some of these challenges, the European Commission announced in 2020 a new “Action Plan” setting out a vision for improving digital literacy, skills and competences at all levels of education and training, and for all levels of digital competences (basic to advanced). The Action Plan supports the “Skills Agenda” target of ensuring that 70% of 16–74 year olds have at least basic digital skills by 2025. (Cf. European Commission 2020, p. 4.)

  123. 123.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 25.

  124. 124.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 25.

  125. 125.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 25.

  126. 126.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 25.

  127. 127.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 25.

  128. 128.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 26.

  129. 129.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 28.

  130. 130.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 28.

  131. 131.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 29.

  132. 132.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 29.

  133. 133.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 29.

  134. 134.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 29.

  135. 135.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 29.

  136. 136.

    Cf. Roe et al. (2021).

    Norway is mentioned as a particularly interesting case in terms of education and Covid-19, due to the vast technological infrastructure available in the country. Home internet access among the Norwegian population has been repeatedly measured at 98%. In addition, overall access to technology for Norwegian students has always been high and well above the European average for the student/laptop ratio. (Cf. Roe et al. 2021.)

  137. 137.

    Cf. Roe et al. (2021).

    According to these authors, ICT infrastructure is an obvious prerequisite for the integration of digital technology in education. Since the 1990s, the issue of access has dominated the ICT discourse in many countries, and many schools have reported pressure to provide individual access (1,1) to all their students, with “1:1” implying that one digital device provided by the school itself, is available per student. However, research has indicated that such access is by itself not a reliable indicator of the actual implementation and adoption of digital technology by teachers. Research in Norway, e.g., has highlighted the critical gap between simply providing access to students and effectively preparing teachers to actually use the technology in their daily teaching. (Cf. Roe et al. 2021.)

  138. 138.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 31.

  139. 139.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 31–32.

  140. 140.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 31–32.

  141. 141.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 31–32.

  142. 142.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 32.

  143. 143.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 20.

  144. 144.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 20.

  145. 145.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 20.

  146. 146.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 20.

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    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 21.

  148. 148.

    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 21.

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    Marinoni et al. (2020), p. 21.

  150. 150.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

  151. 151.

    By contrast, there was at the time already consensus among scientists that symptomatic youngsters and children could effectively spread the Covid-19 infection in the manner as contaminated adults. Research data that were at the time available also indicated that there did not appear to exist a correlation between age and viral load, suggesting that children and young people could carry the same (high) levels of virus. (Cf. Lo Moro et al. 2020.)

  152. 152.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

  153. 153.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020). Cf., furthermore, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 4.

  154. 154.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 11.

    According to a (very) wide variety of research studies referred to by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (as quoted and summarised hereafter), schools appeared to be but a small minority of the settings leading to Covid-19 transmission in countries that collected data on suspected locations of infection-transmission, while countries with comprehensive data on school-based Covid-19 contamination cases had only found a very low prevalence (<1%) of SARS-CoV-2. A case-control study with regard to the United States about 397 children that had been infected with Covid-19 had, moreover, found that attendance at a school or child day-care centre in the 2 weeks prior to testing positive for Covid-19, was not associated with an increased likelihood of Covid-19 infection, while infected children were far more likely to have participated in other social activities and gatherings with people outside their home. Similarly, studies with regard to England and Germany had reached the conclusion that Covid-19 outbreaks in schools only represented a relatively small proportion of all Covid-19 outbreaks during periods when schools were open. From a prospective, cross-sectional analysis on educational institutions in England, it appeared that Covid-19 infections and outbreaks were rare in educational institutions during the summer term, when schools had been open. In addition, a strong association with community transmission was observed: more in particular, the risk of an epidemic in an educational institution increased by 72% (or 95CI: 28-130) for each increase in community incidence of five Covid-19 contamination cases per 100,000. Most of the outbreak cases, moreover, involved staff members rather than (only) children, with the most likely directions of Covid-19 transmission observed having been staff-to-staff (26 of the outbreaks), staff-to-student (eight of the outbreaks), student-to-staff (16 of the outbreaks) and student-to-student (only five of the outbreaks). Surveys with regard to Germany, France, Ireland, Australia, Singapore and the United States had found no or very low secondary Covid-19 outbreak rates in preschools, primary schools and secondary schools. A contact tracing study with regard to Italy had identified a secondary Covid-19 attack rate of 0% in infant and toddler centres, 0.44% in primary schools, but a higher rate of 6.46% in secondary schools. In Norway, a prospective contact tracing study of paediatric Covid-19 cases, which followed 13 index cases and 292 contacts in primary schools, found very low secondary attack rates: less than 1% among child contacts and less than 2% among adult staff contacts. The above-mentioned studies with regard to Australia and the United States also reported outbreaks in preschools. A report on Salt Lake City, USA, had, e.g., identified three childcare facilities where 22 confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been identified among 101 staff members and children. In Poland, a cluster of 29 Covid-19 contamination cases had been indicated as having arisen from a probable index case of an adult working in a day care centre. The authors of said research had from this concluded that the attack rate of Covid-19 infections was high in children, although not providing specific attack rates. With regard to adult-to-child transmission in schools, the studies with regard to Poland, Australia and Finland referred to adults as index cases in schools, leading to secondary transmission in children, although in the Finnish study, household or community transmission for some of the child cases was not excluded. Studies with regard to Germany and Italy, on the other hand, suggested that if a child got infected with Covid-19 by an adult, it was more likely to be in the home setting than in a school setting. According to these studies, rates of transmission to adults, whether by children or adults, in school settings, have rarely been reported. A study with regard to educational institutions in Australia noted an overall child-to-adult attack rate of 1.0%. Staff members have been reported to be infected in other school outbreaks, such as those reported in Poland, Israel, Rhode Island (United States) and Salt Lake City (United States), but no specific data on the secondary attack rate were provided (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 11.)

  155. 155.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

    E.g., school closures were reported to have led to a variety of mental health problems among children and young people, while school closures also implied that children and young people in need did no longer have access to mental health services. Similarly, as schools are one of the most important sources for detecting and/or reporting child abuse, school closures also hampered the reporting of child abuse. (Cf. Lo Moro et al. 2020; cf., furthermore, Sect. 8.2.3. for more details on this matter.)

  156. 156.

    UNESCO (2020).

  157. 157.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 34.

    The appeal of António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, was as follows (cf. United Nations 2020): “We already faced a learning crisis before the pandemic. More than 250 million school-age children were out of school. And only a quarter of secondary school children in developing countries were leaving school with basic skills. Now we face a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities. The knock-on effects on child nutrition, child marriage and gender equality, among others, are deeply concerning. This is the backdrop to the Policy Brief I am launching today, together with a new campaign with education partners and United Nations agencies called ‘Save our Future’. We are at a defining moment for the world’s children and young people. The decisions that governments and partners take now will have lasting impact on hundreds of millions of young people, and on the development prospects of countries for decades to come. This Policy Brief calls for action in four key areas: First, reopening schools. Once local transmission of COVID-19 is under control, getting students back into schools and learning institutions as safely as possible must be a top priority. We have issued guidance to help governments in this complex endeavor. It will be essential to balance health risks against risks to children’s education and protection, and to factor in the impact on women’s labour force participation. Consultation with parents, carers, teachers and young people is fundamental. Second, prioritizing education in financing decisions. Before the crisis hit, low and middle-income countries already faced an education funding gap of $1.5 trillion dollars a year. This gap has now grown. Education budgets need to be protected and increased. And it is critical that education is at the heart of international solidarity efforts, from debt management and stimulus packages to global humanitarian appeals and official development assistance. Third, targeting the hardest to reach. Education initiatives must seek to reach those at greatest risk of being left behind – people in emergencies and crises; minority groups of all kinds; displaced people and those with disabilities. They should be sensitive to the specific challenges faced by girls, boys, women and men, and should urgently seek to bridge the digital divide. Fourth, the future of education is here. We have a generational opportunity to reimagine education. We can take a leap towards forward-looking systems that deliver quality education for all as a springboard for the Sustainable Development Goals. To achieve this, we need investment in digital literacy and infrastructure, an evolution towards learning how to learn, a rejuvenation of life-long learning and strengthened links between formal and non-formal education. And we need to draw on flexible delivery methods, digital technologies and modernized curricula while ensuring sustained support for teachers and communities. As the world faces unsustainable levels of inequality, we need education – the great equalizer – more than ever. We must take bold steps now, to create inclusive, resilient, quality education systems fit for the future.” (Cf. United Nations 2020.)

  158. 158.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020); UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 34.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 33.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 34.

  162. 162.

    In addition to the increase in Covid-19 contamination cases, the delays that occurred in other than high-income countries have been attributed, at least in part, to the absence of resources for ensuring the safe reopening of schools, as discussed in more detail in the next subsection. (Cf. UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank 2020, p. 34.)

  163. 163.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), pp. 34–35.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 36.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 36.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 33.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 33.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 37.

    Only one country responded that no such guidelines had been produced or approved, and sixteen other countries responded that this information was not known. (Cf. UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank 2020, p. 37.)

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 37.

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    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 37.

  171. 171.

    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 14.

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020). Cf., furthermore, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 14.

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    Lo Moro et al. (2020).

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    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 14.

  182. 182.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 38.

  183. 183.

    UNESCO, UNICEF and The World Bank (2020), p. 38.

  184. 184.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 12.

    The ECDC made reference to several other studies for backing these statements. E.g., data provided by the Swedish Public Health Agency had linked case-based data with regard to the period from 15 March until 19 October 2020 to occupational registers and had come to the conclusion that teachers in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools were not at increased risk of being diagnosed with Covid-19, compared to other occupational groups. However, the researchers did find an increased risk among school headmasters for all grade levels. The study referred to did thereby not differentiate the risk between teachers of children aged 6–12 and teachers of children aged 13–15. In addition, the study mainly covered the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, which may not be entirely representative for the second wave where community transmission had been identified in all age groups. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 12.)

    Data with regard to the period from 2 September (start of the school year) until 16 October 2020 in the United Kingdom (England) showed no difference in Covid-19 positivity rates between primary and secondary school teachers and other occupations. A similar pattern was observed when including teachers’ household members, where no evidence of differences in positivity rates was noted. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 12.)

    Finally, an analysis of national data on occupation and risk of Covid-19 infection and hospitalisation up to 20 October 2020 provided by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health found that, when the data were adjusted for age, sex and country of birth, teachers were not at significantly higher risk of Covid-19 infection. However, labourers in kindergartens and nurseries had a moderately higher risk of serious illness if infected with Covid-19 than the general Norwegian workforce. National data with regard to Denmark similarly indicated that rates of Covid-19 infection among people working in the education sector did not differ from those of other working adults. Other countries even reported a lower prevalence among teachers than among the average population. E.g., France reported that 0.09% (1020/1,162,850) of teaching staff had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 on 27 November 2020 and Austria reported that 0.6% of tests had been positive among teachers from a sample of 10,000 gargle tests performed on students and staff in educational institutions between September and October 2020. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 12.)

  185. 185.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  186. 186.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

    With regard to situation that occurred in December 2020, it was observed that the colder weather of the winter season had pushed people indoors which in its own turn also led to an increased mix of children and adults in various settings throughout communities. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 21.)

  187. 187.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

  188. 188.

    European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (2020), p. 21.

    The ECDC, furthermore, referred to various similar research results, some of which with regard to other territories. E.g., it was indicated that South Korea had not experienced a sudden increase in paediatric contamination cases after the gradual reopening of its schools between April and June 2020, while Finland had not reported an increase in paediatric hospitalization cases after the reopening of its childcare centres. A study in England, similarly, found that clusters and outbreaks of Covid-19 had been rare among all educational institutions during the first month after the reopening of schools, when a national lockdown measure had been lifted. Similarly, a German study noted a very low proportion of school disruptions among all Covid-19 outbreaks after reopening in April 2020 and the introduction of mitigation measures in schools, which led to the conclusion that school-based Covid-19 transmission was limited. A modelling study with regard to Shanghai, furthermore, showed that schools could be reopened without causing excessive Covid-19 transmission, provided that daily contact between children aged 10–19 years could be reduced to 33% of baseline levels. Finally, a large outbreak in a high school in Israel was linked to high community transmission and failure to implement in-school mitigation measures, resulting in a reactive closure of the school within 13 days of reopening. (Cf. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control 2020, p. 21.)

  189. 189.

    A personal experience in our extended circle of friends has certainly left its mark: the teenage daughter of one of our friends contracted Covid-19, although it is not clear whether this was at school or outside of school, after which the entire family sharing the same households—parents and grandparents—also got contaminated, which ultimately led to the grandmother’s death from Covid-19 shortly afterwards. This is also what experts warned about when HEIs had reopened in September 2020, a factor that contributed to the heavy second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe. (Cf. Sect. 2.4.)

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Byttebier, K. (2022). Covid-19 and Schools. In: Covid-19 and Capitalism. Economic and Financial Law & Policy – Shifting Insights & Values, vol 7. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-92901-5_8

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