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
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).
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
220.127.116.11 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
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.
Examinations are used to certify or select students belonging to a given grade or age group with regard to further education, training or employment.
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:
teachers’ monitoring of learning outcomes and the corresponding monitoring tool;
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
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
18.104.22.168 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
22.214.171.124 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
126.96.36.199 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
188.8.131.52 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
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
International students being trapped in a host HEI.
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