UNPLANNED SCHOOL CLOSURES : IMPACT AND EMPIRICAL REVIEW

In rich and poor countries alike, measures restricting movement or even outright confinement have had significant impacts on education systems. Within days, schools and universities closed in many countries around the world, leaving pupils and students but also parents and teachers, facing major challenges. Differences in the economic levels of countries, the energy and telecommunication capacities, the skills of teachers and the dynamism of educational teams have led to the Covid-19 pandemic emergence of a highly heterogeneous map of how this educational crisis has been handled with a deepening of divides between countries and an increase in the social inequalities surrounding education. Often, in the aftermath of a conflict, we often referred to a “lost generation”, referring to the youth deprived of education by war in the countries concerned. This time, the problem is not militaristic but biological, and is indeed global in scope. 

Over the course of Covid-19 pandemic health crisis, one of the issues that has not been sufficiently addressed has been the impact of confinement due to Covid-19 on the education sector. While most countries in the world have sought to maintain educational continuity, the transition to remote learning has been made more or less quickly and it seems that in many cases it has not been truly effective. For many regions, the closure of schools has simply meant that parents have been told to keep their children at home, with no alternatives. Statistics give us an idea of the magnitude of the number of people affected by school closures. According to UNESCO, nearly 1.6 billion students have been impacted at the maximum point of school closures, or 91% of the total student population. This number, often mentioned in the official discourse surrounding the impact of the health crisis on the education sector is only part of the equation. The true impact on students will only be known in the coming months and years. However, it is already clear that this crisis has had a significant impact on students in terms of knowledge acquisition, social and psychological development and even in terms of economic and food security. We can identify these consequences in general.  Firstly, the issue of the loss of knowledge acquisition. Many students have seen their learning lose quality or even disappear completely during the period of confinement. A break in learning that continues for more than 60% of learners forced out of school. This break will already have had a huge impact on young people in terms of potential loss of knowledge education.

Economists have tried to quantify the potential cognitive impact that stopping school due to COVID-19 will have. By extrapolating from the studies by Carlsson et al (2015) and Lavy (2015), published well before the start of the COVID-19 crisis, they nevertheless estimate the order of magnitude of the impact that this disruption will have on student learning. Using the two different methods mentioned in the studies above, the economists estimate a drop in test results of about 6% of the standard deviation after 12 weeks of confinement without schooling. This is not negligible: indeed, lower scores on standardized tests are correlated with greater difficulty in finding a job and lower pay, especially true for tests near the end of a teenager’s schooling.

The World Bank has begun to quantify the potential economic impact of lost school time. It has created different models depending on the mitigation measures put in place to address loss of learning (a loss reduced in particular by using implementing educational continuity, e.g. through remote education). Some economic estimates indicate an alarming loss resulting from this period: A loss of 0.6 years of learning (their ‘intermediate’ outcome, between their optimistic and pessimistic projections), adjusted for variations in learning quality could cause an average wage reduction of USD 872 in annual wages over the lives of current primary and secondary school students (in other terms more than USD 16,000 over the course of their working lives).  Using this number, the World Bank extrapolated that without an effective response to school closures, the world could stand to lose up to US$10 trillion over the lives of these people – a daunting number which calls for investments to ensure that this loss of learning is minimized.

Finally, another important aspect of school is the social learning it generates. Beyond cognitive learning, school is vital as a setting for social learning: the links between students and with teachers are vital for the personal development of each child. Knowing how to express oneself, how to listen to others, how to respect diversity and more abstractly how to respect the ‘social contract’ is difficultly learned from books. Confined to their homes, children suddenly find themselves unable to see their friends, teachers and other members of their classes, an isolation that could have a strong impact especially if it lasts too long. Too long a closure could perhaps lead to delays in social learning, although their remains little evidence of this. Online platforms, from games to social networks, will likely reduce this impact, at least in part. Similarly, the transition to remote learning tools hopes to provide educational continuity. It remains to be seen whether they will be enough.

Notwithstanding the fact that school closures will result in significant loss of learning for children, educators and psychologists alike point out that this will not be the only impact felt by students. In the context of school closures, and with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis more generally, it is unfortunately quite likely that many students will experience significant trauma, additional stress and anxiety. Many children and adolescents will potentially find themselves confined in unsuitable and/or unsafe housing, especially if parents are also confined and still have to work. Family ties have been placed under greater strain, with mandatory confinement and the need to live together with few alternatives. The economic impact of the crisis has greatly aggravated the stress felt by many, posing psychological difficulties for parents and indirectly through them children.With the number of deaths from Covid -19( SARS-CoV-2) to the millions, families around the world are/will find themselves in mourning. All of this will add to the emotional and psychological consequences of the current crisis in general in which students around the world are temporarily losing, unexpectedly, a comforting routine. While the WHO indicates that in order to combat these psychological consequences, parents should devote time to help and support their children, this is not necessarily possible in all cases. Such support is particularly difficult, if not impossible, for families where parents have significant employment problems or where they have even been affected by the disease itself.  These impacts will potentially have significant consequences during the back-to-school period, and even beyond. Based on past studies conducted in post-disaster contexts, it would seem that the psychological impact of the disruption of routine due to disasters as observed in Australia, in Ethiopia, in India and in Vietnam, have a severe impact on educational outcomes. It has been proven that stress can have a strong negative impact on mental ability and memory. The impacts of school closures due to COVID-19 are not likely to be any different. It should also be noted that these psychosocial impacts will not be the same depending on the age of the students, or for those with pre-existing mental problems or special learning-assistance needs. Any plan put in place to continue education during COVID-19 must take these particularities into account including an assessment of the additional stresses faced by students and putting in place programs to deal with them. Teachers, too, may suffer some psychological consequences during this crisis. The impact of crises such as epidemiological, natural/technological disasters, generalized violence and others on teachers has been only partly studied. However, as many children’s teachers are first point of contact outside the home. They are often very important for the emotional and psychological support of students. It is therefore important that school officials as well as governments more generally, find ways and home assist them in managing this socio-emotional burden, which is added to the new workload of managing remote teaching systems in which the most rewarding part of teaching, the direct contact with pupils is replaced by a virtual setting.

Closing schools will obviously not impact all students equally. This is evident in the disproportionate impact it will have on girls. School, beyond simply being a place of learning also represents a safe haven for many children who live in difficult situations at home. Girls are particularly at risk of sexual violence and problems surrounding reproductive health during school closures: when schools were closed due to Ebola, there was a sharp increase in teenage pregnancy and many pregnant girls were refused entry to school at the start of the school year; unfortunately, the same thing is likely to happen again in the current crisis. In addition, throughout the world, women provide the vast majority of unpaid household labour (cleaning, cooking, childcare, etc.). This is equally true for young girls: even before confinement, girls aged 5 to 14 years already spent 40% more time than boys on household chores at home. Forced to stay at home, girls are likely to see a disproportionate increase in the amount of work they have to do, leaving them less time than boys to devote to academic homework. This increase in work may encourage parents to push their daughters to drop out of school altogether. Finally, like many other NGOs, organizations working to advance the situation of girls and in the education sector in general face a lack of funding. It is reported that educational organizations budgets had already been reduced, largely as a result of a drop in private and philanthropic donations. This decrease in budget may come at the most inopportune time: more than ever, children and especially girls will need additional support in order to achieve quality education and gender equality.

It also seems highly likely that school closures will worsen widespread malnutrition among children living in poverty for whom school canteens have become essential. For at least 320 million children around the world, meals provided through schools are an important source of food on which they depend, provided by governments, NGOs and intergovernmental agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP). For many of these children, these meals can be the main source of nutrients crucial to their growth. This is particularly prevalent in countries with high rates of poverty and extreme poverty. In these countries, a meal equivalent in nutrients to the 9 million meals given daily by the WFP can be worth up to more than 10% of the monthly income of the poorest families. These meals therefore represent a significant source of savings for these families, especially when these families have multiple children to feed. Thus, the interruption of the canteen can and will jeopardize financial security in addition to food security.

To combat the unprecedented loss of learning by more than a billion students, school leaders, organizations (regional, national, international) and governments, as well as teachers themselves, have had to be agile and adaptable to deal with this new crisis. In the vast majority of countries, the closure of schools has been accompanied by a transition to remote teaching. In many cases, this has taken the form of the implementation of educational technologies (known as “edtech”), which have taken many forms, as synthesized by the World Bank. In all contexts, the transition to remote learning has required experimentation, a strong reliance on pre-existing networks in communities, and a strong adaptation to the specific contexts of individual communities and students. This transition has not been easy. The vast majority of countries in the world did not have a plan in place to ensure educational continuity in the event of systematic school closures, so the response to this crisis was ad hoc in nature, and shrouded in uncertainty. In recent months, new forms of learning, as well as new actors, have emerged from teachers who volunteered to do emotional and educational ‘check-ins’ with their students (while respecting public health measures), to communal child day care arrangements between families, new forms of solidarity have emerged. Knowing how to analyse the transition that has been made is therefore vital in order to better understand how to better guide the education sector during the current crisis and to respond to the educational shocks of the future [including if Covid-19(SARS-CoV-2) becomes endemic].

When schools closed due to COVID-19 and in order to ensure educational continuity, many governments turned to online platforms to allow teachers to continue to reach their students. Around the world and even prior to the current crisis, governments had already begun to invest in the implementation of new technologies and platforms in the education sector, a rapidly growing industry that was already worth $18.66 billion in 2019-2018, and which is expected to grow to $350 billion before 2025-2019.  China and the United States have been the two biggest investors in this domain in part due to their large populations and the increasingly widespread Internet access within their territories. This has enabled them, as in the majority of Western countries to transition from in-person courses to remote teaching relatively smoothly, using online sites and applications to connect their students to their teachers. However, in order to adhere to its goal of halving learning poverty by 2030, it is necessary for the international community to recognize that the consequences of school closures tend to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized students, especially in countries with significant pre-existing gaps in their education systems.  Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly at risk: more than 20% of 6-11 year olds, more than 33% of 12-14 year olds, and more than 60% of 15-17 year old adolescents were already out of school before the arrival of COVID-19: numbers which are likely to increase as a result of the health crisis and its economic and social consequences.

Even before COVID-19, the world was facing an educational crisis highlighted by the difficulties in achieving SDG. According to the World Bank, around 53% of young people in low and middle income countries live in “learning poverty”. The closure of schools, a measure taken everywhere in many countries to facilitate ‘physical distancing’ and reduce the risk of contamination, is likely to worsen this crisis in the coming times and make it impossible to reach the goal of halving this learning poverty by 2030. The world’s governments must therefore continue to put in place systems to ensure educational continuity and ways to get back to school as soon as possible, and international cooperation, including through multilateral institutions such as UNESCO and UNICEF, must support these countries and their young people.

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