All over the world, schools have closed down as part of strict lockdown measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19. According to UNESCO, over 90% of the world’s pupils have been affected by these closures. Yet for such drastic action, the supporting evidence is at best dubious. Studies have shown that school closures will do little to halt the spread, with UCL calling it a ‘very weak’ strategy when one considers the relatively small impact Covid-19 has on children’s health. This makes the devastating costs that are likely to arise from these closures seem all the more tragic.
For one, students’ learning is being interrupted and many will never be able to regain the lost ground. Even for those who are being taught online the progress is significantly slower, which will have damaging consequences in the future, as they compete with those who didn’t miss part of their education for jobs. One study has shown that eight-year-old primary school students in America will lose a years’ worth of progress in maths as a result of missing just one term, as they fail to consolidate material already covered. Older students will be harmed just as much by the effects; they are faced with receiving grades from their teachers, at least in the UK, that will determine their path into university and as a result their career. Even apart from the lost content, the loss of other benefits that schools provide normally will be traumatic for many. The social interaction that students have at school is considered vital for their development, and this has now all been lost. Historically, pandemics have lowered educational attainment, with the Spanish Flu being a particularly prominent example: the cohort born during the height of the epidemic have been shown to have had significantly lower educational attainment and as a result lower lifetime income. The same thing is happening with Covid-19; a whole generation is failing to meet their potential, which has dire impacts for future productivity at a time when it needs to be increased to deal with the problem of ageing populations in western countries.
Perhaps more devastating though is the educational inequality that will arise from Covid-19. The effects of the virus on children will be dramatically different depending on their parents’ socio-economic class. Those in private schools will emerge largely unscathed from this crisis; they will have online lessons and a carefully planned curriculum that will ensure they do not fall behind. Those at state schools will struggle much more: many aren’t running online lessons or are only providing limited timetables. This will exacerbate the attainment gap between those in private schools and state schools further, creating an educational divide that may well remain years into the future. Long term effects will likely include those educated at state schools failing to reach their academic potential, and as a result failing to achieve their career goals, while those in private school remain largely unaffected. In particular, the negative effects of school closures are particularly harmful for those children who don’t have access to devices and an internet connection and are already disadvantaged. 15% of teachers in the UK reported that they felt more than a third of their students didn’t have adequate access to electronic devices. This is a particularly major concern in the UK, as this will serve to increase the North-South divide; over two thirds of secondary schools which teach disadvantaged pupils are in the North, so closures that impact disadvantaged children more will further widen the North-South educational divide.
The harmful effects of school closures aren’t limited to children though. Many parents will be seriously hurt by school closures, and some will suffer economic hardship. While most are now working from home, and thus will not have to take time off from work, school closures will still have an extremely negative effect on productivity. Parents who are now being forced to care for their children as well as working will struggle to be as productive as they once were, and this may lead to a loss of income. For those who cannot work from home the costs may be even worse as they are forced to give up their only source of income in order to look after their children. Additionally over 1.3 million children in England receive free school meals, so parents losing access to this will have to spend significantly more on food.
Thus governments around the world must seriously consider how long they keep schools closed for. For those who are less well off the economic consequences will be devastating, and almost all children will be affected in the long run. Closures are exacerbating inequality around the world and their benefits must be carefully weighed up against the serious negatives.