Academic, social and mental health consequences are worrying, while e-learning has likely exacerbated inequality. But shutdown might have also brought about increased independence and family benefits for children too.
School closures were among the most visible – and controversial – decisions taken by governments around the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to UNESCO, the education of nearly 1.6 billion pupils in 190 countries was affected, or close to 90 percent of the world’s school-age children.
Some experts described it as a “social crisis in the making”.
There was much debate over the exact role that school closures have played in containing the overall spread of the virus, not to mention the economic and social costs associated with it.
While many countries such as China, France, Germany and the UK began to reopen some schools between May and June and others targeting September, many do not have a clear timetable for return to full-time instruction.
Whether it’s safe to reopen schools is a different calculation altogether; it must weigh the risks to society at large, to children’s education, and to the economy.
While the virus appears to rarely cause severe symptoms in children, it is possible that they play an important role in transmission.
After most schools shut their doors in March, we are now beginning to get an idea of the impact prolonged school closures have had on children, as well as their parents.
Long term concerns
The consequences for intellectual development is not encouraging.
Evidence suggests children who regularly miss school perform less well in exams. Short-term closures have shown to negatively impact learning outcomes, unsurprising when you consider documented educational regress exhibited during lengthy summer school holidays.
Studies on the aftereffects of natural disasters can also provide us with useful insight on children’s education and mental health outcomes.
One challenge is to identify how much learning loss can be attributed to schools being closed, and how much is due to other factors like trauma. There is just not enough data on extended disruptions – even after disasters, as children typically resumed learning again within a few weeks.
All things considered, Covid-19 is an unparalleled case study.
If children – many of whom have spent more than 20 weeks in a row away from school – don’t return back to education soon, the side-effects could be compounding. Given that time spent in education shapes adult IQ, a long layoff could result in a serious lifelong impact on children’s cognitive ability.
Disasters can be destructive in other ways. Apart from being an unprecedented health crisis, the virus has struck a punishing blow upon the global economy and left millions of people – and parents – unemployed.
Children are acutely perceptive of parents’ and carers’ worries and seem likely to absorb some of this angst; signs that the pandemic has caused high levels of anxiety among children is a worrying trend.
Invariably, such societal and financial shocks have taken a toll on mental health.
Many experts warned that younger people are at greater risk of mental health problems amid lengthy school stoppages due to the lack of routine and prohibitions around social interactions with friends. In the early days of the pandemic, the charity Childline reported large spikes in counselling sessions.
With organised outdoor activities shelved, sedentary lifestyles have become even more prevalent and fostered unhealthy dietary habits. The science journal Obesity conducted a study during lockdown in Italy that found higher rates of screen time and consumption of unhealthy foods among overweight youngsters were linked.
Not all children have been affected in the same way either. Free school meals for kids from lower-income families were extremely important and closures meant increased financial burden on parents.
With physical learning spaces inaccessible, many schools transitioned to some form of distance learning, with teachers providing material through online portals or holding lessons over Zoom.
But evidence for online learning as a direct substitute for school has been mixed so far.
The switch to distance learning is likely to have exacerbated patterns of inequality, as those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have often been the worst affected.
Children whose families cannot afford access to laptops, phones or adequate internet connections are more likely to miss out on vital learning. For children who cannot access such e-learning resources that schools are providing, there is an added risk of stigma or shame.
It is also hard to gauge how much each child is learning during lockdown. Home schooling assumes that parents themselves are sufficiently educated and have enough time to be able to help with lessons. A recent UK study found that children from richer families spent nearly 30 percent more time on home learning than those from poorer families.
Nor will these inequalities cease once schools reopen. Research shows that poorer families are less willing to allow their children to return to education, as those from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be most affected health wise by the virus which increases their concern.
No school, no problem
Not all indications have been bleak.
Two surveys, one conducted in April and another in May, studied 800 parents and 800 children geographically representative of the US population and concluded that children’s psychological wellbeing seemed to improve overall after school closure.
According to the survey’s findings, children appeared to gain a greater sense of independence and personal responsibility, while parents gained a heightened appreciation of their children’s capabilities.
The sample noted that parenting was not considered more difficult during the period after schools closed than parenting when children were in school. The vast majority of children were looking forward to going back to school because they missed their friends.
Dr. Peter Gray, who was involved in conducting the survey, said: “prior to the pandemic we were keeping children so busy, and so stressed, with schooling and other adult-run activities that they had little opportunity to do what children are designed, biologically, to do – to play, explore, take initiative, discover and pursue their own interests, and learn through these self-directed ways.”
“I hope that we, as a society, can derive a lesson from this.”
Perhaps one unintended consequence of the lockdown is that it forces a major rethinking of the very role of schools, which would have otherwise been unthinkable.