Magazine Claims that School Closures Harm Children and Perpetuates Inequality

The Economist recently reported that over 75 percent of the world’s approximately 1.5 billion schoolchildren are not attending school according to the UN agency UNESCO.

School closures have become norm since the Wuhan virus outbreak has engulfed the globe.

The Economist raised an interesting concern about these closures given the “long-term harm done to children and their prospects.”

In the outlet’s view, “Closures stymie the learning and development of all kids. No amount of helicopter parenting can make up for the influence of peers and thought-through lesson plans.”

Closures tend to “affect the poorest and the youngest school-goers.” In other words, “Those less likely to have access to three meals a day, an internet-enabled computer, highly educated parents, an available teacher and a safe quiet space to study will fare worst.”

Such drastic changes in children’s educational experience could have a negative impact in the long-term.

The Economist noted the following strategy Singapore took to adjust to school shutdowns:

For these reasons Singapore in 2003 cut its month-long June holiday by two weeks to make up for a fortnight of school closures during the SARS epidemic. Even short interruptions hurt performance. In America third-graders affected by weather-related closures do less well in state assessment exams.

Certain schools have more advanced tech infrastructure which allows them to still hold classes online. Other affluent students have been able to hire private tutors, while normal students are totally shut off from education.

The Economist offered some interesting insights about school attendance and the role it plays in promoting social mobility:

Over the past century, as global attendance at primary schools has risen from 40% to 90%, schools have been engines of social mobility. Closures in Britain could increase the gap in school performance between kids on school meals (a proxy for economic disadvantage) and those not on school meals, fears Becky Francis, from the Education Endowment Foundation, another charity. Over the past decade the gap, measured by grades in tests, has narrowed by roughly 10%, but she thinks school closures could, at the very least, reverse this progress. Fears are growing that the ‘summer-learning slide’, which sees knowledge lost over the summer break, will become an avalanche for some.

There are some disparities as well with regards to certain countries’ ability to withstand disruptions in the education system brought about by events like the Wuhan virus pandemic:

Some countries are better placed than others to withstand such pressures. The scale of pre-existing inequalities will be especially important. In places such as Denmark, Slovenia and Sweden the vast majority (95%) of 15-year-olds have access to a computer at home, regardless of family background. In America that is true for virtually all students in the wealthiest quartile but only three in four of those in the poorest. In Mexico it’s 94% and 29% respectively. To make matters worse, poorer kids tend to have more siblings to squabble with over the use of what devices there are.

The youngest cohorts will likely be the most impacted by these changes:

Closures will also disproportionately hurt the youngest schoolchildren. ‘You can make up for lost maths with summer school. But you can’t easily do that with the stuff kids learn very young,’ says Mr Doepke. Social and emotional skills such as critical thinking, perseverance and self-control are predictors of all sorts of things, from academic achievement and employment to health outcomes and the likelihood of ending up in jail. And whereas older children can be plonked in front of a computer, younger ones learn far more when digital learning—whether reading an e-book or watching a video—is adult-supervised.

There are also concerns about reading gaps that will emerge because of these shutdowns:

Another concern is that reading gaps will widen. The downward spiral that comes with early reading difficulties is well established: when children—for whatever reason—fall behind they can become demotivated and read even less, dropping further behind. Poor readers are less likely to graduate from high school and at greater risk of ending up in a juvenile prison. Ola Ozernov-Palchik, from Harvard, worries that such gaps will grow as kids sit at home under widely varying circumstances. ‘Without proper intervention, such differences become more pronounced and increasingly unbridgeable across development.’

All in all, it appears that these shutdowns have enormous social costs that policymakers are not taking into account.

There will have to be a reopening of the American economy and other institutions, or else America will have to deal with a number of long-term outcomes that could have been avoided in the first place.