To contain the spread of COVID-19, most countries worldwide have decided to close educational institutions temporarily. However, learning has not stopped but is taking place online, as some schools and universities provide remote schooling. Although the adoption of remote learning is vital to ensure the continuity of education following the physical closure of schools, students are, on average, likely to experience a learning loss. Several studies designate that quarantined students tend to spend less time learning than when schools are open. Also, many students confined at home due to COVID-19 may feel stressed and anxious, which may negatively affect their ability to concentrate on schoolwork. Physical school closure and the lack of in-person contact may make students less externally motivated to engage in learning activities.
Primary and secondary learners in South Africa missed months of education during 2020 when schools were either closed or partially opened due to the various Covid-19 levels of lockdown. They lost between 30 and 59 days of school, depending on their grade. Besides, many attended only half the school days in the second half of 2020 because of how schools implement social distancing. As a result, the curriculums for all grades except grade 12 was trimmed. Teachers were not able to complete the curriculum, leaving many gaps in children’s education. The 2021 severe second wave of COVID 19 has made the Council of Education in conjunction with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and Cabinet to resort to delaying the reopening of primary and secondary schools to Mid-February instead of January.
Consequently, the impact of school suspension and remote learning of schools will not affect students equally. Missing school can have an adverse effect, especially on children from less advantaged backgrounds who benefit from school more than those from more advantaged backgrounds. Students from less advantaged backgrounds may experience more significant learning loss during this emergency period than their more advantaged counterparts. This may be due to differences in Parental support, parental financial resources, schools attended and students’ digital skills.
Parents from different socio-economic backgrounds may have different cognitive and non-cognitive skills and availability to support their children in their learning process at home. Parents who are more educated may be more efficient at assisting their children with schoolwork during online learning. Researches indicate that there is a correlation between parents’ and children’s cognitive ability. Individuals’ cognitive skills are considered to be positively associated with the parents’ knowledge. Thus, parental education plays an essential role in explaining the transmission of cognitive abilities between generations. More educated parents spend more time with their children and tend to be more involved in their learning process.
Furthermore, not all parents possess the digital skills required to help their children deal with online learning’s technical challenges. Some of them, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds, may not have basic digital skills such as sending emails and writing documents using a word processor to find information on the internet. Lack of parental digital literacy has important implications, especially for younger children who are unlikely to deal with remote schooling activities on their own. Home computer technology is found to improve students’ achievement only in households where parents can serve as more effective instructors in the productive use of online resources. Studies in Europe divulge that even summer breaks usually result in a significant learning loss in mathematics instead of reading among disadvantaged students. Even though many parents from less advantaged backgrounds may have factual knowledge about mathematics, they may lack procedural understanding of mathematical principles that are important for teaching purposes. As a result, they may put more effort into enhancing the reading ability of their children and pay less attention to mathematics.
Lack of non-cognitive skills in parents is another disadvantage that may exacerbate educational inequality during online learning. Research shows that widening disparity in socio-emotional skills among children of different socio-economic status exists. Parents from unprivileged families are likely to have lower non-cognitive or socio-emotional abilities. For instance, they may not value education enough to encourage their children to study while at home. Inequality is found to have increased significantly for boys at the bottom of the distribution. Students who have more educated parents are likely to get more emotional support than those who have a less-educated parent.
Parental financial resources
Parent in disadvantaged households, who may be under pressure because of financial and job security issues due to the COVID-19 crisis, are probably not in the best position to support their children in these circumstances. Leaners from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to access relevant learning digital resources such as computer and internet connection. They are also less likely to have a suitable home learning environment like a quiet place to study or their own desk. They are more likely to share limited space and a limited number of digital devices with other family members. Likewise, they may not receive as much direct or indirect support from their parents as their more advantaged counterparts. This is due to re-opening the economy while schools remained closed has increased the risk of children being left home alone. When all employed workers returned to work, more than 2 million children aged 0-15 years are left without an adult caregiver.
Although it is evidenced that even before the lockdown, 2.5 million children experienced hunger and almost a third of children who died were severely malnourished. Rapid surveys by StatsSA and the Human Sciences Research Council show increases in hunger since the lockdown. This is because many workers lost their income, and children no longer received free school meals. In the absence of schools, many children from unprivileged backgrounds are at risk of eating only unhealthy food, or even at the risk of hunger. Schools play a crucial role in the nutrition of students from low-income families.
Lockdown financial worries have added stress to many households, raising emotional exhaustion, depression and anxiety. This raises substance abuse levels, depression, fear, loneliness, domestic violence, and child abuse, which interferers tremendously with the learning process. On top of that, COVID-19 and the move to remote learning and teaching may exert a similar effect as regard students’ emotional well-being and motivation. Students’ isolation from their friends and teachers may result in an unequal distribution of behavioural and psychological problems. Learners may drop out or not have access to school this year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone.
Schools attended and students’ digital skills.
Schools represent another way through which the COVID-19 crisis may reinforce social inequality in education. The substantial differences in the provision of remote learning and resources exist significantly between private and public schools. Students from more advantaged backgrounds may be more likely to attend schools with a better digital infrastructure well equipped in digital technology resources and where teachers have higher levels of digital skills. Hence, schools attended by more advantaged children may have found it easier to adapt to online learning following COVID-19. Whilst schools in disadvantaged, rural or deprived areas are likely to lack the appropriate digital capacity and infrastructure required to deliver teaching remotely. Further, Learners from less advantaged backgrounds tend to be less exposed to digital technologies and applications both at school and home.
In brief, various direct and indirect measures adopted to contain COVID 19, may negatively impact children’s achievement. The impact will cause a decline in learning and exacerbate educational inequality as the students are not affected equally. The pandemic is exacerbating the pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable learners living in poor or rural areas. Missing school have an adverse effect, especially on children from less advantaged backgrounds who tend to benefit from school more than those from more advantaged back grounds. With possibilities of further disruption to third waves of Covid19, it is clearly that the pandemic’s impact on education will be immense. It will influence negatively both cognitive and non-cognitive skills acquisition and may have important long-term consequences in addition to the short-term ones.
Poorer learners and schools are least able to catch up. The profound costs borne by children and families from keep learners out of school will be felt for at least the next 10 years. The lasting implications of such learning losses may stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings. In a broader perspective, learning loss suffered by students during the COVID-19 crisis will translate into a reduction of available human capital with negative effects on productivity growth, innovation and employment, including future lower earnings for the student cohorts directly affected by the lockdown. Measures should be taken to ensure that more vulnerable students will be able to make up for the learning loss they experienced during the pandemic. This should be done quickly and effectively in order to avoid such crisis results in permanent education and economic inequality.
Dr. Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.