When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, governments were fast to close down countries in order to mitigate infections and the number of deaths. Little thought on the educational effects of children, and how distance learning would affect their school outcomes.foto: Sarah Kilian via pexels
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, governments were fast to close down countries in order to mitigate infections and the number of deaths. Little thought on the educational effects of children, and how distance learning would affect their school outcomes. However, this question was not necessarily ignored by the public; debates emerged around the world were opponents of lockdowns expressed their discontent with school closures. Although seldom arguments about potential negative educational effects were brought up, instead the arguments seemed to be more of a political nature.
Despite the political nature of lockdowns, the academic literature has tried to answer the question of the educational effects of Covid-19 lockdowns. One study examines the effects of school closures on primary school performance, using data that includes 15 percent of all schools in the Netherlands. Using a well-developed country like the Netherlands for a study like this is essential since the variation of technology access between children is minimal and therefore the Netherlands could be used to screen a lower-bound effect since larger effects are to be expected in countries where the technological infrastructure is lacking. The study uses data on student's test scores utilizing the twice a year exam structure and can then compare the variation in educational outcomes before and after lockdown and compare the lockdown result with previous years with no lockdown.
The study shows that students that had been distance learning performed significantly worse than their counterparts in previous years, suggesting a loss of knowledge during the lockdown period. Moreover, children with less-educated parents were more affected by the lockdown, than parents with educated parents. This result is also documented in the US and seems to be a common effect of lockdown. Most likely this is due to the parent's inability to provide aid to their children, as well as the children's inability to learn from each other. These results imply not only significant educational effects but also include a dimension of inequality effects across children with less-educated parents.
Teachers vulnerability to contracting Covid-19
In contrast to students' knowledge loss, is teachers' vulnerability to contracting Covid-19. Since Sweden chose only to close upper secondary schools, comparing infection rates between teachers in the upper secondary school to teachers in lower secondary school, the effect of distance learning on infection rates can be traced. A recent study does exactly this and finds that teachers having live lectures were much more affected than teachers that had distance learning. In particular, lower secondary teachers were twice as likely to contract Covid-19 than their upper secondary counterparts. In fact, lower secondary teachers were shown to be the 7th most-affected occupational group, whereas upper secondary teachers were significantly less affected. Interestingly, both lower primary school teachers and upper preliminary school teachers were more affected than upper secondary teachers, although not as much as lower secondary teachers are, which suggests that infection rates increase with student's age.
Was it worth closing schools?
Comparing the empirical evidence above, there is no clear answer to the question if school closures were good or not. The apparent trade-off between teachers' infection rates and potential loss of student knowledge is to be considered when evaluating different countries' Covid-19 strategies. What becomes interesting is how effective school closures were in restricting the transmission of the virus. In the study from Sweden, they find evidence of minuscule effects of school closures on the transmission, so from a government perspective, it may be reasonable not to close schools. However, Sweden is not a particularly good example when it comes to evaluating the closing effect, since the already widespread transmission and lack of other substantial lockdown effects.
Whatever the right decision may show itself to be, the educational effect and generally documented loss of knowledge among students and potential inequality effects, is something that has to be considered in the future.