Sandra McNally and Jo Blanden explain how school closures have negative effects on both children and parents, hindering educational outcomes, mental health, work, and general resilience.
Policymakers have concluded that the benefits of keeping schools open during the second English lockdown are greater than the risks of increased transmission among school communities. The risks of school closures are high: learning loss for students that is hard to make up and therefore has potential long-term consequences; as well as much bigger implications for lower socio-economic groups that will widen inequality and reduce social mobility. In addition, losing the childcare provided by schools has wider negative effects on parents’ work and family life. All these negatives are set against the possibility of reducing the risk of COVID transmission if schools shut. But whether and how much the health risk would reduce is by no means certain. Evidence from Germany indicates that school reopenings there are not associated with an increased risk of infection, but this is in the context of a particular set of disease control measures and is not necessarily applicable in other contexts.
During the first national lockdown, the UK government closed all schools in England. They remained open only for the supervision of vulnerable children and those of critical workers. The closure resulted in a loss of face-to-face instructional time, which is likely to have significant adverse effects on students’ educational outcomes. We know this because of evidence gathered from examples where schools have shut down for other reasons (such as teacher strikes) and because of studies that directly evaluate the impact of instructional time on student outcomes.
While all students lose out when schools close, the impact is much greater for some than from others because of huge disparities in the extent to which schools can compensate through the provision of online teaching or how much parents can compensate through home-schooling or other resources. We now have direct evidence on the effect of the first lockdown from several surveys. The evidence finds that inequalities along the lines of family income or type of schooling are very marked. During lockdown, nearly three quarters (74%) of private school pupils were benefitting from full school days – almost twice the proportion of state school pupils (38%); a quarter of pupils had no formal schooling or tutoring at all. Children from higher income households were also more likely to have had online classes provided by their schools, spent much more time on home learning, and had access to resources such as their own study space at home. Children whose parents were out of work were much less likely to have additional resources such as computers, apps and tutors.
Educators are well aware of the need to make up for the learning losses from the first lockdown, although it is very difficult to do this at the level of intensity, speed, and coverage necessary. Plans for a national tutoring programme are in the process of being rolled out. To enforce school shutdowns again before this has even got started may make a bad situation worse. To the extent that learning loss cannot be made up, this will have long-term effects on students. For example, failing to get a good grade in GCSE English has been shown to have important consequences for students’ trajectories with longer-term implications in the labour market. As the Delve Initiative (2020) puts it ‘the skills loss from missing school is not trivial, and is likely to lead to lower earnings, higher risk of poverty and unemployment with impacts on health and life expectancy’.
Closing schools again is likely to have big adverse effects on children’s learning. But this is not the end of the story: many parents struggled with the additional burden of full-time childcare and supervising home learning when schools closed in March. Evidence from surveys in lockdown indicate that working parents struggled to cope with these new demands, and that women were more likely to lose their jobs or be furloughed. When fathers reduced their work, they did a greater share of childcare than usual, although women still did the lion’s share of the extra work. Moreover, during the spring lockdown, 45% of mothers’ work hours and 26% of fathers’ were simultaneously spent taking care of children. Consequently, there were large declines in mental health among those with young children.
Overall, school closures have obvious adverse effects on children – which are large in magnitude – and also have a wider effect on family life which further hinders mental health, work, and general resilience. The costs of further closure should not be underestimated. Indeed, a recent commentary in Science states that ‘If communities prioritize suppressing viral spread in other social gatherings, then children can go to school.’ This is what the government is trying to achieve, and it should continue this path.
Sandra McNally is Director of the Education and Skills Programme at CEP. She is also Director of the Centre for Vocational Education Research and Professor of Economics at University of Surrey.
Jo Blanden is a Reader at the School of Economics at Surrey and is a Visiting Fellow at the LSE.
Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash.
I strongly support the closure of schools. Why pubs, restaurants, churches, cinemas, theatres atc are closed and schools are not?? The ridiculous thing is that some schools have called policemen to watch on students who are not allowed to speak to more than another person in the street going out of the school (and can be fined!!!) but they can sit in groups at school!!! There are many Covid cases in schools but headteachers tend to hide this to minimise panic and having schools opened! This is a threat to public health!
I completely agree where in a small historic town with only 3 schools 1 has closed completely and 2 have years and bubbles closed how much more we live in an extremely clinically vulnerable household havent been anywhere and are now at risk which will leave 2 boys 6 and 8 without a father learn online for a few months or lose their dad permanently
I believe strongly that schools should be closed down for at least a month. If we are not allowed to meet up and there is a lockdown right now why are children going to school with over 100 people? My child has had at least 15 positive tests but the school doesn’t give a damn. We have to close down the schools if there is a lockdown.
But like so many students from our school already had covid positive before and still school are open
I strongly strongly wisely agree school should be closed up until half term 6 weeks holidays. But l hoping things get resolved by then. If not then further more set guildline measures to be in in place on Covid & the help of support of Bubbles for parents to support their children in home studies keep them home safe by studying online studies by the help of support of the case studies from they teachers l’m sure children would be delighted by the idea 🙂
Living and working in a Borough with the highest present c19 infection rate in London, experiencing the complete lack of social distancing in schools, spending all day in a non ventilated classroom, with no window, natural light and up to 31 crammed into it, I take great heart from this article. Ladies, fancy swapping places?
I think that is a bad idea that schools are in because people who have bad health conditions get covid and kids might not getting as bad as us but they can still pass it on to people at home
I really agree schools should be shutting down as children can pass it on to people in your home and elderly especially during second Lock down I don’t see why every thing else would shutdown but not schools but I do think colleges should remain open as that is a more higher education