UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, released a study today that addresses school closures around the world. Its verdict: Keeping children at home is causing significant, long-lasting harm, and has not been effective in curbing the spread of the virus.
“Unless the global community urgently changes priorities, the potential of this generation of young people may well be lost,” UNICEF warned.
The biggest effect of the pandemic on young people involves poverty, according to UNICEF. About 140 million kids are now living in poverty because of the pandemic.
But the next biggest effect of Covid-19 on kids is the fact that their schools have been closed to in-person learning. The peak of pandemic-related school closures affected close to 90 percent of students around the world, with more than 111 million students residing in the least developed countries.
When school buildings cannot support in-person instruction in the US, many districts use e-learning or a hybrid of e-learning and in-person instruction. This has brought another problem into the spotlight: the unequal access kids and their families have to broadband internet.
Just yesterday, as I walked into a Burger King near my home, I saw three high school-aged students sitting at a table outside the restaurant. They were there to use the WiFi, because they did not have access to WiFi in their homes. I asked them what they did when it rained, and they told me they are able to go inside the restaurant to attend their virtual classes.
Around the country and world, though, the “uneven access to digital learning resources and parental support are amplifying the digital divide and inequalities among young people,” UNICEF’s report states.
As an educator, I am 100 percent sure we will be able to catch kids up in math for the learning they lose during the pandemic. I am 100 percent sure we’ll be able to make up for what they are losing due to the ineffectiveness of e-learning, compared with in-person instruction, which is what our school curricula assumed would happen when learning projections and trajectories were adopted by states or districts.
In that sense, then, putting the lives of teachers, lunch ladies, bus drivers, other paraprofessionals, and their families at risk is a tough call, especially given inconsistent enforcement or even understanding of safety protocols in the US and in our school districts.
I am also 100 percent in favor of using technology in the classroom and outside the classroom to supplement learning. But accessing material online is very different from learning online. Participating in a business meeting where spreadsheets and screenshots are exchanged is very different from the social learning that takes place when kids bounce ideas off each other in a vibrant classroom discussion. A raised hand or smily face in a chat window on Zoom is very different from the light in a kid’s eyes when something clicks.
This is why e-learning doesn’t work, not to mention the increased demand the pandemic has put on our mental health facilities and specialists. A UN policy brief entitled “COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health” shows that almost three-fourths of mental health services for children and adolescents are disrupted because of the pandemic, mostly because those services are typically delivered through school-based mental health professionals.
The lack of access to mental health professionals has been made worse by children missing out on peer support and many big moments in their lives (starting high school, Homecoming, graduation ceremonies, fine arts performances, sports activities, and so on) that are all tied to their schools.
Some students are trying to fill in the gaps. Just to my south, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have produced a 90-minute online discussion about coping with mental health issues during the pandemic, WBAL-TV reports.
The Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency’s Community Warmline has experienced a 50 percent increase in call volume during the months of September and October, compared to the same period a year ago.
States have also been rendered less able to track student progress, as statewide exams used for federal accountability purposes have largely been cancelled. And even if those exams can be given this spring, it is unclear what they will show, given the learning loss now occurring, especially in economically disadvantaged students, due to the pandemic.
“Whether it’s the instant loss of income that so many parents face as a result of COVID‑19 or the austerity measures that may follow, children and us young people are currently and will bear the brunt of this pandemic long after the virus itself has been eradicated,” said Djibouti Haissama on the Voices of Youth blog.
Since 1990, World Children’s Day, which is celebrated on November 20, has marked the anniversary of the date that the UN General Assembly adopted both the Declaration and the Convention on children’s rights.