COVID-19 and school shutdowns: Examining the after-effects

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An image showing some school books and other material as part of home-schooling
Image: RaISe

In an effort to minimise the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (which causes the disease COVID-19), schools in Northern Ireland closed their doors to normal school life on 23 March 2020. Approximately 450 schools remained open (out of 1136 in total) to oversee supervised learning for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.

For most children, teaching and learning continued, albeit remotely, as schools did a combination of uploading lessons online for parents and pupils to access, teaching virtually and in some cases providing printed learning material for use at home. The Department of Education has indicated that schools will reopen for pupils from 24 August. Schools have faced an unprecedented situation and the transition of the entire school system to a remote learning model in such a short space of time has been remarkable but not without its challenges for everyone involved.

In education, as in many other areas, the COVID-19 health crisis has exacerbated and highlighted many existing inequalities. The Northern Ireland Equality Commission raised concerns that not only could the impact of school closures deepen inequalities but that it could also lead to the emergence of new ones affecting children now and throughout their lives.

While everyone involved in the education community is experiencing the same storm, is everyone in the same boat? This article examines what we know so far of the challenges faced by pupils and parents during the lockdown and poses some questions about the after-effects for education in Northern Ireland.

Food provision

The COVID-19 health crisis means that many parents are dealing with health worries, financial concerns and possibly also having to care for vulnerable family members. Young people are also not immune to these concerns making this is an extremely challenging environment for learning. For many parents, one of their first priorities is to provide food for their children. In Northern Ireland around 99,000 children (from 55,000 families) are eligible for a Free School Meal – this figure represents around 30% of pupils enrolled in school.

Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI), the regional umbrella organisation for the children’s sector in Northern Ireland, called on the Executive to provide funds to families in receipt of free school meals so their children could get still get food while school canteens were closed. On 26 March 2020, the Communities Minister (Deirdre Hargey MLA) and the Education Minister (Peter Weir MLA) introduced a new scheme of direct payments to families who usually benefit from a school meal. The majority of families receive fortnightly payments directly into bank accounts (£2.70 is allocated per school day) and a smaller number of families receive the payment by cheque. Free school meals are not available during school holidays. However, following a high-profile campaign by the England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reversed government plans to limit food voucher provision to term time and instead a new £120 million ‘covid summer food fund’ was announced for 1.3 million pupils in England.

On 25 June, in a statement to the ad-hoc Committee for the COVID-19 response, the Education Minister indicated an intention to seek funding for a scheme in Northern Ireland to extend Free School Meal payments and extend the Eat Well, Live Well programme (a scheme which delivers a box of 5 breakfasts and 5 lunches weekly to the homes of 5000 children at risk of hunger) beyond 30 June 2020. During a recent Ministerial statement on the June 2020-21 monitoring round, the Finance Minister, Conor Murphy, announced £39 million would be made available to the Department of Education from 1 July to fund free school meals over the summer months, for increased child provision and for summer activities to support children and learning.

Home-schooling during lockdown

School closures meant parents and guardians were faced with the task of having to take on the role of teacher and educate their children at home. As most schools began to communicate with pupils online, access to suitable digital devices and the internet became increasingly important.

Ofcom recently reported that fewer people are connecting with the internet by computer and that four-fifths of time online is on mobile devices. Laptops, tablets and smartphones use different operating systems and each device has different capacities. The most used operating systems are Microsoft Windows for computers and Android for smartphones, followed by MacOS for Apple devices. Computer operating systems are full-featured while smartphone operating systems are more limited therefore laptop and tablet devices are preferable if pupils are required take part in remote learning for long periods of time. Given that every child does not have access to a laptop or printer at home means many are unable to access the same online learning resources as children whose parents have access to IT.

In order to mitigate the risk of digital exclusion, the Education Minister acknowledged that not all pupils had sufficient access to technology required for their learning while at home. In late May, an initiative was launched to provide up to 24,000 devices over three stages to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds with priority given to those Year 11 and 13 in post primary and Primary 6 and 3 in Primary schools. In stage 2 of the scheme 4,731 requests for a device were made by schools but only 3,644 were available from the Department of Education. Stage 3 has already started with a procurement exercise to obtain a further 8,000 devices by August and also to look at providing an internet connection to those who don’t have it. In a recent survey of parents and their experiences of home learning, Ulster University also recommend addressing the level of digital literacy among parents as many  found it difficult to navigate the large number of resources online. It is clear that there are many caught in the digital divide and while technology can enable learning, paradoxically, it can also exclude those who do not have the hardware to fully engage in the learning process.

Technology issues were not the only the challenges facing those involved in home-schooling. In May 2020, 37% of parents surveyed by Parentkind NI did not feel confident in supporting their child’s learning during lockdown. These findings also reflect recent research carried out by the UK educational charity the Sutton Trust which found less than 50% of parents without higher education qualifications felt confident managing their child’s learning at home during lockdown.

Around the same time, Stranmillis College also researched how parents were finding home-schooling during lockdown. Their findings revealed that parental education and employment status had a big impact on the extent of parental involvement in their child’s learning. Those with a degree were more likely to teach or actively support learning in contrast to parents without a degree who reported a lower level of confidence in home-schooling and were more likely to ‘monitor’ their child’s learning. The report also highlighted how work pressure on essential workers limited the time they were able to be actively involved in their child/ren’s home-schooling, resulting in feelings of anger or guilt among many of these parents. Ulster University found parents with post-primary children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) reported more difficulties with home-schooling than parents of children with no SEN. The lack of support and routine during lockdown proved very difficult.

And what about the young people?

It is probably too early to tell how this period of school closure will affect young people in the longer- term but there is no doubt that the experience of home-schooling presented many challenges. On average across OECD countries, 9% of 15 year olds do not have a quiet place to study in their own homes. Academics from Stranmillis College report a broad range of experiences relating to home-schooling – from accounts of children enjoying additional family time to children who are missing their friends, struggling with schoolwork and anxious about falling behind.

According to a recent Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) report, there is ‘variation in pupil engagement with remote learning across year groups and schools’. Some Primary school leaders noted a decline in motivation and engagement with remote learning since schools closed in March while about half of pupils did not take part in remote learning in some post-primary schools. During Question Time in the Assembly Chamber, the Education Minister acknowledged that school closures most likely are widening the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

What next for education?

The COVID-19 crisis could change education for the better. The Education Minister acknowledges the ‘education workforce, alongside parents has risen to the challenge and responded in an effective, innovative manner..’. Schools in Northern Ireland have a centralised education ICT infrastructure framework managed by C2k which provides a wide range of applications to support learning in a secure environment.

Since March 2020, most schools have developed their use of online tools eg Seesaw, Fronter, Google Classroom, MS Teams and Collaborate Ultra and digital resources like BBC Bitesize in order to facilitate distance learning.

Teachers from a range of schools in Northern Ireland have come together to support each other during lockdown and share good practice on social media platforms like @BlendEd_NI on Twitter. In England, a government backed online school, Oak National Academy, launched on 20 April. This new enterprise was created in response to lockdown by 40 teachers and it provides weekly access to 180 video lessons, covering a range of subjects and year groups.

In a recent press release, Pivotal, a public policy think tank, warns that COVID-19 has highlighted weaknesses in the Northern Ireland economy which will almost certainly mean that Northern Ireland will take longer to recover than other parts of the UK or Republic of Ireland. Employers often state that progress is impeded by the lack of training and skills needed for business today. Anne Watt, director of Pivotal, calls on the Executive to use this opportunity:

…an ambitious skills programme, that leans into digital learning, could be transformational – especially for young people, who are going to be disproportionately affected by the economic downturn, with both higher-than-average unemployment combined with a shrinking number of graduate and trainee opportunities.

The Department of Education is currently planning how best to deal with the impact of school lockdown and potential new ways of teaching and learning in the next academic year. In June 2020, the Education Minister released information on social distancing measures in the classroom and blended learning (a mix of classroom teaching and remote learning) in the Education Restart Programme for schools returning at the end of August. In a recent statement to the COVID-19 ad-hoc Committee, the Minister also announced a project called ‘Engage’ to provide literacy and numeracy support. Aware of the potential impact of lockdown on mental health, the Minster also highlighted plans for mental health interventions and an increase of nurture support in socially deprived areas.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government increased efforts to support the NHS and its staff. This was followed by the Coronavirus Jobs Retention scheme and a range of other business and income support measures designed to help businesses and prevent mass redundancies – more than nine million workers in the UK were furloughed meaning the government paid 80% of their salary up to a maximum of £2,500 a month – the scheme will close in October. As this article has indicated, many organisations and commentators are now highlighting the need to look at education and give increased support and resources where they are needed in addition to building on recent new ways of working.

The pandemic has highlighted how those already disadvantaged in society were most likely more negatively affected by lockdown and temporary school closures. Now might also be the time to reflect on those inequalities and also broader questions and objectives for education. What is education for? What is important in education? How then should it be organised?