The Pandemic Sent 1.5 Billion Children Home From School. Many Might Not Return
School closures due to the pandemic leave over 1.5 billion children without a classroom. Social and economic inequities come to light as hundreds of thousands of students who lack the support to continue distance learning risk dropping out of school altogether.
Governments across the world shut down schools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, leaving 90% of the global student population at home by mid-April, according to the United Nations. Few schools have reopened. Local authorities in Western countries struggle to prevent children from dropping out.
Barbara De Cerbo, headmaster of a middles school outside of Naples, reflects: “I’ve never had this many kids not come to school.” Around 10% of her students never logged on to join online classes, even when teachers tried to track them down. Many more students only occasionally engaged with online learning. “There is the fear that we’ll lose some of them for good.”
Schools have been closed longest in Spain and Italy, which were hit by the virus early. In Italy, around 6% of children have not participated in online learning since the beginning of the lockdown, according to the Ministry of Education. In Spain, estimates of nonparticipation range from 10% to 20% of youth.
In March, the Italian and Spanish governments distributed tablets and purchased Internet for families in need, with help from charities as well. However, demand outweighed supply, as more than 10% of these countries’ school-age children did not have appropriate devices. Many children from low-income families have to rely on their parents’ mobile phones, often shared between siblings.
Before the COVID crisis, Spain and Italy already had issues in education. Spain has the highest dropout rate in the European Union, with almost 18% of teenagers dropping out of high school. Italy’s statistics are not significantly better.
“The existing digital divide is aggravating the educational gap. Unless action is taken quickly, everything points to a significant increase of the dropout rate at the end of the school year,” says Jesús Marrodán, president of the Spanish union of education inspectors.
American school districts struggle to keep students on task. The New York City Department of Education says that, on an average day, over 10% of students had not interacted with school in recent weeks, despite having distributed devices and free Wi-Fi to families in need.
Educators warn that students falling behind will struggle to catch up when schools reopen, which may permanently impact their futures. The Journal of Labor Economics published a study showing that children who received less education during WWII earned significantly less, even forty years after the end of the war.
Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, took active measures to prevent the students in his district from falling behind. He handed out around 120,000 devices to ensure students could log into classes. Social workers knocked on doors to find missing students. Carvalho intends to launch online summer school with virtual tutors and more instruction at low-performing schools to help struggling students catch up.
“The nation should be bracing itself for the biggest ever, precedent-setting, historic academic regression,” said Carvalho.
In impoverished and marginalized communities, the education crisis coincides with risks of local crime participation. For example, extended closure of schools in Naples puts marginalized students at a higher danger of joining the Camorra, the local crime syndicate.
“Children who are out on the streets can easily be preyed on by the wrong crowd,” says Patrizia Pica Ciamarra, a worker with the charity L’Albero Della Vita. “Schools are losing the function they had in protecting minors.”
Parents pose another challenge to remote learning. Disturbances in the household arise to distract the students and teachers. Many parents do not know how to download necessary learning apps.
“There needs to be someone willing to constantly help families, otherwise children fall behind,” said Giusi Amodio, a fourth grade teacher.
Marilena Colantuono, a single mother of three, meets various challenges in attempts to ensure her children’s education. “I want to help them but I can’t.” Her children share two phones between them for online classes.
Ms. Colantuono’s son, Georgio, is falling behind in math, and considers dropping out. “Before it was much better. If we didn’t understand something we could ask the teacher,” says Giorgio. Many of his classmates have already quit, with less than 50% attendance in a recent lesson. Giorgio notes, “They just don’t care.”