A heated debate about whether or not schools should close to contain the spread of COVID-19 has been rumbling on in the UK for months.
The discussion finally came to a close on Monday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all schools and colleges in England would close as of Tuesday — for all pupils except for the children of key workers — until at least the middle of February.
Meanwhile, schools in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are delaying opening for two weeks following the Christmas break.
Teaching unions had been calling for schools not to reopen after the Christmas holiday to protect staff and families amid serious concerns of high COVID-19 infection rates in the UK — which are hitting record levels. A further 58,784 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the country on Monday, marking the seventh day in a row that more than 50,000 new daily cases were recorded. Although testing capacity has considerably improved since the start of the pandemic, the positive numbers are incredibly concerning.
While closing schools is seen as a necessary step to stop the spread and save lives, it puts families in the difficult position of having to supervise children learning from home. Children living in poverty, without access to the internet needed to learn remotely and with limited access to free school meals will be hit hard.
Falling Behind on Education
There are an estimated 1.78 million children with no access to the internet or computers in Britain, according to the communications regulator Ofcom.
Recent research has already revealed there has been an impact on learning for the most disadvantaged children due to the pandemic.
The gap in learning progress between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had increased by almost half by the end of the 2020 academic year, according to the National Foundation for Educational Research.
A group of cross-party current MPs, along with former education ministers David Blunkett, Ed Balls, Estelle Morris, and Alan Johnson, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and charity leaders, jointly signed a letter addressed to Johnson on Monday, calling for more to be done to address the “digital divide” affecting many students.
“The [previous] lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK, with approximately 9% of children without access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet,” the letter said.
It added that there were a further “880,000 children living in a household with only a mobile internet connection,” which is harder to use as a means to complete school work.
Our urgent letter calling on @BorisJohnson to ensure that every child away from school has the data and device required to log in at home.— Siobhain McDonagh MP (@Siobhain_Mc) January 4, 2021
Because no child's education should be dependent on their internet connection.#DigitalDivide#Teachers#Schoolspic.twitter.com/RYZqogHB8f
The letter went on to say that these children already lost 5 months of learning in 2020 and urged the government to ensure every child sent home “has the data and the device they need to login and learn from home.”
Experts in social mobility are concerned the situation will have long-term consequences.
“This is not merely a short-term issue either. Lost learning due to a lack of digital resources will have implications for students that will last a lifetime,” the CEO of the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity, told reporters.
Meals provided at school for lunch —and sometimes breakfast, too — are relied upon by children from the poorest families in the UK. During the pandemic, when money has been tight for so many, access to these meals has played an important role in staving off hunger.
Eligibility for free school meals is often used as marker for poverty levels in the UK because it is a benefit only available to children from families on certain types of benefits and in the lowest bracket of household income.
Food poverty is such a serious problem in Britain that UNICEF, which provides humanitarian aid for children around the world, stepped in to help feed children in the UK for the first time ever in December. The UN agency did this after its own estimations suggested children were going hungry in a fifth of households, according to the BBC.
The good news is that for this next period of school closures, Johnson said access to free school meals for the families eligible for them will continue — although the details relating to this initiative are not yet clear.
Heading to bed but wanted to say how much respect I have for the teachers and assistants who have and will continue to dedicate their time to preparing food packages and printing vouchers to guarantee no child goes without. You play such an important role. Thank you ♥️— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) January 4, 2021
Marcus Rashford, the footballer and campaigner against child food poverty, who last year persuaded the government to provide meals to students over the summer and winter breaks, said he was pleased to hear that access to free school meals will be extended.
“Well that’s progress. Happy to hear the prime minister reference free school meal extension during lockdown,” he wrote on Twitter. “Should never be in question. Let’s all stay safe and check in on each other often.”
A Global Issue
Education has been disrupted almost everywhere, but children in low- and middle-income countries have been particularly affected.
The World Bank has been tracking learning poverty, which it characterises as the numbers of children reaching the age of 10 without being able to read, in low- and middle-income countries.
It predicted in December that with 1.6 billion pupils out of school globally in the peak of the pandemic in 2020, the numbers of children reaching the age of 10 without being able to read, and indeed dropping out of school altogether by that age, will likely have increased.
“COVID-19-related school closures could increase the learning poverty rate in low- and middle-income countries by 10 percentage points, from 53% to 63%,” the World Bank report estimated.
“This implies that an additional 72 million primary school-age children could fall into learning poverty,” the report continued.
Their research adds that as countries are forced off track with education, students currently in school stand to lose an estimated “$10 trillion in labour earnings over their working lives.”
It goes to show how vital it is that quality education continues and is accessible to all, despite the challenges presented by crises such as COVID-19.