Educational Inequalities Move Online in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and renewed gross inequalities in global access to education. These inequalities are not new, but the rapid large-scale move to online learning for the majority of the world has exacerbated the inequalities present in education systems across the world pre-pandemic. Even before the pandemic, progress in educational access was slow, with predictions that over 200 million children will still be out school by 2030. But the new need for social distancing has meant that now, over 90% of all students worldwide are out of school due to closures and government restrictions. This, in addition to the transition to online and distance learning, has caused great disruptions in students’ educational trajectories, with serious consequences.

While many sectors including education were in the process of digitising and becoming more reliant on online facilities, these transitions were planned to take place over months and years. The pandemic and the sudden closures of schools has meant that these changes were accelerated to take place over a few days only. This has had a profound impact on all schools and for all students, but notably, there have been many negative consequences for those in the lowest-income groups who were already disadvantaged in their access to education. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has estimated that during the COVID-19 pandemic and with changes to online learning, low-income country school completion is at 79% in the richest 20% of households, while only at 34% in the poorest 20%. This is a stark contrast in educational access, no doubt exacerbated by the changes to the mode of delivery of education.

The move to online education requires significant planning and resources. This makes it much more likely to take place successfully in wealthy areas and schools. It requires a level of access to technology that is not present in all the population needing it. Without a safe alternative because of the virus, this means that many students will be left behind with no way to access educational material from their homes, to which many will have been confined as part of new government regulations to stop the spread of COVID-19. The LA Times reported on access to technology in several California school districts and found that in the most affluent districts, about 87% of students had access to a computer before the school closures, jumping to 98% once online learning began. By comparison 30% of students in low-income districts lacked computers pre-pandemic, lowering to 12% after it began. These differences in access to technology directly correlate to inequalities in access to education, especially when considering the disparities in education quality between high- and low-income regions pre-pandemic. It is evident that a transition to online learning has signified the development of a new dimension of inequality for many students. Additionally, even for those who can access the technology needed, other issues persist, making schooling a very difficult process in ways it had not been before. This was very evident this week with the restarting of online lessons in Greece, which have been made mandatory due to the second lockdown implemented by the government. On the first day of online teaching, the interface used failed and left teachers and students stranded with no way to communicate.

The long-term impacts of these changes to education are beginning to show themselves now and were easily predictable from the start of the pandemic. There may be generational effects that show themselves at a later stage, where the disruptions to education at these critical stages will become important, such as with students taking final exams that determine their access to higher education. This is significantly influenced by income and pre-existing privilege in educational access and quality. In the UK, the scandal surrounding the 2020 A-Level results and their apparent basis in regional wealth and school attainment in previous years showed just how disruptive and damaging poor government planning and underlying inequities were to students during the pandemic.

The move to online education is absolutely critical in countries where the pandemic continues to infect and kill shockingly large numbers of people. Schools involve large gatherings of children, many of whom are too young to properly understand the new need for social distancing and the utmost importance of personal hygiene. And, according to the UN, only about 65% of primary schools even have the appropriate handwashing facilities necessary to slow the spread of COVID19. The solution to this is online learning, but its implementation so far has been lacklustre and has not considered the wide disparities in access to it between members of different income groups. This short-sightedness will have wideranging negative consequences for those who are already the most disadvantaged by their socioeconomic situation with regards to education specifically, and quick and effective improvements must be made for the benefit of all students, and educational institutions as well.

By Despina Lazarou