Children are Better Off in School

Teacher of 45 years describes the consequences of school closures for children

Lockdowns, isolation, quarantine, masks.

No hugs, no friends, no sport, no pantomime. no educational visits, no choir, no drama.

Education standards plummeting, the exam system destabilised, and the path to university entry unclear.

Anxiety, depression and self-harm at alarming levels.

Such has been the experience of our children for the past year.

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In a conversation with the JAMA Network, Dr Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, stated that school closures are ‘probably the single-most significant generator of inequality since segregation‘. He went on to add that the lockdown measures which led to closures are ‘incredibly unequal, unfair, and immoral policy’.

Research by the London School of Economics reveals how the pandemic has exposed the divide between education’s haves and have-nots. They found that private school pupils were twice as likely as state school pupils to benefit from full days of online lessons. A quarter of pupils received no education at all.

Many households are ill-equipped to support home learning. How is it fair that one child receives, at best, a few online lessons in cramped and crowded conditions with limited internet access while another benefits from private tutoring and unlimited internet access? The sad reality is that children who were unable or unwilling to work at home under normal circumstances will be no more able to do so now and will fall even further behind.

Technology is no substitute for in-person instruction. Education is a process that requires interpersonal interaction, frequent communication, complex explanation, experiential opportunities, and empathy – and it is continuous. Learning cannot occur when children are unexpectedly and frequently sent home for days at a time to isolate.

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Learning Loss

The Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales, Anne Longfield, reported that, as of 8 March 2021, the class of 2021 had lost the equivalent of 840 million school days.

Given that shocking statistic, it cannot be surprising that many children are regressing educationally, according to U.K.’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).

Students are missing key building blocks in their education – the very foundations on which future learning would be based. This means they are less likely to make progress.

The standard reading regression that teachers expect every year caused by the transition from primary to secondary school has increased substantially. How much of this regression can be reclaimed in the current disrupted schooling system is unknown, and the downstream effects for our children are potentially disastrous.

The implications of lost learning at high stakes boundaries are clear; the exam board OCR reports that nearly a third of GCSE and A-level students have lost more than 50% of their learning time, with some losing 100%.

Pupils who miss out on basic GCSE passes, in English or Maths, for example, may forfeit a job opportunity or fail to secure a sixth form place. Students dropping an A-level grade may miss out on a university place, consigning teenagers to comparatively inferior employment and earnings prospects for years. There is particular concern about those children in the grade C-D-E boundary area. These children would almost certainly have benefitted from robust in-class teaching in the vital months leading up to exams.

Sixth form students face an uncertain future and worry about how they will be assessed. Will they even consider going to university with no face-to-face teaching, paying hefty fees, and possibly locked in their halls? And, if so, what are the implications?

Then there is the added uncertainty of how their grades will be perceived. Universities and employers may be sceptical about how this years’ grades translate into suitability for university entry or employment. How will the absence of practical experience be made up – whether a pupil, a medical professional-in-training, a recently-graduated engineer, or an apprentice electrician, to name just a few?

Many teenagers have lost hope. ‘What’s the point?’ is a question too many are asking.

‘There is nothing to do and nowhere to go.’

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More Than Academics

Schools are much more than exam institutions. Children need to socialise. Sport, choir, clubs, play are vital for their development.

These grandparents voiced the experience of many:

‘If one parent panics and puts their poor child through that horrendous test, it causes havoc with hundreds of families.’

‘My granddaughter has been sent home for two weeks due to ONE classmate testing positive. She cannot attend her hockey practice, her gym classes, see friends or even visit the local park! She has become sullen, withdrawn and tearful. The stress on families juggling work commitments is terrible.’

And a foreboding statement from a five-year-old schoolgirl serves to emphasise the dangers:

‘I don’t need anybody to play. I am used to being lonely’.

The cost of breaking social bonds is societal breakdown.

Victims of child abuse are significantly affected when schools are closed. Teachers aren’t there to pick up the early warning signs of abuse or neglect, and children have no one safe to tell.

Ofsted refers to it as ‘the invisibility of vulnerable children‘.

For many young people, school provides the most stable and secure part of their lives. The care and support they receive in school are crucial to their well-being. Schools are central to their social, emotional, physical and psychological health. They provide nutrition, clothing, a listening ear, a calming voice, and a helping hand.  

Lockdowns are leading to a loss of independence, fear of going out and fear of school itself with an accompanying significant increase in eating disorders, abuse and depression, especially amongst the vulnerable. Dr Shamez Ladhani, Public Health England consultant, said that the long-term harm of keeping children out of school is ‘enormous’.

For children with special needs, the lack of coordinated multi-agency support has been traumatic. Many parents, too, are on the verge of a breakdown. A child on the autistic spectrum needs consistency, and the in/out nature of school is doing irreparable harm.

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Better Off in School

Surely someday, our children will ask why they were penalised – why they were denied education, not allowed to see friends or travel or experience university. Why they were denied those once-in-a-lifetime experiences: the first year at secondary school, at university, the satisfaction of passing exams, the last year at school.

There is no good answer.

Should they catch COVID-19, children have a 99.9+% chance of recovery, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. According to the Office of National Statistics, and their teachers are at no more risk than the general public. They go home to parents who also have very low fatality rates, according to a report by John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Stanford University. He places the probability of survival after infection at 99.95% for people under 70. And the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency states that schools are not a significant source of transmission.

In addition to depriving children, we have shamed them, placing blame for potentially ‘killing granny’ on their shoulders. That message inferred that children are responsible should their grandparents succumb to COVID-19 – that they should be looking after their elders. Who then is looking after the children?

Education can be life-defining. It can determine your career, where you work, how much you earn, where you live, who you meet and the quality of your overall lifestyle. To deny our children the opportunities education provides is shameful. Their future is at stake, and so is the country’s.

Haven’t they lost enough? Isn’t it time to put the needs of the children first and allow the older generations to take responsibility for themselves whilst protecting the vulnerable?

As Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health put it, ‘When we close schools, we close lives.’

This is not sustainable. All school closures must end before the damage is irreversible. Children are better off at school, and that is where they all should be.

Hugh McCarthy is a retired teacher of 45 years and served as Principal of Killicomaine Junior High School in Portadown for the final 23. He is currently a director of The Controlled Schools’ Support Council (CSSC) and a member of The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in Northern Ireland.

Hugh’s views are his own and do not represent the views of any organisations of which he is a member.

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An earlier version of this article originally appeared on msn.com and has been updated and republished by Collateral Global with permission of the author.