WIRED UKThis story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
On the face of it, a tropical storm bears little resemblance to a viral pandemic. But with schools closed for more than 1.3 billion schoolchildren worldwide, natural disasters can provide researchers with useful insight into a question they, and locked-down parents everywhere, are now asking: will the coronavirus shutdown have a long-term impact on children?The initial signs are less than encouraging. Studies on the after-effects of storms, earthquakes, and disease outbreaks have shown that disasters can have severely detrimental impacts on children’s educational attainment and mental health. “What we find is that although the particular characteristics of hazard are very relevant in terms of the recovery experience, the human impacts are often quite consistent,” says Lisa Gibbs, director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne.
Gibbs studied the survivors of Australia’s 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires, and found that children from affected areas performed worse than their peers in both literacy and numeracy tests for years after the event. “When there's an event with a significant trauma or loss and ongoing community disruption, there is an extended period of time where learning is affected,” Gibbs says. “And while children might get back on track with their capacity to learn, they're not catching up in terms of where they're at academically, and so you see a changed academic pathway that may have life-long implications.”
One challenge for researchers is identifying just how much of that learning loss can be attributed to schools being closed, and how much is due to other factors, such as relocation or trauma. It’s well documented that children who regularly miss school perform less well in exams, and policymakers have long talked about the “summer slide”—the learning loss that happens over the long holidays. (Though researchers have recently argued that the effect is likely small.)
One problem is that there is so little data on extended school disruptions—even after disasters, most children are usually learning again within a few weeks. The most obvious example would be the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which forced schools to close for 5 million children across West Africa for up to eight months—but we have strikingly little data on its impact. One 2019 study found that students in Argentina who missed up to 90 days of school in the 1980s and 90s due to teacher strikes were less likely to earn a degree, more likely to be unemployed, and earned 2-3 percent less on average than those from areas less impacted by the strikes.“Unfortunately, it’s in the category of empirical research confirming the obvious,” says Sam Sims, a research fellow at the UCL Institute Of Education. “When people don’t go to school, they don’t learn as much, and the longer they’re not at school for the more they don’t learn.”
During the pandemic, many schools have adopted some form of distance learning, with teachers providing material through online portals such as Google Classroom or holding lessons over Youtube or Zoom. But the evidence for online learning as a direct substitute for school is mixed. And the switch to distance learning is likely to exacerbate a pattern well established in natural disasters: those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are often the worst affected.