Doubly Disadvantaged – Covid Online Schooling Left The Poor Behind

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The mass shift to online schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately disadvantaged poorer children, who had a much smaller chance of accessing online education compared to children from wealthier households.


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Two years of lost and disrupted schooling have put learners up to a year behind where they should be,[i] with a long-term impact on both their future earning ability and South Africa’s economic prospects – and children from lower-income households are at greater risk of remaining in the poverty trap of poor education, leading to poor employment opportunities.

Learners in the wealthiest 10% of households were approximately three times more likely than those in lower-income homes to have accessed online education at the onset of the pandemic, research at the Stellenbosch Business School has found.

For South Africa, the long-term impact of these learning losses is a risk of deepening educational and economic inequality that still persists 28 years into the democratic era, and a potential compounding economic loss,[ii] said Stellenbosch Business School MBA graduate and the top achiever, Wimpie van Lill.

He found that in similar circumstances – a lower-income household, outside of Gauteng or the Western Cape, with an unemployed parent with less than matric education – a learner from a black household had a 25% probability of having accessed online education, compared to a 44% chance for a child in a white household.

In wealthier homes, where a parent is employed, has matric or tertiary qualification, and is living in the Western Cape, children from white households had an 81% likelihood of having accessed online education resources, compared to a 64% probability for a child from a black household.

Van Lill’s MBA research quantified the gaps in access to online education resources at the onset of the Covid-19 school closures and disrupted timetables, demonstrating a greater negative impact on those already disadvantaged by South Africa’s unequal education system.

While education authorities have focused on the immediate need to get schooling “back to normal”, Van Lill said there is also an urgent need to prioritise large-scale corrective educational measures, including a revised and accelerated curriculum, in order to mitigate the long-term socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.

“Children from lower-income households are already disadvantaged by South Africa’s unequal education system, limiting their ability to leverage the personal, societal and economic benefits of education.

“The learning losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic strengthen the perpetual negative reinforcing loop where low-income households have poorer educational outcomes, leading to poor labour market prospects and deepening poverty.

“It is thus important for policymakers to consider next steps to firstly ensure that these learning losses do not continue, and secondly, to ensure that remedial action is taken to limit longer-term consequences for those schoolchildren who have been most negatively affected,” he said.

Van Lill said the impact of learning losses would be felt not only at an individual level in terms of education and employment prospects, but would also have a broader socio-economic impact.

“From a country perspective, the learning losses will ultimately manifest in the labour market, in the decreased availability of an educated and skilled workforce, resulting in a setback to our economic growth prospects and on the ability to harness the demographic dividend of a growing working-age population,” he said.

Van Lill investigated the relationship between South African household income and access to educational resources at the onset of the pandemic. He then used data from the National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM)[iii] to determine the likelihood that children from different income and population groups accessed online learning at the start of the pandemic, during lockdown and school closures.

Lower-income households were especially ill-equipped for the rapid shift to online and home-based schooling, as they had limited access to home computers, internet connections or mobile phones and data, and were less able to afford obtaining them at short notice.

Parents in lower-income households, who are more likely to have low levels of education, were also less capable of assisting their children with home-based online learning, he said.

Van Lill said that the research findings highlighted the need for “large-scale and immediate policy measures to limit and reverse the resulting learning losses and to ensure that those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged can escape from poverty and achieve upward social mobility”.

This could include simplifying the curriculum to focus on core basic numeracy and literacy skills, remedial tutoring and holiday learning camps, support for teachers and parents to adjust to new ways of teaching and learning, and continuous monitoring of progress in addressing learning losses.

“However, this will require teachers to adapt to changing circumstances, and a high degree of agility within a large public system,” he said.

Accelerated learning programmes to enable high quality catch-up learning should focus on a simplified curriculum grounded in basic literacy and numeracy.

“Learners will have returned to school with varying levels of learning loss due to their previous levels of education, differential access to online learning resources, or varying degrees of home support during the school closures. Evidence has shown that one or two hours a day of targeted foundational literacy and numeracy education can substantially improve learning. This kind of targeting can be based on rapid performance assessments conducted when students return to in-person schooling,” he said.

Remedial tutoring and teacher-led learning camps can also support learning acceleration, especially for disadvantaged students who suffered substantial learning losses during lockdown.

While technology-based learning can also support remedial and accelerated learning, using online learning platforms developed during school closures to complement in-person teaching, Van Lill warned that in South Africa this would first require access to the necessary technology, possibly through strategic partnerships with ICT businesses.

Simply providing hardware would not be enough, he said, and the use of education technology would need the appropriate software as well as training for teachers and parents, along with a clear implementation plan.

He added that teachers would need to be supported to enable them to assist children in transitioning back to in-person learning, with delivering an adjusted syllabus and identifying and tutoring learners in need of remedial support.

“It is important to leverage the entire education workforce and include other education professionals, volunteers, tutors and mentors in efforts to strengthen learning outcomes and support vulnerable students in returning to and staying in school.

“The involvement of parents in their children’s education while schools were closed needs to be continued, and parents need to be encouraged and supported to do this effectively,” he said.

Van Lill said that continuous monitoring is crucial to ensure that meaningful progress is made in addressing learning losses.

“This will enable policymakers to assess whether the implemented policy actions are yielding positive returns in terms of catch-up gains and reversing severe learning losses, and help them to adapt their approach in a timely manner, or to strengthen those areas that prove to be successful in closing the learning gap,” he said.

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