A lost generation: How the pandemic is widening the educational gap
In late summer, a picture of two girls studying on the sidewalk next to a Taco Bell in Salinas, California, captured the attention of many around the globe. The story behind it? They were accessing the WIFI of the fast-food chain to keep up with online school. This rare snapshot resonated with so many, encapsulating the educational gap that has long existed in our societies, but multiplied with the outbreak of the pandemic. Unfortunately, there are more stories like this. Here are two of them:
Elif is 11 years old. Her mother works at the local supermarket, she is an essential worker and cannot stay at home. With the start of the pandemic, Elif has taken over household duties to support her family. During the day she is helping her two younger brothers with online school, assisting them with homework and translating their teacher’s emails for her mother. All while caring for her baby sister. At 7 pm Elif finally finds time to do her homework. Nighttime is dedicated to her work, her future.
Alan is 15 years old. He shares a bedroom with his two younger sisters. It is always noisy, he says, almost impossible to concentrate. The three siblings share one PC, it is being handed around throughout the day. By the time Alan gets it, the school day is almost over.
The gap in our education system has always been prevalent. Studies confirm that students from poorer families do worse than their peers due to a missing support system. Schools in poorer areas receive less funds than wealthier ones. However, the pandemic has accelerated these proportions drastically.
According to “The Guardian” the gap between England’s rich and poor students has grown by 46% during the pandemic. (July 2020) It is likely to be much bigger now. The global movement “Togetherband” stated that 700,000 children in the UK live in a house without any computer or tablet, with 60,000 not having any access to internet.
“Help all children, so that we can do better with our education. I don’t have internet access or tech, so I haven’t learned much over the past months.”  (15-year-old girl, Colombia)
Girls are more affected by the pandemic, with 63% of them stating that they do more chores (compared to 43% of boys) and 52% spending more time caring for siblings (42% of boys). Undoubtedly, the pandemic has an increasingly dramatic impact on women’s education and gender roles. (study: “Protect a Generation”)
“I am worried about my learning. I also feel tired of home chores. I have fear of teenage pregnancy and child marriage; school girls are the most targeted ones in marriage due to school closure.” (14-year-old girl, Kenya)
These are not individual problems, but wider systematic issues. A study deducted by “EdBuild” in 2019 showed that an average of 23 billion dollars less are provided for poorer schools with 2,200 dollars less spent on a non-white student compared to their white peer. While not all low-income schools are predominantly non-white, students of color are significantly underserved in our societies.
The dramatic results of this global issue will have a long-lasting impact: Children who fall behind on education risk dropping out completely, making them victims to child labor, child marriage and other exploitation, resulting in the largest emergency in education in history with 9.7 million kids never returning back to school. (Study by Save the Children)
But even if children do not drop out of school, the pandemic has widened the gap for equal opportunities, starting with the lack of academic and technical support. But learning goes beyond that. While wealthier families provide their offspring with books, toys, and tutors to offer a stimulating environment, students from less privileged backgrounds heavily rely on scholastic institutions for extracurriculars, literature, language tutoring etc. On top of that, poorer households have been more negatively affected by the pandemic, intensifying the socio-economic gap. Some numbers: 45% of poorer households struggle to pay for medical supply. 1 in 5 children, whose household has experienced income losses, recount experiencing domestic violence. (study: “Protect a Generation”)
Children like Elif and Alan are the silent heroes of the pandemic. They take on responsibilities they did not ask for. They grow up quicker than they should. They cope with emotional, socio-cultural, and political issues that will scar them deeply. Their already less privileged positions have been reinforced, with domestic violence, diminishing economic means and the lack of a support system being only few of the struggles they face.
Looking forward, how can we help? First and foremost, provide urgent help where it is needed the most, focusing on five factors: Education, Health, Governance, Social Protection and Protection from Violence. However, it is crucial to rethink our education systems. The pandemic has revealed how heavily responsibilities are delegated to families, how strongly our backgrounds influence our academic performance. School should be accessible for everyone. That access is not limited to school materials, but extends to emotional support, developmental stimulation, hobbies, nutrition, and infrastructure.
“Work with children more. We are the future, and how you treat us now, is how the future will look too.” (12-year-old girl, Kosovo)
 All quotes are from the report „Protect a Generation” by Save the Children