• Joseph Ndondo

COVID-19, lockdowns and online learning in Europe

The global effect of the pandemic on education

The revolutionized learning through digital technologies took a faster turn when the COVID-19 pandemic affected education with over 1.3 billion learners sent out of the classroom in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum. Through lockdowns, governments announced various forms of restrictions that limited the mobility of citizens and most especially closed all non-essential businesses such as bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Educational institutions too were not an exception in most countries. Limiting social contact seemed at that time to be the best way to stop the spread of the deadly SARS-Cov-2 virus.

Figure 1: Impact of COVID-19 on Global education (STATISTA 2020)

Globally, full and partial school closures stretched for an average of 224 days with low-income countries prolonging their closures. As a result of this sudden disruption, education was changed dramatically-with the distinctive rapid rise of e-Learning, where teaching was now undertaken remotely on platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Classroom. Although most countries opted for E-Learning, the quality of E-Learning provided varied greatly across countries, with low income being affected most. Students with disabilities were left out in many policy responses on education as most remote learning facilities were not designed to meet their special needs, according to the “ State of the Global Education Crisis” report by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF. The situation was worse for students with disabilities (SwDs) disabled people with cognitive impairments, who lacked the digital skills to be able to participate in online lessons, to the detriment of their education and mental health. While every child was affected by the pandemic, students with disabilities faced multiple threats because of the challenges they already face in their daily lives. Some European Civic Organizations have been assisting students with disabilities. Together for Children, a network of Greek civil society organizations (CSOs) that supports people with disabilities, has been helping students with intellectual disabilities who are self-isolating, to get online to continue their studies during the pandemic. Some European countries have been responding to the challenges posed by COVID-19 to inclusive education. A Harvard Survey24 covering 36 countries that responded to strategies for education continuity revealed that governments were partnering with national educational media and free online learning resources to reach all children. The French Government, through its Ministry of Education, created and strengthened partnerships with several national media sources such as culture and education-oriented television and radio channels to offer further educational material and reach as many children as possible. In the United Kingdom, Dyslexia Assist and the National Autistic Society developed and shared material for Children with Disabilities and their families.

The pandemic caused disruptions in schools’ curriculum resulting in substantial learning losses in Math and Reading. Past school disruptions due to war or diseases have shown that in most times, it is very hard to recover from learning losses, which may very likely persist and grow even after students return back to school. Learning losses encompasses any loss of knowledge, skills, or interruption to academic progress. With the focus now lying on shifting from crisis to pandemic recovery, it remains questionable whether education will revert back to its old ways of doing business, that is, physical learning? Whatever the outcome, the fact is that all focus is now on building resilient and equitable educational systems.

The Politics of locking down education in the EU

The virus diffused rapidly across Europe, with the first confirmed case being reported in Bordeaux, France on 24th January 2020. By 17th March 2020, every European country with the exception of Vatican City, had recorded a confirmed COVID-19 case with at least one death. Italy became the first country to announce a nationwide lockdown after it had experienced a major outbreak in early 2020. Most European countries later followed suit as it became obvious that Europe was now the epicenter of the pandemic.

The politics of lockdowns dominated across Europe for much of the year 2020, all the way to 2021. Sweden was one of the few European countries that initially avoided lockdown policies, hoping instead to naturally attain herd immunity. Lockdowns were characterized by curfews and quarantines which restricted the free mobility and suspended all social activities of its citizens. Lockdowns also effectively closed non-essential businesses and schools. The impact of school closures as a result of these lockdowns proved to be the worst on record in Europe. Millions of school and university students had their courses suspended in 2020. The length of school closures varied from one European country to another, leading to considerable inequality with regard to access to education, causing a new education gap. When courses later resumed through digital learning, some students did not have reliable internet connection or the tools to follow classes online. School closures affected the EU’s educational programme’s such as the Erasmus+ programme and academic performance at every level. It affected international student mobility for example, as many countries had announced travel bans. COVID-19 resulted in cancellations and delays to numerous mobility schemes, although most universities (85 %) offered alternative arrangements in the form of ‘virtual mobility’ via emergency remote teaching.

Some international students were unable to return to their home countries when school closures were announced. They often had to find alternative accommodation arrangements (due to campus closures) and are likely to have been at a higher risk of isolation during the periods of lockdown. For students who succeeded in returning to their home countries, they experienced challenges due to large time zone differences, inadequate internet access, and lack of physical peer-to-peer interactions.

The pandemic affected every European student in one way or another. By March 15th 2020, Europe was now the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with more cases being reported daily in Europe than those reported in China at the height of its epidemic. Most countries in Europe were under some form of lockdown and most European governments justified these military-like curfews on the urgent need to stop the spread of the deadly virus and reduce the pressure on healthcare facilities, which at that time seemed to have been overwhelmed in most countries. Scientific and epidemiological research has shown that lockdowns are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that curfews and lockdowns must be short-term measures to allow governments to reorganize or regroup the health sector. The COVID-19 pandemic however saw prolonged curfews, the scale of which is thought to be unprecedented.

On educational policies and responses during the pandemic, school closures appeared to be the most opted-for response in most countries. In the European Union, educational policies still remain an exclusive and strong domain of sovereign national countries. Therefore, the response to such challenges differed from one country to the other. Policy responses on education also varied according to the level of education. In Sweden for example, only secondary schools were closed while primary schools were kept open. Most other European countries, however, closed both primary and secondary schools, with varying lengths of closures. Italy had the longest school closures which were maintained until the next summer break from the first one in 2020. During these closures, the daily care of school children was handed over to parents and guardians, who were encouraged to find solutions for the care of their children. In some countries such as Denmark, students whose parents were essential workers were provided with emergency education as their parents could not find time to take care of them. Digital material and instructions were provided by schools while those in the higher classes had access to virtual classrooms.

In Finland, homeschooling was not an entirely new mode of learning. The Finnish basic education law (Perusopetuslaki. 628/1998) already provided for home-based learning pre-pandemic, although this was only practiced minimally. The Finnish Basic Education law obliges students to receive basic education but does not force them to attend school, but when COVID-19 emerged, what had existed as an optional clause in the law, suddenly became mandatory for many students, with a few schools remaining open for students with parents who were classified as essential workers.

For Germany, with its pluralistic and corporative federal republic, the decision-making rests on the authority of the Länder (States). The 16 Länder had in some cases closed schools in states where COVID-19 infections were rife, based on the German Infection Protection Act. On 13 March 2020, however, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK), working on recommendations from the Robert Koch Institute, a Federal government central Public Health Institute, announced far-reaching measures that included closing schools temporarily, suspending the duty to attend school. The responsibility of teaching in Germany was largely handed over to teachers and parents, to deal with as best as they could.

In their educational responses, some European countries prioritized students in vulnerable conditions. Children in vulnerable situations included children with disabilities, refugees living in conflict areas, forcibly displaced persons, and those living in poor or rural areas, especially girls. Norway, for example, continued to open schools for students with disabilities, whose parents were essential workers and who faced risks at home such as risk from home-based violence.

In terms of legislation and juridical legitimacy, some countries in Europe passed special laws during the pandemic such as Norway’s Corona Law and Poland’s Care Allowance special law. These special pieces of legislation were meant to give governments certain juridical provisions and legitimacy which they believed would enable them towards effective and swift decision-making for responding to the pandemic. Norway’s temporary Corona law specifically granted the government the power to make decisions without involving the parliament. Through this law, the Norwegian government enabled the option of parents to apply for a financial allowance during the lockdown, which was specifically earmarked for taking care of sick children. In Norway, many workers could work remotely from home. Many parents could therefore use the flexible work hours that came with remote working to accommodate children’s needs at home. In addition, Norway’s well-developed digital infrastructure ensured that digital learning went almost smoothly.

Poland also passed a special law for care allowance for parents to provide care for their children. Distance Education had existed in pre-pandemic Poland, albeit mainly for continuing and adult education. The pandemic saw a rapid shift, making distance education mandatory for all students in Poland, except only for ones with special needs. The Polish government through the Ministry of National Education launched extensive nationwide initiatives for distance education on state-owned e-platforms, public service TV, and radio.

Besides catering to the positive facilitation of education during the pandemic, Digital Learning also brought with it some negativities. According to a survey on Distance Learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was carried out in Slovenia and Italy in 2020, some confirmed reports of depression and stress were reported. In Slovenia, the government announced the closure of schools when the coronavirus disease was confirmed in March 2020. Schools were suddenly forced to use Digital Learning strategies. Teachers had little experience in this mode of learning and students started facing increased mental distress which resulted in them struggling to follow the digital learning classes. Some students also struggled to follow the digital learning timetable owing to the fact that they share a computer at home with other family members. In Italy, which announced its lockdown on 9th March 2020, the educational system was forced to go into Digital Learning. The Italian National Institute of Statistics reported that 45% of youths (6 to 17 years old) experienced learning difficulties caused by inaccessibility to learning devices such as computers, tablet gadgets, or lack of internet connection.

An unprepared European Continent?

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Europe, it appeared that the continent was at that time preoccupied with other issues such as Brexit and migration issues. The pandemic did not appear to be a priority and was not perceived as a significant risk by the European leaders. This was a big mistake on their part. Brexit and immigration issues got a lot of media coverage and attention despite warnings by the European Centers for Disease and Control, of the imminent danger of the virus. It is likely that Europe thought of the COVID-19 pandemic as just another Zika, Ebola, and or SARS virus that would pass over their continent.

Educational systems too were not prepared to cope with the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, only about 20% of countries around the world were deemed to be prepared, with preexisting digital learning platforms. Schools adopted whatever available learning technologies existed and most were developed predominantly by the big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, with some newcomers such as Zoom also joining the party later on. During the pandemic, Ed-tech companies such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams have been experiencing unprecedented exponential growth as more and more educational institutions adopted e-Learning. A survey made by Statista demonstrated that the most used platforms by students were “Google Classroom” and “Zoom”. The European University Association reported that about 95% of universities in Europe switched to distance learning at some point during the pandemic.

Nationalistic attitudes and a break from Globalization

The COVID-19 pandemic was a global phenomenon, however, responses to the pandemic were not globalized in nature. Instead, countries became surprisingly, more and more nationalistic, with the primary focus of countries being what’s within their borders. National sovereignty started being considered prime over globalized responses. The nature of these nationalistic responses would persist even as the vaccines were later on invented, with richer countries hoarding and securing batches of vaccines while poor ones struggled to vaccinate their populations. These attitudes were against the calls by the World Health Organization that “No one was safe until everyone was safe”. Across the European Union, school closures were not a consistent and uniform decision. In some European countries such as Sweden, the closures were minimal, whilst in other countries, the closures were prolonged for long periods of time. Despite the variations in the length of school closures, what was clear is that any learning disruptions were met with significant learning loss.

The digital gap in Europe

While digital learning was the go-to policy option for most countries in Europe during the pandemic, not all students managed to fully access education in this mode. A minority of students in Europe still lack access to internet connections. A notable case is in Romania where 19% of students do not have access to any kind of internet connection. Schools were closed for an average of 32 weeks between 2020 and 2021, and only 6 out of 10 students were provided with online education. Most of these students are located mainly in rural areas, however, in urban areas, 10% of students also do not have access to the internet. In the UK, one in five students was unable to access online learning. Although universities and secondary schools managed to adapt more rapidly to e-Learning, the level of learning quality and reach remained varied and insufficient in most European countries. Some countries, such as Sweden and Norway and most of the Nordic countries, seemed to be more equipped to implement Digital Learning smoothly while others were poorly equipped and prepared. In Sweden, the government had already developed remote and hybrid forms of education prior to the pandemic. Therefore, a lot of students were already familiar with online learning platforms, but less with remote education, making the shift to e-Learning smoother in Sweden and Norway.

Across the European Union, rural schools and small towns are usually less well connected to the internet. The trend still persists which sees large cities with better internet than their rural counterparts. This would cause inequality among students in terms of access to and reach of online education to students located in small and rural towns. The Nordic countries are usually better equipped digitally than other EU countries. They have a high level of access to the internet, with the Netherlands and Luxembourg rated as the continent’s best-connected countries according to the Internet Society. In the United Kingdom, about 9% of students lack good internet connections. The digital gap has also included the skills gap where students lack the basic skills required in digital learning. The European Commission reports that about 44% of Europeans between 16 and 74 years do not have basic digital skills. This effectively means that digital learning inequity will emerge between those with basic digital skills and those without. These digital skills and digital connectivity inequalities have affected the marginalized when it comes to learning. This has slowed the achievement of educational goals at both continental and global levels. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 4 aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” With digital learning in its present form, there seem to be some logistical challenges that inhibit this mode of learning from being universally inclusive and equitable, especially in low- and middle-income countries to potentially catalyze the dismal failure to meet SDGs targets.

The Future of Learning

The pandemic catalyzed most of the world to take a great leap into the future of digital learning, but now it remains a question whether this mode of learning will become the ‘new normal’ in education or the world will now revert back to the pre-pandemic default mode of learning in physical classrooms. The European Commission has recently launched its new Digital Education Action Plan from the year 2021 to 2027. One of the key objectives of this plan is to “Learn from the COVID-19 crisis and make education and training systems fit for the digital age”.

On the global arena, UNESCO recently launched a multi-sector coalition to protect the right to education during unprecedented disruption from response to recovery. This coalition is called the Global Education Coalition and has more than a hundred organizations, including the OECD, the World Bank, UNICEF, Zoom, profit, and non-profit providers. The inclusion of private companies in this coalition shows perhaps the growing influence of international and private organizations in education and may even stir future debate on what role private organizations will play in the educational sector going forward, in consideration of existing technological challenges of privacy and cyber security. Powerful networks are emerging between intergovernmental organizations (OECD, UNESCO, World Bank), global industry, and educational technology businesses with the promise to repair the disruption of education during Covid-19.

Although these strategic alliances on education are quite promising, they seem to be some missing points:

  • What is the role of the student in the designing of educational systems?