Acton Institute Powerblog

School shutdowns hurt struggling students, girls the worst: Study

Students and parents holding placards in their car protest during a car rally to encourage Los Angeles County to reopen schools during the Coronavirus pandemic Monday Feb. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Ringo Chiu via AP)

In-person school closures due to COVID-19 lockdowns widened the gap between the rich and poor, a new study conducted by Oxford University has found. While young people of all demographic groups fell behind during the period of remote learning, those from the least educated homes were the hardest hit.

Researchers studied elementary students from age 8 to 11 in the Netherlands, because they found the country best suited to endure the pandemic. Dutch schools test students twice a year, and 2020 tests fell just before and after the 8-week suspension of in-person education. The nation also has the world’s highest level of broadband penetration, and its schools distributed electronic devices to families that lacked them.

“[O]ur results reveal a learning loss … equivalent to one-fifth of a school year, the same period that schools remained closed,” the researchers find. That is, students learned nothing during the eight-week break. Their education held in stasis for the duration of remote learning.

Like most things in life, the well-off endured the hardship better. The children’s “learning loss was particularly pronounced for students from disadvantaged homes, confirming the fears held by many that school closures would cause socioeconomic gaps to widen,” the Oxford report states.

Levels of learning loss were “up to 60% larger among students from less-educated homes, confirming worries about the uneven toll of the pandemic on children and families.”

The policy put those from deprived families even further behind. People with the highest educational attainment earn on average 47% more income than those with an upper secondary education, according to the OECD. That should concern any nation so devoted to eradicating income inequality.

Worse yet, COVID-19 lockdowns placed poorer families under additional pressure. “Concurrent effects on the economy” caused by closing the economy “make parents less equipped to provide support, as they struggle with economic uncertainty or demands of working from home,” the study says. Parents struggling to survive cannot tutor their children.

Researchers also discovered, although differences between the sexes were slight, girls sustained modestly greater learning loss than boys. Women in the Netherlands earn 14.6% less than men, albeit not always due to differences in qualification levels.

Socioeconomic setbacks were likely worse in other nations. Although the study restricts itself to the Netherlands, Oxford researchers believe “losses [were] even larger in countries with weaker infrastructure or longer school closures.”

Many school districts in the U.S. have been on hiatus a year or longer, often at the urging of the teachers’ union leadership.

The Oxford study’s conclusions confirm similar findings in the United States. The nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association, joined with the National PTA for a survey of students’ experiences last year. It found:

A 58 percent majority of students say they were doing well academically before the virus; only 32 percent believe they are doing well currently. Younger students and students whose parents did not attend college are the most likely to report an academic decline.

The NEA shrugged off its own findings, saying, “students are extremely resilient.”

The union’s indifference grates all the more, because multiple studies have found the two leading predictors of whether a school district forbids in-person classroom education are the district’s anti-Trump sentiment and the power of teachers’ unions “The number of COVID-19 cases in a particular community bore no relationship to the decision to go with virtual education,” wrote Will Flanders of the Wisconsin Institute For Law & Liberty. Instead, closure decisions are best predicted by the level of “partisanship and union presence.” A total of six studies to date have duplicated his conclusions, including:

The last of these revealed that school districts that furnished teachers’ unions with generous contracts “were less likely to open for in-person instruction at the start of the fall semester, were less likely to ever open during fall semester for in-person instruction, and spent more weeks in remote learning.” 

The first wave of students for in-school teaching, from preschool through second grade, just trickled into the Los Angeles United School District on Monday. Its union demanded single-payer healthcare, shutting down competing charter schools before teachers return to the classroom. Others insisted school boards adopt vague-sounding policies aimed to combat “systemic racism.”

Even when union demands are met, labor organizers sometimes renege on their promise to welcome children inside the school’s doors. The Cleveland Teachers Union mandated that all teachers be vaccinated before they would go back to school. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, expedited the vaccine distribution to teachers – only to have them vote against returning after all. “When you go and have the vast majority of people go get the vaccine and then not hold up your end of the deal, that’s where our administration takes issue,” said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. “We skipped a lot of people. They took vaccines that could have gone to other, more vulnerable people.” After significant backlash, union leaders relented a week later.

Children’s educational loss does not just harm their future earnings; denying them the right to develop their full potential costs the church, as well. Abraham Kuyper said, “God’s honor requires the human spirit to probe the entire complexity of what has been created, in order to discover God’s majesty and wisdom and to express those in human thoughts and language.” This requires Christians to cultivate all the arts of learning – a thought that predates Kuyper by at least 15 centuries. One of the greatest fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, wrote in the Life of Moses that the Bible:

commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone … to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.

Anything that deprives children of these goods impoverishes the church and, to the degree that education is denied, vandalizes the church when she finds her treasury devoid of the riches of reason.

More on this topic:

Why are schools closed? Unions and partisanship, study finds

Your child’s misery is a price the NEA is willing to pay

The forgotten child: Pandemic policies are leaving kids behind

Chicago’s teacher standoff shows the injustice of public-sector unions

13,000 children are being denied an education over a funding fight

‘Education Reimagined’: West Virginia’s quest for school choice

As children thrive at charter schools, progressives threaten their future

Study reveals exactly how teachers’ unions lock children out of schools

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and FrontPageMag.com, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at DailyWire.com, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout, CatholicVote.org, Issues & Insights, The Conservative, Rare.us, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are therightswriter.com and RevBenJohnson.com. His views are his own.