In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, affecting every aspect of all of our lives, including work, education, and even how we socialize. Education was one of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic as the economic recession cut the budgets of many schools and people were suddenly forced to shift to online learning. In total, over 1.4 billion students in over 190 countries experienced school closures caused by the pandemic, beginning a massive and unprecedented experiment in online learning.
One of the biggest challenges of online learning was the digital divide - the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t. In 2020, over 2.2 billion people ages 25 and younger, around 2/3 of the relevant population, did not have internet access at home. This divide disproportionately affected minority groups, low-income individuals, and individuals with disabilities, and served as one of the biggest obstacles to equitable education during the pandemic.
The digital divide is not only about affordability and infrastructure; it also encompasses the skills and awareness people have when using technology. Many teachers and students lacked the digital literacy to use online platforms and tools correctly or effectively, which led to ineffective online classes and a lack of educational development among students.
Reports showed a concerning decline in learning, and by June 2021, students in the U.S. lost the equivalent of five to nine months of school, with students of color losing even more six to twelve months.
James L., a BeHASSTic volunteer from Long Grove, Illinois, perfectly encapsulated the challenges of online learning in comparison to in-person education. He said, “I used to hate waking up early for school every day, but after experiencing online learning, I don’t anymore. It was fun for the first few days, but online learning is not the same as in-person. You only see your friends through a screen and it was much harder to focus and ask for help when I needed it.”
Worldwide school closures also led to an increase in mental health challenges for many students, teachers, and parents. More than 8 in 10 of children reported an increase in negative feelings, and violence at home doubled from 8% when schools were open, to 17% during school closures. In China and the U.K., 25% of children and young adults developed significant sleeping difficulties as a result of the closures. Another one of our volunteers, Hannah S., from New City, New York, echoed the collective sentiment, explaining, “I feel like COVID robbed me of so many important moments of my life. I felt so lonely at home because I wasn’t able to talk and hang out with my friends, and I missed out on so many school traditions and experiences that I had been looking forward to for a long time.”
However, not all of the changes have been negative. Something that has continued beyond the peak period of school closures has been the adoption of blended learning models, which combine in-person schooling with technology and online teaching. Many schools have begun a transformative shift in the classroom, using video calls, learning management systems, digital textbooks, and more technological tools that were previously left unexplored in an in-person classroom setting.
Looking forward, COVID-19 will impact the future of education for years to come. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated gaps and inequalities in the education system, and served as a wake-up call to the need for adaptability, innovation, and collaboration, in education. As we continue to forge a path to a more inclusive and equitable future, we need to reexamine how we can provide quality education to address the diverse needs and interests of every student.