Coronavirus: Impacts of school and university lockdowns

Universities have joined with schools and colleges across the globe in shutting down most activities as the impact of the coronavirus affects almost every aspect of life. An estimated 1.8 billion students have been affected by educational institution lockdowns.

Closures of schools and higher education institutions continue in many countries, disrupting a large chunk of the 2020 academic year.

In Australia, the more than one million students and 100,000 teaching and allied staff employed by 43 universities are based at home, waiting for the national emergency to end.

Higher education peak bodies have small numbers of staff monitoring what has become a disastrous situation. These include Universities Australia, the Group of Eight leading universities, the Australian Technology Network of Universities, Innovative Research Universities and the Regional Universities Network.

Foreign students stranded

More than 500,000 international students were in Australia when the coronavirus pandemic was declared, and many are now struggling to pay their bills. But temporary visa holders, like the international students, are yet to be offered significant government financial help.

Daniela Maza is a foreign student who has lived in Australia for the past four years, studying for a degree in Brisbane. Like thousands of other students around the country, she suddenly found herself facing significant financial distress in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

"No-one was prepared for how this was going to explode out of nowhere," Maza told ABC, the national broadcaster. "If, one month ago, someone would have told me 'in a month's time you are going to be struggling to pay your bills, food and rent', I wouldn't believe it."

The 24-year-old from El Salvador said many students were trying to pool their food and accommodation after being stood down from casual jobs.

That fact alone raises questions why Australian governments have not responded to students’ needs. The international education sector contributes more than AU$30 billion (US$21.4 billion) to the Australian economy, including almost AU$6 billion in Queensland alone.

"I have shared my groceries with a couple of friends," Maza said. "We're obviously trying to support each other as much as we can. I'm about to finish my degree – so, do I pay my school or do I buy something to eat? I've never been faced with a situation where I have to choose whether I pay for my rent or I pay for my food."

AU$30 billion contribution

The pandemic has affected education systems across the world, leading to the near-total closures of schools, universities and colleges in many countries as governments attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. An estimated 1.8 billion students have been affected.

According to the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, 106 countries are currently implementing nationwide school closures and 55 are imposing local closures. These actions have impacted on almost 99% of the world's student population, although schools are currently still operating in 48 countries.

Educators across the planet, however, have warned that school closures affect not only students, teachers and families but have far-reaching economic and social consequences.
These include impacts on student debt, digital learning, and homelessness as well as limiting parent access to childcare and health care.

Inevitably, the impact is more severe for disadvantaged children and their families, causing interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, childcare problems, and consequent economic cost to families who are unable to find work.

Effect varies

In response to the global school closures, UNESCO recommended the use of distance education programmes as well as open educational applications and platforms that schools and teachers could use to reach learners remotely and limit the disruption of their education.

Various studies undertaken after previous outbreaks of infectious diseases found that widespread school closures were often the first moves made by governments around the world.

But shutting down schools, colleges and higher education institutions appears to have had varying levels of effectiveness.

While the transmission of an outbreak may be delayed by closing schools, research has shown that the effectiveness depends on the contacts children maintain outside of school.

“School closures may be effective when enacted promptly. If school closures occur late relative to an outbreak, they are less effective and may not have any impact at all,” says Wikipedia. “Additionally, in some cases, the reopening of schools after a period of closure has resulted in increased infection rates.

“As closures tend to occur concurrently with other interventions such as public gathering bans, it can be difficult to measure the specific impact of school closures,” Wikipedia states.

During the 1918-19 ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak in the Unites States, school closures and public gathering bans were associated with lower total mortality rates, it notes. “Cities that implemented such interventions earlier had greater delays in reaching peak mortality rates.”