In the words of the American educational reformer Horace Mann, education is “a great equaliser of conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery”. The social-levelling function of schools has been confirmed by research conducted by sociologists, psychologists, and economists (e.g. Growe and Montgomery 2003, Torche 2011, Stantcheva 2021). During the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have remained closed for months in many countries, and the recent spread of the Delta and Omicron variants has resulted in another round of closures. Do pandemic school closures put the equalising role of schools at risk and deprive children from disadvantaged backgrounds of education and future opportunities?
Recent studies have already shown that alternative forms of education, such as online classes, are only an imperfect substitute for in-person instruction in schools (Werner and Woessmann 2021). In new research (Agostinelli et al. 2022), we focus specifically on the impact of school closures on educational inequality. We argue that closures will exacerbate inequality, and that the direct impact of the switch to remote teaching is only part of the story. Two additional factors are especially important: the impact of peers and parents.
During school closures, children lose connection with friends, and friendships that are maintained are more likely to be confined to the neighbourhood of residence. This increases socioeconomic segregation. We also find that children who already struggle in school are more vulnerable to the ill effects of losing peer connections, which further increases the impact on educational inequality.
In addition to peers, parents also matter. When children learn from home, active engagement from parents becomes even more important than in normal times. The support parents can offer varies dramatically across families’ socioeconomic status. Adams-Prassl et al. (2020b) show that low-income parents are less likely to work from home during the pandemic, which limits their ability to support their kids’ schooling during closures.
A dynamic model of skill formation
We assess the triple impact of school closures, peers, and parents on educational inequality with the aid of a dynamic model of education for high-school children that builds on Agostinelli et al. (2020). The model captures the cumulative nature of the learning process and incorporates peer effects (Agostinelli 2018), parenting styles (Doepke and Zilibotti 2017, 2019, Doepke et al. 2020), and differential abilities for parents to telecommute. Our structural approach distinguishes the quantitative importance of each of the three channels underlying changes in educational inequality, and it enables us to predict the long-term repercussions of school closures on children’s education and future economic prospects.
We model the impact of Covid-19 as a set of new constraints caused by the pandemic. The switch to remote instruction reduces the productivity of the learning process, as shown by Maldonado and De Witte (2020). In addition, school closures change the peer environment: children lose contact with some friends, and are restricted in their ability to interact with children who live far from their own residential neighbourhood. School closures and lockdowns also present new challenges for parents, who are called on to replace or complement activities usually done by teachers.
The extent to which parents can cope with these challenges hinges on their working arrangements: some parents can work from home and stay close to their children while others cannot (Mongey et al. 2020, Adam-Prassl et al. 2020a,b). Time constraints are correlated with socioeconomic status: high-income parents are much more likely to be able to work from home.
We choose the parameters of the model to match evidence on short-term disruptive effects of COVID on children’s learning, on the effects of peer disruptions on children from low- and high-income neighborhoods, and on parents’ differential time constraints. Then, we use the model to assess the long-run quantitative implications of the pandemic on educational inequality.
A persistent rise in educational inequality
We focus on 9th graders starting high school in the pandemic year. Our model predicts large learning losses for children from low-income families. The grades of children living in the poorest neighbourhoods decline, on average, by half a point on the 4-point GPA scale (see Figure 1). This loss for disadvantaged children is comparable to a change from a straight-B report card to getting a C in half of the subjects. Children living in the most affluent neighbourhoods – who are more likely to have parents around to support them and who do not suffer from a deteriorating the peer environment – remain unscathed.
We can also use the model to predict how educational inequality will evolve in the years after the pandemic. The socioeconomic gap narrows as schools reopen, but by the end of high school half of the additional inequality induced by the pandemic remains. Four years down the road, the school closure causes an average 25% reduction of labour earnings for the poorest children when these enter the labour market. This implies that the future society will be more unequal and have less social mobility.
Figure 1 Effects of school closure on academic achievement of children from low- and high-income neighbourhoods
We can also decompose the relative importance of the three channels – schools, peers, and parents – for increasing educational inequality. While all factors are important, the effect of peers turns out to be the largest. In a counterfactual where the peer environment does not change while all other effects are present, the increase in educational inequality is dampened by more than 60%.
What can be done to mitigate the effect of the pandemic on the educational outcome of disadvantaged children? We consider a policy intervention consisting of opening schools specifically for additional sessions targeting children with learning difficulties. We find that this intervention can offset a significant part of the disruption caused by the pandemic. We also consider a programme that combines this policy with subsidies for parental investments in children's skills after the pandemic. This programme would yield a sizeable improvement in children's learning, with the targeted component of the policy being especially important for reducing inequality. Although these policies are useful, neither fully offsets the unequal effects of the pandemic.
Our study shows that the Covid-19 pandemic has long-lasting effects on educational inequality that, once accrued, are difficult to offset later on. The current crisis will likely affect the economic opportunities of today's children for decades to come (Engzell et al. 2020, Fuchs-Schündeln et al. 2020). Low-achieving students from a disadvantaged socio-economic background are hit especially hard (Aucejo et al. 2020, Burgess and Sievertsen 2020, Grewenig et al. 2020). The policy debate has focused mostly on the learning technology (school versus remote learning). Our study uses structural methods to highlight the important and thus far neglected role for children’s learning of peer interactions and parental responses during the pandemic.
In regular times, school is a social equaliser. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we find that school closures have a triple impact on educational inequality that puts children from low-income families at a large disadvantage. In addition to the direct effect of replacing in-person with virtual instruction, children from poor neighbourhoods lose positive peer spillovers during the crisis, and they are less likely to benefit from the support of parents who are able to work from home. All these factors conspire to widen learning gaps among children from different socio-economic backgrounds, further threatening the cohesion of future society.
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