COVID-19 and the measures implemented to contain the virus have changed all aspects of life. Social distancing has required schools to close and youth and their families to self isolate. The outcomes of self-isolation measures are vast: academic disadvantages due to school closures, mental health challenges brought by social distancing, increased stress as a result of uncertain times, and those already living in situations of disadvantage severely impacted by the current economic downturn.

Long-term consequences are magnifying pre-existing disparities in society and within the education system (Giannini & Grant Lewis, 2020). This includes a loss of jobs, educational disparity, and increased strain on mental health (Saldana, 2020; Giannini & Grant Lewis, 2020; Longfield, 2020), all of which impacts social and behavioural development in youth (United Nations, 2020). 

Marginalized youth and families feel the burden of COVID-19 most (United Nations, 2020; von Hippel, 2020; Haight, Quan-Haase, & Corbett, 2014; Walravens, 2020; Simmons; 2020; Scoffield, 2020; Newkirk, 2020; Shonkoff, 2020; Melvoin, 2020; Alphonso, 2020). These are the youth and families that will need ongoing support so that now and in the foreseeable future COVID-19 does not create what the United Nations has termed “a lost generation of young people” (2020).

The Digital Divide

The digital divide has long gone unseen as families from situations of disadvantage rely on public spaces (e.g. library, schools, community centres) for access to free Wi-Fi networks (Medow & Sheldrick, 2020; Macintosh, 2020; White, 2020). With these public places no longer available, the barriers that students face due to unreliable internet or inappropriate devices are exacerbated.  

Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are most impacted by COVID-19 school closures and summer learning loss due to lack of the internet or proper devices to connect to peers, teachers, class work, and online resources (Mathewson, 2020; Medow & Sheldrick, 2020; Reimers & Schleicher, 2020; Pederson, 2020; Walravens, 2020). Data from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission showed that as of 2017, 99 per cent of Canadians from high socioeconomic backgrounds had access to the internet at home compared to only 69 per cent of Canadians from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Medow & Sheldrick, 2020). Furthermore, as socioeconomic status increases, the proportion of income spent on internet expenses decreases. This means that families from low socioeconomic backgrounds must forgo other essential items in order to gain access to the internet at home (Chapin, 2014).

Students from affluent backgrounds have an easier time adapting to online learning and a wider range of supports for academic success compared to their less affluent peers (Kuhfeld & Tarasawa, 2020; von Hippel, 2020; Reimers & Schleicher, 2020; Alphonso, 2020; Bennet, 2020; Graham & Sahlberg, 2020; Melvoin, 2020). In northeastern Ontario, attendance for online classes during the pandemic showed that for every five students, up to two have not attended a single online class (White, 2020). Abseentism from grade 11 and 12 students is expected to be much higher (White, 2020). Those without consistent, reliable access to the internet and devices face barriers to academic success, access, and information about services, and civic participation (ACORN Canada, 2016). As students become disengaged with school, the likelihood of them leaving school before graduating rises (Kamenetz, 2020b).

Economic Shock

Economic instability closely followed self-isolation orders as non-essential workplaces were forced to close and many Canadians lost their livelihood.During the first month of self-isolation in Canada, employment fell by 1,010,700 (Bonen, 2020). Job losses were primarily in low-paying, part-time work, disproportionately impacting families from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sales and service occupations were most impacted by the economic shutdown, accounting for more than two third of all job losses (Bonen, 2020). Even in instances where workers were not let go, paid leave is heavily associated with income, disadvantaging caregivers who make less and need it most (Macdonald, 2020; Agopsowicz 2020; Barnard, 2020). Youth employment was also severely impacted, with student employment falling by 32 per cent and youth employment (15-24) falling by more than 15 per cent (Scoffield, 2020). The sudden wave of job losses has put an unimaginable burden on many families who rely on precarious work for basic necessities.

This type of economic shock due to mass unemployment or underemployment puts students from disadvantaged backgrounds in more vulnerable positions. Due to the unprecedented nature of current events, research on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 are scarce and may best be predicted by past events that resulted in prolonged school closures and economic disruptions (e.g. natural disasters). Studies of Hurricane Katrina show that the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences[1], which result in prolonged school closures and toxic stress, lowered graduation rates and college enrollment (Kamenetz, 2020a). College enrollment has yet to return to pre-Katrina levels in New Orleans, particularly for colleges that serve students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Kamenetz, 2020a). Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds often shift their focus from graduating to helping support their families during times of severe economic instability (UNESCO, 2020).

The Cost of Self-Isolation

Self-isolation is not experienced evenly (Villarreal, 2020). Some young people will be more traumatized due to being inhibited by economic restraints and left out of social relationships  (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2020; Kamenetz, 2020b). Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds rely on schools and support programs for basic necessities and security (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2020; Newkirk, 2020; Saldana, 2020; Shonkoff, 2020).Self-isolation has left many students without the supports and resources necessary for positive youth development.

Student habits outside of school are often less healthy than during the school week. This includes poor sleep patterns and diets, less physical activity, and more screen time (Wang et al., 2020). Negative habits are exacerbated as young people are not allowed to participate in outdoor activities or spend time with friends (Wang et al., 2020). The economic shock due to self-isolation will intensify unhealthy habits as financial constraints limit the ability of young people to participate in recreational and educational opportunities (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2020; UNESCO, 2020). This will, in turn, widen academic achievement gaps between students from high socioeconomic backgrounds and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Affluent students have many educational opportunities outside of school that continue their academic and social development. This is not an option for students from less affluent backgrounds, especially in the wake of COVID-19 (UNESCO, 2020; Melovin, 2020; Perry, 2020; Bennet, 2020).

There are other factors that will widen the achievement gap. Some homes, and students, are better equipped for individual online learning. Students who share small spaces with multiple family members will struggle to focus on distance education when they are competing for scarce resources or a private space to study (Simmons; 2020). There will also be children at home alone during this time as their caretakers are deemed essential workers and do not have the option of staying home with their children (Simmons, 2020). Students with exceptionalities that require accommodations, modifications, or interventions to help them learn will add pressure on families who may be unsure of how to best support their learners (Saldana, 2020; Anderson, 2020; Simmons, 2020).

Studies from school closures that lasted more than a month show that when school begins again, students have lower test scores, are more likely to repeat a grade, and achieve less in post-secondary education compared to students who did not face interruptions to their learning (von Hippel, 2020). Kuhfield and Tarasawa (2020) found that learning loss during this prolonged school closure will impact math most, with students losing from half to nearly a full year of study. School closures demonstrate that when young people are forced out of school, they face many barriers to returning that make them more likely to leave high school before graduating and less likely to go on to college or university (Kamenetz, 2020a).

Regardless of the challenges, learning loss during this time away from school will be significant, and its severity is associated with socioeconomic status (Pederson, 2020; Alexander et al., 2007; Mathewson, 2020). Students from situations of disadvantage face an uphill battle during their time away from school and the battle will continue upon their return. Learning loss combined with inadequate access to the internet and a lack of appropriate devices for school work will have many students struggling to catch up in their next year of study. Challenges students face outside of school, such as family stressors from job losses and feelings of responsibility to help support their families, will compete with their priority to graduate. Connecting with vulnerable students to empower them and ensuring equity by striving to reduce achievement gaps will be of key importance during this time (Ministry of Education and Culture, 2020; Jacobson; 2020; Wang et al., 2020; United Nations, 2020).

[1] Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are negative, stressful, traumatizing events that occur before the age of 18.

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