The Covid-19 pandemic has made access to formal education increasingly unequal. 

by Jade Wong

Photo credit: Dolores Ochoa

On February 6, 2021, Professor Elizabeth Duey from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, along with ten other academics in Canada, published findings suggesting an increase in educational inequality in Ontario precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

While online learning has adversely affected the learning curves of all students, students from less affluent backgrounds particularly lag behind their peers. “[School] closures have interacted with other Covid-related hardships to disproportionately affect students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, racialized children and youth, newcomers and students with disabilities,” their report claimed. 

The report also found that despite the reopening of schools, families from racialized communities and those of lower socioeconomic status were less likely to send their children back to school. This choice is likely the result of  a higher probability of Covid-19 infection in such areas caused by clustered households and more ‘essential workers’.

This issue is not exclusive to Ontario, however. Various studies published throughout the pandemic show that educational disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic throughout most of the world. 

A case similar to one identified in the aforementioned study about the worsening of educational inequality in Ontario can be found in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, a city already afflicted with massive socio-economic inequality even prior to Covid-19, has seen a further widening of educational inequalities. After the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the Hong Kong government enforced mandatory school closures from February 202o to May 2020, thereby triggering a move to online learning via platforms such as Zoom and Google Meets. There was subsequently a rise of educational inequality as a result of several factors. 

The most clear of these factors causing educational inequities is uneven ownership of personal technology. A study from the University of Hong Kong found that about ten per cent of two thousand students who were interviewed had no access to technology, while forty per cent shared devices with other family members. In households with multiple siblings, such taking turns to use computers may force students to skip certain classes, causing a deficit in progress.

Moreover, because land has always been scarce and unevenly distributed in Hong Kong, causing unaffordable property prices and rent, families of lower socioeconomic status often inhabit unregulated housing such as subdivided units, where multiple households share one single flat, or ‘caged homes’. When students have to share a small living area with family members, it is difficult to concentrate on studies due to the inevitable noise generated. 

On the other hand, students from more affluent backgrounds are less affected in comparison. With their access to a stable internet connection, individual laptops and sufficient personal space, these students have a greater ability to adapt to remote learning. High-achieving students may even benefit from the change in lesson format, which may open up more room for self-driven learning. Monica, a graduate from one of the top local schools in Hong Kong, shared, “Online lessons have allowed me to concentrate more on my studies since I am alone. The time saved travelling to and from school can also be used for revision.”

The United Kingdom has also undergone one of the the worst recorded worsenings of educational inequalities, as a result of Covid-related changes. A 2021 survey by Montacute and Cullinane found that fifty-five per cent of teachers from less well-off state schools are seeing a lower than normal standard of work submitted by students since lockdowns were implemented. In contrast, only f0rty-one per cent of teachers at affluent state schools and thirty per cent at private schools shared such concerns. This difference suggests that the lag in learning progress is most serious for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has reported similar causes for these increasing inequities as in the cases of Hong Kong and Canada: uneven access to educational resources. It stated that students from the richest quintile have on average one more hour of schooling per day than the poorest quintile, and half an hour more private tutoring on average, allowing them to compensate for lost learning.

Disruptions in primary and secondary education have undoubtedly affected the university admissions process. Owing to nationwide lockdowns and school closures, the United Kingdom has cancelled A-Levels for two consecutive years. In 2020, an algorithm named Ofqual was developed, where the actual A-level grades of students were calculated by matching their performance against the grades their predecessors of the same school obtained. This led to a public outcry as grades of students from state schools and lower socioeconomic status have been massively downgraded, subsequently such students were unable to meet their university offers. Although this arrangement was immediately suspended, the lack of a formal public examination has opened up multiple leeways for inequality to be promoted. 

Further, a minority report conducted by Richard Murphy from the University of Texas and Centre of Economic performance and Gwyn Wyness from the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities found that academically apt students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to receive under-predicted grades. Given that universities in the UK hand out offers based on predicted grades, this may harm these students’ chances at enrolling in higher-ranked universities or more competitive programs compared to their peers of the same age, seventy five per cent of whom have inflated predicted grades, according to the same minority report. 

School closures and the transition to online learning has furthered the impacts of longstanding uneven access to educational resources, such as technology, teacher support, and learning space, thereby exacerbating inequities in learning outcomes. World governments have started to propose solutions in an attempt to equalise learning opportunities, and their short-term and long-term effects are yet to be observed. 

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