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Dutch data on COVID’s learning loss

Researchers in the Netherlands have examined the effects of eight weeks of school closure on students.

Many people are wondering about the effects of pandemic-induced school closures. Here in Ontario’s third wave of the pandemic, schools are closed again (with some exceptions for special needs students). It’s possible the year will finish online. While the closures are necessary from a medical standpoint, what effect do they have on our children?

Recently, researchers in the Netherlands, led by Per Engzell, examined an eight-week closure of Dutch schools during the first wave of COVID-19. The Dutch have a rich data collection system to make sure students are receiving a quality education. While funding for schools is centralized and equitable (schools with more disadvantaged students receive enhanced financing), individual schools have a significant degree of autonomy, and parents have the flexibility to send their children to the fully funded school of their choice. To maintain quality control, standardized testing is done in late January and June.

In 2020, Dutch schools were closed for eight weeks, from March 16 till May 11, so the tests bracketed the closing. Data from 2020 was compared to data from the previous three regular years. The study involved 350,000 eight- to 11-year-old students. The Dutch have among the best rates of broadband internet access and provided students with devices to study online when the schools were closed. And the eight-week closure was short in comparison to many other countries’ experiences. In many ways, the Dutch situation represents a best-case scenario for school closures, so it is interesting to see how grade school students did in these circumstances.

Educational findings

The results of the study were not encouraging. Students showed a learning decrease about equivalent to the schools’ period of closure (7.2 weeks) compared to previous years. In other words, students did not appear to learn much while they were at home. This loss was true for all ages, for girls and boys, and regardless of how good a student they were. The tests included mathematics, spelling and reading, and the losses were similar in all three subjects. The only differentiating factor was home life. For disadvantaged homes – in which parents had the lowest levels of education – the educational losses were up to 60 percent larger.

While this study is the best evidence to date of the adverse effects of switching to online learning from in-school education, some cautions should be noted. This closure happened very quickly in the first response to the pandemic. People may have assumed that online learning would be a short-term experience and so were more relaxed about their children’s work ethic.

Since we in Canada have experienced multiple closures, many resources have been added to make the online experience richer. We also realise that attention to online learning is essential. In addition, this study focused on academic performance based on standardized tests and did not ask about the school closure’s social or mental health effects. We all realise that schools provide more than an academic education, helping our children learn social skills and how to interact with others. Finally, the focus was on Grades 4 to 7, so it is not clear how closures impact younger and older students.

But overall, the scale of the learning loss and the disproportionate effect on marginalised students suggest the pandemic may have a significant impact on our children’s education. These losses are something that teachers and schools will need to consider this fall when we hopefully return to more stable in-class instruction as the vaccines become widely administered. Our prayers for our children, teachers and others involved in their education are that schools may safely reopen soon to help our children grow into their full God-given potential.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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