As schools decide to reopen or go virtual, Europe’s short-term closures suggest long-term costs

QUAREGNON, Belgium — Nearly two years after the pandemic forced school closures around the world, countries are once again grappling with whether to reopen classrooms, as holiday breaks draw to a close amid a surge in the omicron variant. Officials have now more details about how much it will cost to close schools and switch to virtual learning, even if for a short time.

The experience in Europe is especially relevant because schools here were shut for far shorter periods than those in the United States. It is clear that European students suffered significant academic setbacks, even though most of them attended school in person during the worst part of the pandemic.

Test scores dropped. The attendance declined. Teachers worried about their students’ ability to prepare for next year.

“There will be long-term effects for the children,” said Delphine Chabbert, a lawmaker who sits on the education committee of the Brussels regional parliament.

Researchers say governments and school administrators should weigh those effects as they consider what to do now.

Many schools in Europe started their December breaks early, as officials watched coronavirus case numbers rise, especially among young people. Officials are concerned about the possibility of in-school transmission and the availability of healthy teachers as they prepare for next year.

Countries in Europe have tended to take a last-resort approach to school closures throughout the pandemic. Whereas U.S. states lifted lockdown restrictions months before letting students back into classrooms, most European countries did the reverse — resuming in-person schooling for many students as early as April and May 2020, while relying on restrictions in other aspects of public life to keep the virus in check.

While significant learning loss and social-emotional setbacks could be expected in the United States, where some students were home for more than a year, what is emerging in Europe is in some ways more surprising. Even short-term classroom closures can be detrimental, according to early studies.

It’s still too early to assess the full extent of learning loss over the past two years. Many countries in Europe cancelled their standard tests as a result of the pandemic.

One country where testing continued, though, was the Netherlands. The pandemic struck in the Netherlands, and Dutch students took part in virtual learning eight weeks prior to their schools being reopened. Per Engzell from Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science says that those eight weeks of virtual learning were an inefficient use of time and a loss for academic learning.

“What we learned from our study is that children learned basically nothing at home,” Engzell said. “And it’s clear that this learning loss has not been completely recovered, even now, one and a half years later.”

He found in his April 2021 study that elementary students performed on average 20 percent worse on tests than the equivalent cohorts had for the three years before the pandemic. Among students from less-advantaged families, learning losses tended to be even greater — up to 60 percent larger than for the general population. The Netherlands spent billions of dollars on summer programs, tutoring and counseling for its children. But they have not been able to catch up.

Researchers in Denmark report more of a mixed picture. Danish elementary school students had only a month of virtual learning before the country became the first in Europe to reopen classrooms in April 2020. They have been away for eight weeks during various lockdowns. Jesper Felsbirkelund, University of Copenhagen Sociologist, discovered that elementary school students did not experience setbacks in their reading skills, and many made significant progress.

But older students in Denmark had 22 weeks of virtual learning, and middle school students did experience some losses in reading, according to Birkelund’s November 2021 study, which compared scores on a computerized test administered to Danish students every spring.

Birkelund said the research doesn’t support the assumption that older students can be relied on to use computers independently and keep up with their studies from home, even in a country with excellent Internet infrastructure and access.

If countries partially close schools next month, he said, leaders should look at available data to determine which students should return to school and not just make a decision based on the child’s grade level.

“We shouldn’t only focus on the young students,” Birkelund said. Birkelund stated that the idea of sending the youngest students home should be abandoned. We should think about what students really need to be back in school and not only think about this in age groups.”

There’s no equivalent standardized test data in Belgium, but researcher Natacha Duroisin has been surveying hundreds of teachers in the French-speaking portions of the country to determine the academic impact of the pandemic. Sixty percent of middle and high school teachers reported that only half their students logged on for class on a typical day of virtual learning during the spring 2020 lockdown. A significant number of students weren’t prepared for class, teachers reported.

In Belgium, it took 2 1/2 months for elementary schools to fully reopen after they shut down in March 2020. Older students did hybrid learning — rotating between in-person and virtual every other week or, alternatively, for half of each day — for the entire 2020-2021 academic year.

Duroisin, an associate professor at the University of Mons, studied the different hybrid models and determined that teachers reported better academic results when students were in classrooms every day, even if just for the morning or afternoon.

“The other option, of attending school for a week and being at home the other week, was catastrophic,” she said.

The hybrid model in Belgium was intended to keep teenagers engaged in school, even if they weren’t in classrooms full time, said Chabbert, the Brussels lawmaker. Although initial reports do not indicate an increase in dropouts it is unclear how the future results of the hybrid model in Belgium will look for this academic year. This is when many struggling teens are forced to take remedial classes in addition to their regular academic load.

“Hybrid was the least-bad solution,” Chabbert said. It was the best solution. It was the least worst.”

Kalvin Legrand, who attends a high school in Quaregnon, a working-class town an hour outside Brussels, was among those at risk of dropping out. Before the pandemic, he was already struggling and had been relegated to second grade. Legrand stated that he struggled with hybrid and virtual learning.

“It was hard to follow the classes,” he said. “I did not have any motivation, and it did not go back when we are back at the school.”

He said his complicated schedule last academic year — mornings at home doing virtual learning and afternoons in the classroom — was difficult to manage. According to him, it was difficult for him and his classmates to get to class on time.

He ultimately failed three courses, but he stuck with school, and is now taking an extra math class each Wednesday to graduate in the spring.

Denis Betriaux, Legrand’s teacher, said more than a dozen of his 80 students are in remedial classes for math and French this academic year, making up for courses they failed during hybrid learning.

“They are not very optimistic, and I don’t have the impression they have a lot of hope things will get better,” Betriaux said. “It is very sad for them.”

Legrand, 20, said that before the pandemic, he dreamed of becoming a physical education teacher, but now higher education feels unrealistic.

“I wonder maybe I should do a more accessible job, like joining the army,” he said.

He also desperately hopes there’s no return to remote or hybrid learning.

“I lost a year,” he said. “If the teachers aren’t in the classroom with me, it will be another failure for me.”

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