In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people. In the aftermath of the storm, an estimated 372,000 children were displaced from their homes. More than 100 public schools were destroyed, and those that weren’t remained shut for weeks. After the floodwaters receded, those displaced students eventually found new schools, but the impacts of the disaster lingered. Some children showed increased signs of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress long after the event; a study five years later found that more than a third of those children displaced were still at least a year behind their peers academically.
On the face of it, a tropical storm bears little resemblance to a viral pandemic. But with schools closed for more than 1.3 billion schoolchildren worldwide, natural disasters can provide researchers with useful insight into a question they, and locked-down parents everywhere, are now asking: Will the coronavirus shutdown have a long-term impact on children?
The initial signs are less than encouraging. Studies on the aftereffects of storms, earthquakes, and disease outbreaks have shown that disasters can have severely detrimental impacts on children’s educational attainment and mental health. “What we find is that although the particular characteristics of hazard are very relevant in terms of the recovery experience, the human impacts are often quite consistent,” says Lisa Gibbs, director of the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program at the University of Melbourne.
Gibbs studied the survivors of Australia’s 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires and found that children from affected areas performed worse than their peers in both literacy and numeracy tests for years after the event. “When there's an event with a significant trauma or loss and ongoing community disruption, there is an extended period of time where learning is affected,” Gibbs says. “And while children might get back on track with their capacity to learn, they're not catching up in terms of where they're at academically, and so you see a changed academic pathway that may have lifelong implications.”
One challenge for researchers is identifying just how much of that learning loss can be attributed to schools being closed, and how much is due to other factors, such as relocation or trauma. It’s well documented that children who regularly miss school perform less well in exams, and policymakers have long talked about the “summer slide”—the learning loss that happens over the long holidays. (Though researchers have recently argued that the effect is likely small.)
One problem is that there is so little data on extended school disruptions—even after disasters, most children are usually learning again within a few weeks. The most obvious example would be the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which forced schools to close for 5 million children across West Africa for up to eight months—but we have strikingly little data on its impact. One 2019 study found that students in Argentina who missed up to 90 days of school in the 1980s and '90s due to teacher strikes were less likely to earn a degree, more likely to be unemployed, and earned 2-3 percent less on average than those from areas less impacted by the strikes.
“Unfortunately, it’s in the category of empirical research confirming the obvious,” says Sam Sims, a research fellow at the UCL Institute Of Education. “When people don’t go to school, they don’t learn as much, and the longer they’re not at school for, the more they don’t learn.”
During the pandemic, many schools have adopted some form of distance learning, with teachers providing material through online portals such as Google Classroom or holding lessons over Youtube or Zoom. But the evidence for online learning as a direct substitute for school is mixed. And the switch to distance learning is likely to exacerbate a pattern well established in natural disasters: Those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are often the worst affected.
It’s impossible to know how much each child is learning in lockdown. But according to survey data from the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp, a teacher polling app, private school students in the UK are twice as likely as state school students to be accessing online lessons every day. Similarly, working-class students were spending less of their time during lockdown studying, and have seen a more significant drop off in the quality of their work.
“We’ve got some data which said that 55 percent of teachers in the most disadvantaged areas felt that children were getting an hour or less of education per day,” says Laura McInerney, Teacher Tapp’s cofounder. Private schools are more likely to have used online learning tools before the outbreak, and wealthier students are more likely to have their own devices, reliable broadband, and space for studying at home. “You’re looking at a difference of half of private school kids having 9:00-until-3:00 online lessons every day, and way under 10 percent of state schools doing that,” McInerney says.
At the time of writing, schools in some countries, such as China, France and Germany are starting to reopen. The government has indicated it hopes to slowly reopen schools from June 1 for some ages, provided it meets its reopening criteria; many other countries, including Scotland and Wales, have no clear timetable to return. Schools in Italy, Portugal, New York, and California will remain closed until September.
Whether it’s safe to reopen schools is a difficult calculation: Though children seem to show fewer symptoms of Covid-19, we still don’t have definitive evidence of what role they play in spreading the virus between households. Any reopening must weigh the risks to society at large, to children’s education, and to the economy, as the continuing closure of schools prevents parents from returning to work.
In at least one sense, the lockdown will provide researchers with something previously unthinkable: a mass experiment into the very role of schools. “The biggest question is going to be, is the learning loss as big as we think? We can't know, and we're not going to know for some time,” says McInerney.
“Otherwise, the big philosophical question is, to what extent are schools there to facilitate the economic productivity of adults, versus the learning of children?” That is, what if the learning loss isn’t as bad as we expect, and the children actually benefit from some elements of lockdown—for example, from closer one-on-one attention and time with their parents? “We know that schools are actually a substantial but small proportion of the difference in children’s outcomes,” McInerney says. “What if, in three or four months time, it hasn’t made as much difference as we think it does?”
Whatever the impacts of the pandemic on education, they will at least be shared across society. But the worst of the disease will be concentrated on a select few. At the time of writing, at least 265,000 people have died with Covid-19 globally, and many of them will have been grandparents, parents, teachers, and friends.
“There are developmental differences in terms of how children are impacted by grief and loss, and how they understand it,” explains Joy Osofsky, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and public health at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. Osofsky has spent much of her career studying the impact of disasters on children, from Katrina to Fukushima. “After Katrina, we saw a lot of problems: People reported depression, symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” she says. “Particularly in young children, preschool, the children were very dysregulated in their behavior and emotion, and they didn’t want to separate from their parents.”
One key sign that kids are struggling with their mental health is regression: showing behaviours expected of younger children. “In younger children there might be bed wetting or general toileting issues. There might be speech delays, they might become withdrawn or difficult to manage. There might be difficult sleeping,” says Gibbs. “It’s hugely varied. But it’s quite normal to have a response to what is an abnormal situation.”
The greatest burden will invariably fall on children who have lost family, or who have a parent who has suffered through traumatic stress, for example working in hospitals or morgues on the front lines. But disasters can also be destructive in more subtle ways, as with the many millions of parents left unemployed. “Change of income, change of employment, relationship breakdown—all of those things that you commonly see after an event have an additional impact on mental health outcomes, as or even above the initial event,” says Gibbs. There are already signs that the pandemic is causing anxiety among children, according to researchers at the University of Oxford.
One of the areas that Gibbs now researches is child resilience. “Resilience, essentially, is the capacity to adapt to a major disruption,” she says. “But we’re really careful not to place it on the individual—'are you a resilient person'—because in fact that’s not meaningful. We all have certain traits that enable us to adapt, but it’s also about the resources that we can draw on and the social support that we have. So when we think about child resilience, it’s useful to think about, how do we establish an environment that enables children to thrive in a difficult context?”
By examining previous disasters, Gibbs and other researchers have identified certain conditions which seem to help children cope. “What you want to do is provide the sense of safety, the sense of hope, the sense of calm and connectedness,” she says.
One of the best ways to help children, she says, is to empower them in the recovery effort. For example, after Katrina, schoolchildren helped to plant community gardens. “They need to feel like they can deal with what’s happening, and they need to feel that their family can deal with what’s happening,” Gibbs says. “There are great examples at the moment, like the chalk messages on footpaths, or the rainbows in the windows—even for the youngest children, they know they’re making a difference for their community.”
Society will need to help children adapt to the new norms in a post-lockdown world. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster the Japanese government changed how young children were taught about radiation; Australian communities learn about wildfires from an early age. One way schools could help to ease children’s anxiety is by educating them—in an age-appropriate way—about the risks of viral outbreaks, and by encouraging hand washing and physical distancing. There is also evidence that any learning loss can be mitigated by more personalized learning approaches; as the education researcher John Hattie has written, after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, exam results actually improved, in part due to teachers focusing more explicitly on subjects that children found difficult.
When Gibbs advises governments on post-disaster planning, she typically recommends a five-year recovery plan. For coronavirus, that recovery could be longer, particularly if the pandemic tips the world into another recession. But while the lessons from disaster research may be bleak, Gibbs says, the overall message is one of hope: Despite their toll, most children of disasters recover and go on to lead normal, happy lives.
“These events are transformative,” Gibbs says. “While some people will be able to return to the life they had beforehand, for others that life is no longer there. They have to build a new way of thinking. I would expect that we will see the same after the pandemic: that some things will return and other things will be forever changed. Some of those things we will grieve for, and others will actually be really positive. It’ll be a discovery of new ways of doing things.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.