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Review of COVID school closures: Parents in difficult social situations need special support

A study now published shows that socially disadvantaged families in particular experienced pandemic-related school absences as problematic in 2020 and 2021. The researchers call for targeted support services to counteract educational inequalities. 

The study by researchers at the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) and the University of Leipzig uses data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) to show how parents of schoolchildren experienced school closures in the Corona years of 2020 and 2021. The researchers show which families were particularly burdened during these periods and conclude: if the worsening of educational inequalities is to be counteracted, it is particularly socially disadvantaged families, but also single parents, immigrant families and families with many children, who need significantly more support services for learning at home.

Home learning situation is rated worse during the second school closure
Two-thirds of parents still rated their technical and digital skills, as well as their ability to support their children in terms of school content, as fully adequate during the first phase of the school closure in spring 2020 - during the second phase in winter 2020/21, this figure was only slightly more than half. The technical equipment needed for distance learning was also viewed increasingly critically. While more than three-quarters of parents still rated this as fully sufficient during the first school lockdowns, it was 10% less in the second lockdown a few months later. "Since online platforms and video chats were increasingly used in the second school lockdown phase, parents then presumably had greater technical difficulties than during the first lockdown phase, when e-mails were predominantly used," says the study's lead author Dr. Markus Vogelbacher.

Care and learning delays caused concern
Care and learning delays caused concern
The family situation experienced strong strain during the second phase of school closures due to difficulties in caring for children and working at the same time. "The family situation was very challenging during the second school closures, with just under 1/3 of parents surveyed reporting strong to very strong problems with both care and work-life balance," Vogelbacher said. Another 20% and 25% of parents reported moderate problems with care and work, respectively. Parents were also pessimistic about their children's skills development. During the first school lockdowns, about 34% of parents believed their children were learning as much in the major subjects at home as they were at school. This percentage dropped slightly to 30% during the second lockdown. However, the share of parents who expect educational deficits due to distance learning increased significantly from 20% to 31%.

Greater challenges for the socially disadvantaged 
The learning situation in the second wave varied significantly according to social situation: formally low educated mothers and fathers (maximum "Hauptschulabschluss), in contrast to respondents with higher education ("Mittlere Reife" or higher), felt consistently less well informed about what tasks the children had to work on. The same applies to single parents, who also felt less well informed.

Compared to the respondents with the lowest level of education, all other education groups felt better able to help their child learn the school material. The lowest-income group, unlike all other income groups, felt less competent to provide school content support to their children. Lower school content support ability was also reported by respondents from families in which at least one parent immigrated to Germany. Income effects and disadvantages for families with many children are also evident in the spatial situation and the ability to provide a quiet place for the child to learn.. 

Counteracting educational inequalities through targeted support
"Our study shows clear differences between social groups and, over time, a more critical assessment of the learning situation at home," says Prof. Dr. Thorsten Schneider from the University of Leipzig, summarizing the study. He calls for "particularly socially disadvantaged groups to be offered support, coaching and networking services by schools and public agencies to counteract the educational inequalities already created by the Corona pandemic - especially when it comes to longer periods of distance learning."

Background to the study
The analysis used responses from 1,813 parents in 2020 and 1,898 parents in 2021 who have been regularly surveyed as part of NEPS for about ten years. The vast majority of their children who are regularly surveyed were in the second grade level during the first lockdown and in the third grade level during the second lockdown in winter and spring 2021. Parents were surveyed about the transmission of learning materials and the design of distance learning, knowledge of children's assignments, assessment of their ability to support content and their technology and digital literacy skills, and the spatial situation and ability to provide a quiet place for the child to learn. It was also surveyed whether the parents are immigrants, how many parents and children live in the household, how much income they have, what educational qualifications they have and whether they are employed.

All results of the evaluation can be found in the full report "Und schon wieder war die Schule dicht" (German language only) which is available for download under "Periodicals" with further background information.

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