Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed almost 2,000 people and led to the displacement of almost 380,000 children. The hurricane destroyed more than 100 public schools and led to the shutting down of remaining ones for many weeks. After the waters receded and things settled down, those displaced pupils were assigned to other schools, but they still needed to put up with the consequences of the natural disaster. Some of these children developed depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Their symptoms persisted for a very long while after the event. According to a study conducted five years later, more than 30% of these children were lagging behind their peers by at least one year.

A viral pandemic is a totally different thing than a tropical storm, no matter how violent. Nevertheless, with 1.3 billion children in impossibility to go to school worldwide, scientists can use insight from natural disasters to predict the negative impact of such events on the mental health and educational attainment of children. According to a child health expert at the University of Melbourne, not being able to go to school can take a heavy toll on the mental health of children.

Throughout the pandemic, many schools implemented certain forms of distance education, with teachers delivering their lessons via Skype, Zoom, YouTube or Google Classroom. Nevertheless, online learning isn’t the obvious substitute for classroom learning, particularly when you take into consideration bilingual schools and nurseries such as les trois oursons in London. Unfortunately, the switch to distance learning has negatively affected children from economically disadvantaged families and communities. The poor are always the most affected in times of crisis, as they find it more difficult to overcome economic hurdles. These families have a hard enough time to make ends meet during normal times, leave alone buying their children tablet computers or mobile phones.

It is very hard to assess how much learning each child is acquiring during lockdown. According to a survey by the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp, students enrolled in private education in the UK are twice as likely as those in public schools to access online educational content everyday. Also, working-class children were spending less of their time in lockdown doing their homework, and have recorded a higher drop off in work quality.

Laura McInerney, Teacher Tapp’s co-founder, has stated that more than half of the teachers in disadvantages areas thought that kids were getting on average less than one hour of study per day. Private schools were using online content even before the pandemic, so their students were already familiar to this type of teaching. Also, wealthier students had their own mobile devices and computers, as well as better broadband internet connections than their peers coming from less fortunate families. Apparently, about 50% of kids in private schools benefited from nine-to-three online courses every day. By comparison, only 10% of kids in public schools enjoyed a similar training intensity.

For now, France, Germany, China, and some other countries have reopened their schools. The UK government hopes to gradually reopen schools all over the country, at least for some age intervals. There will be a set of criteria for the country to comply with, in order to take the right decision at the right time. Italy, Portugal, and the states of California and New York decided to keep their schools closed until September.

Specialists recommend that the government considers a five-year, post-crisis recovery plan. The severity of the coronavirus crisis may require a longer recovery period, particularly if the pandemic leads to a global recession. Even though the lessons from the disaster may not be too optimistic, the overall message should be one of hope. Children are perfectly able to cope with such events and overcome even the most difficult challenges to return to living a normal and happy life.