School closures due to COVID-19 reinforce and add new inequalities in education and unpaid work

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on national education systems, with facilities either rapidly shifting to new modes of digital learning or providing no services at all. Though the transition to remote learning was challenging for all actors and at all education levels, it was especially difficult at nursery and primary school levels, as parents had to be more heavily involved in the educational process. In this highly gender-segregated sector, even the youngest educators lacked adequate levels of digital competence to quickly transition to remote learning (Carretero et al., 2021; Di Pietro et al., 2020).

Not all children had access to the same level of resources for home schooling, such as laptops, reliable broadband connection and parental support – all important factors in learning outcomes. The Joint Research Centre estimated that girls and boys from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely than their more privileged peers to lack access to internet connection and a quiet room for studying (Di Pietro et al., 2020). On average, these children were generally lower performers pre-pandemic, and it is highly likely that educational inequalities have widened since.

School and childcare service closures have increased the care burden and created new forms of unpaid care for working parents, including home schooling. Across the EU, it is mostly women who have supported their children with online schooling during the pandemic and who are more dissatisfied with this type of schooling than their partners (EIGE, 2021c).

In Portugal, for instance, 77.5 % of mothers helped children younger than 16 years with their schoolwork, compared with 41.3 % of men[1]. Lone mothers are particularly exposed to the negative consequences of closed schools and childcare services given their lower financial resources and the impossibility of sharing care demands (Alon et al., 2020).