How is Covid-19 affecting schools in Europe?


The future depends on what you do today” Mahatma Gandhi

For several weeks, global news has been saturated by one story, one common human reality. Everyone and everything is affected by the covid-19 pandemic, and we have all had to adapt to a sudden shift in the way we live. This of course includes the way we educate our children.

As our map below shows, most European countries have closed schools as part of their measures to limit contact between people and to slow down the spread of the virus. In Italy, the European country hit first by the pandemic, schools closed on the 5th of March 2020. This decision was soon followed by Albania, Greece, Czechia and Romania. Most European education systems closed their schools by 16 March 2020. The last country to announce such measures was the United Kingdom, where all the schools closed their doors by March 20-23.

Two European countries currently buck the trend of school closures for primary and lower secondary schools. Sweden and Iceland are relying upon stricter social distancing and hygiene measures to prevent further transmission of the virus – but only upper secondary and tertiary education institutions have been required to close.

Elsewhere in Europe, learning support is being provided in different ways: via books and materials taken from school; through various e-learning platforms enabling teachers and pupils to work and interact together, and with the help of quickly developed national television programmes or lessons on social media platforms. Some education systems announced exceptional holidays at the beginning of the school closures to better prepare for this distance learning support, but now all European countries are organising distance instruction.

It is unclear how long this situation will last. One country – Malta – has already announced that schools will remain closed until the end of the school year (30 June 2020). Finland has recently extended the restrictions on contact teaching until 13 May and is preparing for school closure until the end of term (30 May 2020), if deemed necessary. It seems likely that other countries will be making similar announcements in the days and weeks ahead.

The scenario of prolonged school closure puts new pressures on parents – both key workers leaving home each day, teleworkers and the unemployed. While often the experience of spending more time together may bring families closer – both metaphorically and literally – in other cases there may be an intensification of negative family dynamics. However confinement is experienced, there will also be other educational impacts.

The consequences of school closure potentially extending to the end of the school year could be felt at the very heart of education systems. Questions concerning grading and assessment of progress, and the organisation of final exams or national tests will rapidly become a significant policy challenge. How will next year’s entry to higher education be determined if students in their final school year are unable to study adequately or to be assessed fairly?

In addition to these concerns, there are wider societal implications of current arrangements. Some parents are not in a position to be able to support their children’s learning effectively, and this will undoubtedly exacerbate the effects of educational inequalities. A number of education systems already anticipate that disadvantaged students will struggle to adapt to current reality, with less access to learning materials including to online platforms, and less support.

While many countries re-evaluate the situation every two weeks, most have issued orders that extend until further notice. Eurydice’s recent ad-hoc data collection shows that in Europe, primary and lower secondary schools are currently closed until the end of the spring break. According to the report on the Organisation of School Time in Europe, the spring break usually takes place around Catholic or Orthodox Easter holiday and finishes around April 12/13 or April 19 (week 16-17). Meanwhile, in some countries – particularly those in the north of Europe, the school year will be finishing by June. So the prospect of pupils not returning to school this academic year is very real.

While this is an unprecedented crisis that has induced high levels of anxiety, it is also a time where we are all doing things differently and learning from the experience. People’s ability to adapt rapidly to working and educating children at home has been extraordinary, and we should be grateful that we have the technology to assist us. When we have got through this crisis, we will not return to the world as it was. Rather, we are now preparing with our children to face the world as it will be in the future.

Notes: An education institution is considered closed when regular pupils/students may not go to the education site outside the home. Situations where buildings remain open to children of key/essential workers do not affect this definition of closure. The closed till date includes closure due to Covid-19 and any type of subsequent school or public holidays.  

Germany and Switzerland: varies across the country. The map indicates the most common date. 

Finland: the first three grades of primary school remain open, but the government advises parents that, whenever possible, children should stay home and use distance learning.  

Full data can be downloaded HERE.

Authors: Akvilė Motiejūnaitė-Schulmeister and David Crosier