At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, we were told the virus wouldn’t discriminate. Indeed, in Spain we saw several high-profile names test positive for the virus, from Begoña Gómez — the wife of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez — to professional footballers. But it quickly became clear that those at the lower rungs of the social ladder would be hit hardest by the pandemic.
With little to zero job security, many have been forced to spend hours in public transport to get to work or drive across cities delivering our Amazon and UPS orders. In Spain, as elsewhere, workers are forgoing their own welfare in order to feed their own families. El País recently published a photograph of plantation workers in Murcia, in the southeast of the country, clustered together without any sort of face protection as they collected the latest harvest.
But this inequality has not been felt by adults alone: for it has quickly filtered down to Spain’s children. In a country which prides itself on free and comprehensive education for all children from age six and sixteen, the closure of schools across Spain has seen children from lower-income families fall behind at an alarming rate.
If comprehensive schools had been society’s great leveler, things have changed now that they’ve gone digital. Classes and materials are now being provided online — and the divide between the haves and have-nots is widening.
The Great Divide
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising — after all, the Ministry of Education estimates that approximately 10 percent of Spain’s 8.2 million school students are unable to follow classes online. However, according to El País, in the Catalan and Valencian communities (autonomous regional administrations) this number is actually closer to 15 percent, while parents in Andalusian cities like Seville, Granada, and Jaén claim that this figure is 20 percent.
The latest announcement that schools will remain closed until September means that students will now be without a structured classroom environment for close to six months. For children of poorly educated parents with little resources, be it financial or technological, this learning void will be detrimental to their physical and cognitive development. “There will be a gap, and we don’t know if we will be able to patch it,” says Miguel Molina, a sixth-grade primary school teacher near Alcalá de Henares.
Many parents with well-paid jobs have been able to work from home — and the greater flexibility associated with such arrangements has made homeschooling easier. This has not been the case for lower-income families where breadwinners have had to spend hours on the front lines of essential work, from nursing and supermarket work, to cleaning, driving buses, and delivering goods.
I asked Miguel how this spell of confinement would affect children who live in small apartments. “The big cities like Madrid and Barcelona are going to feel it particularly,” he said, before alluding to the effects that tensions at home could cause: “Children need to play with other children, and the relationships with adults, the tensions they see in their daily life at home — especially those whose parents are out of work — will affect them.”
Living in small spaces with restless children and bills to be paid, these are testing times for parents. For many, the main priority right now is the next meal and making ends meet, and education will almost certainly suffer as a result. A back garden to run around in or an online private tutor to occupy the kids are not an option for most families — and the pressure continues to simmer.
Indeed, schools normally serve to alleviate part of the burdens on such households. Apart from being an environment where students of all backgrounds learn together with equal treatment, many schools in Spain also provide subsidized meals, a vital source of healthy nutrition. With the closure of schools, dietary needs will almost certainly be compromised for many lower-income families.
In an interview with El Confidencial, María del Carmen Morillas, a parent who lives in a 60-m2 flat with her husband and four daughters in Leganés, south Madrid, spoke about the difficulty facing families who have a limited number of technological resources. “We live the digital divide every day. We only have one PC for the five of us. It’s in our bedroom, and we have to take turns.”
Noelia Otero, head of studies at a bilingual school in Madrid’s well-to-do Chamberí district describes how “80 percent of the school’s students are doing well during this time, but 20 percent are lacking because they don’t have a computer and Wi-Fi and because their families can’t give them a hand with skills like English.”
Pablo Gracia, sociologist and researcher at Trinity College Dublin, tells El País that confinement is going to significantly widen the educational gap. “It is going to affect the academic performance and cognitive skills of children from poorer families, especially in language and mathematics.” With the country already below the overall OECD PISA results average, Spain has a lot of catching up to do when classes resume this fall.
In an interview with El País, Andreas Schleicher, OECD education directorate, spoke about how he envisages the state of play when children return to school. “In September the learning environment and classroom environment will be more diverse than any other year. There will be students who return enthusiastic, with many online learnings that will have enriched them, thanks to the support of their families. Others will arrive unmotivated, and that is the challenge, to increase school reinforcement for these children.”
The Spanish government, meanwhile, has made a rather flimsy attempt to close the learning gap by collaborating with national television channel RTVE. It is now offering five hours of educational content for children between the age of nine and fourteen on a daily basis. This is a Band-Aid solution to a glaring societal issue that reverts back to the basic idea of equality.
While more affluent families will be able to recuperate lost time quicker through extracurricular activities, history has shown us that those left behind from an early age tend to fall through the cracks in later years.
The recent release from strict confinement after forty-two days came as a welcome relief — and the sight and sounds of children playing on the streets again was a psychological boost for everyone in Spain. But this period has shown us just how quickly the digital transformation has left the less fortunate behind.
For governments in the digital age striving for greater societal equality, internet access now needs to be a right for all citizens. Without it, there can be no equality — especially when it comes to learning from home.