Second-level students impacted by a lack of access to technology during COVID-19 school closures

Second-level schools in Ireland faced different challenges when responding to the COVID-19 school closures depending on their locations and socioeconomic environments, according to new ESRI research in partnership with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment (DCCAE) and the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg). Almost half of second-level school leaders reported that broadband connectivity and access to ICT devices for students were issues for the school’s response to the crisis. Limitations in both broadband and device access were higher for DEIS schools, for schools in areas with lower coverage of high-speed broadband and lower household incomes.

The study aims to provide evidence on how second-level schools have responded to the period of school closures and how this has affected teaching and learning. Drawing on data from a nationally representative survey and in-depth qualitative research with school leaders, it provides insights from those directly involved in addressing the challenges arising from a sudden switch to distance learning. In response to the mandated school building closures, second-level schools, staff and students had to adopt remote learning strategies and tools with little time to prepare. The ability of schools to act in response to this was impacted by schools’ prior adoption of technology, and the level of access to digital technologies and broadband availability in their catchment areas. Many schools provided ICT equipment to students and endeavoured to overcome barriers in distance learning facing disadvantaged groups.

Teachers and students were challenged to improve their digital competencies, often “learning by doing” and drawing on supports from within the school communities, and in the case of teachers, from professional development services. However, the choices available to them were limited by practical considerations. For example, the research findings reveal that second-level schools with catchments characterised by lower coverage of high-speed broadband were less likely to use live online teaching and learning.

Schools are, at heart, communities, and the challenges of maintaining these communities and continuing to provide the usual range of supports to everyone in the community were immense. The results point to detrimental impacts of the crisis on student learning, wellbeing, motivation and engagement. More severe impacts were reported for students in DEIS schools and for those with additional needs.

Dr Gretta Mohan from ESRI said “The availability of home broadband and access to ICT devices emerged as a key issue for second-level schools during the COVID-19 school closures. The evidence presented in our report shows that teachers rapidly adapted to remote teaching under the exceptional circumstances, though the potential educational loss from lower engagement in second-level education among some groups of students during this period is a concern.

Overall, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs have been deeply affected by the shift to distance learning. The role of parents in their children’s education and the impact of students’ home situations on their ability to engage with learning have both been intensified by the lockdown. School leaders thus fear that one outcome of the lockdown will be a widening of the gap as pre-existing advantage and disadvantage are compounded.”

Richard Bruton, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, added, "The findings of this report underline the importance and urgency of rolling out the National Broadband Plan. We must bridge the divide between those who have access and those that do not. By providing high-speed broadband to every home and school in the country, the NBP will ensure that every child in the country has the same opportunity to access online resources.

“The innovation shown by teachers and learners in this challenging time also illustrates the significant potential of digital technology to improve how students learn, and to broaden the range of students who can get access to Education in the future.”