Gaps, lags and other challenges in education due to COVID and what we can do about them

We all knew this would happen: That following prolonged absences from school, we would be counting the cost to the academic (and other) growth of our students in schools.

But as Winston Churchill said, ‘The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.’

Here is some anecdotal evidence from my school, a co-educational combined school of over 1000 children from 4 years to 18-year-old young adults, as well as the observations from my colleagues in what is the largest independent educational provider in South Africa, and a colleague overseas. It’s hardly an academic study, but it may contribute to the educational conversation at this time and assist to redress some of what will be an ongoing process over the next few years.

Our pre-schoolers were particularly impacted in 2020 with many of them either not attending school at all, or not having the right home environment for proper learning. But gaps and lags are being discovering right across age groups in schools.

Core Muscle Strength:

One of the ‘hidden’ milestones in a pre-schooler’s development is core muscle strength and this is gained among other directed activities by sitting at a table of the appropriate height, with a suitable chair. Many children during Lockdown who may even have been fortunate enough to enjoy hybrid teaching during this time, such as independent schools like ours were able to provide, joined classes from Mom or Dad’s bed, meaning that the experience of sitting at a desk was lost. These same children are now battling to sit still in Grade 1 for longer periods, as is expected from a first grader, learning to read and write. For some, just sitting upright is a challenge.

Our Foundation Phase teachers have recommended a record number of learners receive occupational therapy to correct some of these physical lags because they end up having a profound impact on academic development, and both fine and gross motor skills.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Increased outdoor play, believe it or not
  2. Riding a bicycle
  3. Swinging

Attention Span:

Keeping children’s attention in a post-Covid age is an even greater challenge, both as a result of these physical delays, but also as a consequence of increased screen time that children were exposed to as a matter of necessity during Lockdown teaching and recreation.

Graeme Waite, a fellow principal in my group, expressed concern about the possibility of device addiction – something we can all consider (guilty), but its effect on children and young adults means a reduction of time spent reading longer texts (books), which will affect attention and focus over the long term. With the closure of libraries, access to books has been severely limited and even I, who claim to be a prolific book devourer, admitted at some point last year that I would bankrupt myself if I continued to purchase even second-hand books, and have ended up binge watching series and reading short texts on Google or Facebook (hardly the most erudite of sources).

Reading lags in turn will affect the ongoing challenge all schools have with reading and comprehension anyway, with many children who join independent schools in high school, having the reading age of an 8-year-old.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Reduce screen time – so turn off the TV.
  2. Play memory games
  3. Build puzzles
  4. Introduce routines at home with clear bedtimes.
  5. Read: to and with your child.

Device addiction:

There are many reasons that tech innovators keep their own children away from devices: Any Google search will inform you of the symptoms of device addiction:

  • Insomnia.
  • Inability to Focus / Complete a Task.
  • Stress and Restlessness.
  • Relationship Stress.
  • Eye Strain.
  • Neck Pain.
  • Social Anxiety.
  • Escapist Behaviour

You may well recognise these in yourself. Imagine these and the damage they can cause in young lives. All of these effects damage your child’s ability to stay focussed and happy at school.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Set the example: turn off devices
  2. Increase physical activity
  3. Encourage family conversation.


Increased time spent on cell phones inevitably means increased misuse. Spending less time in physical proximity with friends combined with the loss of inhibitions that the anonymity of social media allows, results in reduced empathy. And in the absence of obvious body language cues that their friends are not enjoying the ‘joke,’ much ‘joshing becomes downright mean.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Insist that your youngster comes out of his room.
  2. Talk about issues in the world.
  3. Ask open ended questions about their day. My family laughs now about how I always used to ask what was the best, worst, funniest, and saddest part of their day and they took turns in answering. But this was how we uncovered the bullying my youngest was enduring at school and some profoundly revealing fears and vulnerabilities came to light. Many a meal was extended long after the food had congealed on the plates, not because they were avoiding doing the dishes (although they probably were), but because they were enjoying the connection (not that as teenagers they would admit it.)


Children’s break time conflicts seem to need more interventions from teachers as youngsters battle to navigate social interactions, with the inevitable parental concern that one incident implies an act of war against their child.

How can parents mitigate this at home:

  1. Work with the teachers.
  2. Teach them conflict resolution skills.
  3. Help them become problem solvers by talking about what-if scenarios and how to negotiate conflict with the art of compromise.
  4. Attack a problem, not the child.

Social Skills:

While many families report improved relationships with their children within their homes, the return to school has exposed a reduction in independence and a need to re-establish the social contracts of classroom behaviour and interaction. Children need to be reminded of traditional manners and respect and small things like the importance of greeting others have to be stressed as routines are re-established. High school students seem to be just that little bit more oblivious to people in their surroundings than before.

Kick Starting Sports Programmes:

Izak Nagel, principal of a large primary school in our group, reports the challenge facing schools in reintroducing sports programmes in school life that has largely been academic and health focussed. There is a need to get everything up and running simultaneously, although some schools are opting to reintroduce sports codes gradually, with some doing general ball skills and conditioning before starting specific sports, to accommodate the incremental change from a more sedentary lifestyle many adopted at home to a more vital athletic routine.


Principals polled on gaps in academics identify Mathematics as a particular victim of the pandemic: in schools where students have had to attend on alternate days to accommodate social distancing in classrooms, learners are far behind their peers in schools where this was not necessary.

Jen Welte, principal of a faith-based school in Pueblo Colorado says multiplication is a problem as well as kindergartners entering Grade 1 not knowing their letters and being a full quarter behind in decoding.

Of course, Mathematics is a perennial problem confronting many schools, but we have found it has been exacerbated in the last year by well-meaning parents impatiently teaching old methods to their children during home schooling periods.

The Dilemma of Accessing Professional Intervention:

Recognising these lags is one thing and our baseline assessments have certainly identified where the problems lie. Addressing these is another thing, and will take time and an array of interventions, from such things as simply ensuring pencil grips are compulsory on the stationery list to directed bridging programmes and referrals to outside educational professionals.

We are fortunate at my school to have an onsite OT, remedial specialist, and an array or educational support experts including an educational psychologist, a play therapist and a speech therapist, to whom we can refer children so that they can catch up developmentally, but what of children in the state schools where it is well nigh impossible for a Foundation Phase learner to receive any kind of professional assistance or assessment? Many wait years ordinarily to have barriers to learning diagnosed and now with delays caused by Covid disruptions to education, the lack of counselling and remedial support (let alone the kind of clinical assistance required to address things like device addiction and anxiety) in schools is going to further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots.

It is not all doom and gloom though, and educators will always adopt the optimistic view Churchill suggested 80 years ago.

What can we do to mitigate some of these challenges?

  1. Build strong Parent-Teacher relations so individual lags can be addressed.
  2. Follow the advice of teaching professionals when interventions and referrals to specialists are recommended.
  3. Believe in the resilience of your child and empower them to overcome learning gaps.
  4. Recognize that while there may be some significant gaps now in a child’s education, they have gained so much during this pandemic too through closer family ties, overcoming grief in many ways and finding creative ways to overcome boredom.

We have in fact lived through an educational revolution and while there may be some structural damage, the rebuilding and re-visioning may be what was needed to propel us properly into 21st century thinking.

4 thoughts on “Gaps, lags and other challenges in education due to COVID and what we can do about them

  1. Hi Colleen,

    As always, this article is just brilliant.

    Luv n hugs,

    Mary 021 782 5354/ 083 286 7123

    On Thu, Apr 22, 2021 at 10:50 PM Of Moms and Mab wrote:

    > Colleen Bentley posted: ” We all knew this would happen: That following > prolonged absences from school, we would be counting the cost to the > academic (and other) growth of our students in schools. But as Winston > Churchill said, ‘The pessimist sees difficulty in every oppor” >


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