Education and digital inequalities during COVID-19 confinement:
From the perspective of teachers in the French speaking
Community of Belgium
Natacha Duroisin, Romain Beauset & Chloé Tanghe
University of Mons, Belgium
Natacha Duroisin, University of Mons
Place de Warocqué, 17, Mons 7000, Belgium
In order to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic the federal government and the
federated entities of Belgium decided to suspend all face-to-face learning starting 14 March,
2020. A continuity of learning was to be ensured by teachers through distance-learning.
However, teaching during the confinement period was complicated for teachers: the respect
for policies and rules differs from one teacher to another and there has been a lack of follow-
up on online learning for some learners. The purpose of this article is to contribute to initial
responses to the vast question of educational inequalities created and exacerbated during the
crisis. More particularly, this article aims to provide a situational analysis of some potential
causes for inequalities in primary and secondary schools and to identify differences between
the two education levels. Our analysis draws on responses from almost 500 teachers
participating in a large-scale survey in the French speaking Community of Belgium. The
analysis focuses on teaching practices and observations made by teachers during the
confinement period. Various factors contributing to inequalities are identified as well as
differences between the two levels of education. Relevant factors include the technological
equipment available to students, the use of pedagogical practices such as differentiation and
Remediation-Consolidation-Surpassing (RCS). After confinement, at the beginning of the
2020-2021 school year, teachers have faced more diverse classes, with learners who have
experienced very different confinement situation. In light of our analysis of survey responses,
we highlight the role of the technological equipment used by the teacher as a factor that
COVID-19 pandemic, primary and secondary education, distance learning, inequalities in
teaching and learning, digital inequalities, French speaking Community of Belgium/Wallonia-
Brussels Federation (FWB), Belgium
To cite this article : Duroisin, N., Beauset, R. & Tanghe, C. (2021). Education and digital inequalities
during COVID-19 confinement: From the perspective of teachers in the French speaking Community
of Belgium. European Journal of Education, 56(4), 1–21.
1 TEACHING IN THE FRENCH SPEAKING COMMUNITY IN BELGIUM DURING
THE COVID-19 HEALTH CRISIS
The COVID-19 health crisis led to national confinement measures in Belgium. The national
security Council consisting of the federal government and the federated entities decided to
suspend face-to-face lessons starting 16 March 2020 in the French speaking Community of
Belgium which in this article is referred to as the Wallonia-Brussels Federation (FWB)i.
Following this decision, several circulars were drafted for stakeholders in French-speaking
Belgian schools to limit, by rules and recommendations, inequalities between learners during
confinement. Circular 7508 (13 March 2020) communicates several recommendations to
which teachers had to comply following the closure of schools. For example, teachers were
mandated to not schedule homework and to recognise missed school days as justified.
Circular 7515 (17 March 2020) supplemented the previous circular by providing new
information about how the continuity of learning was to be organised. It mentions that
homework assignments may be sent to students only on condition that they do not involve
new learning. Students can be assigned activities that aim for Remediation-Consolidation-
Surpassing (RCS), these are activities that address content previously discussed in class.
Teachers should ensure that all work sent to learners is proportionate in content and time and
is independently achievable. The circular further specifies that the requested work can only be
assessed in a formative manner and should not under any circumstances be the subject of a
summative evaluation. Teachers have to ensure that their learners have access to the materials
offered, whether online or in hard copy. Finally, this circular insists on the importance of
maintaining social ties with learners, especially through virtual, technologically supported
Following a new National Security Council introducing the deconfinement strategy, new
elements were proposed in Circular 7550 (25 April 2020). This stipulates that the majority of
schools can reopen their doors. This measure aimed to allow learners to re-establish links with
educational teams and to reinstate face-to-face learning within regulated limits. The reopening
of schools proceeded in two phases. The first phase started on 18 May 2020 and gave priority
to some learners. The learners concerned by the return to the face-to-face learning are learners
in sixth-grade in primary schools (6th grade) and in the last year of secondary school (12th
grade). These students returned to school twice a week with a restricted group of learners. The
second phase started on 25 May 2020, it allowed other students to return to school. A
restricted group of learners in first or second grade at primary schools went to school once a
week. A restricted group of learners in their second year of secondary school (8th grade) went
to school for a maximum of two days a week. Moreover, the teachers were expected to
identify students who need a closer follow-up due to academic difficulties or specific learning
needs. For re-establishing contact with their teachers, students may be invited to go back to
their school up to once a week. The Government decided to cancel the external certification
exams for all students. Education teams or juries and class councils must therefore study the
conditions for student success. Finally, Circular 7599 (27 May 2020) announced the last two
phases for resuming face-to-face learning. Starting preschool classes resumed full-time on 2
June and primary education on 8 June. No changes were announced regarding secondary
2 INEQUALITIES BEFORE AND DURING THE CONFINEMENT PERIOD IN THE
The aforementioned circulars highlight to some extent the question of educational inequalities.
In general terms, educational inequalities are about equality of access, results, achievements,
opportunities and how students are treated (Dupriez & Vandenberghe, 2004); specifically, in
the context of teaching and learning (Marope, 2015; UNESCO, 2014). Inequalities in teaching
and learning can include differences between students in access to lessons and programmes
given but also in the daily activities (assessment and remediation) offered by teachers
(UNESCO, 2014). Rose (2015) identifies twin problems that restrain learning and result in
wide inequalities: home background and teaching quality. Other authors (e.g. Van Dijk & van
Deursen, 2010) evoke inequalities by adding the digital dimension. Robinson, Cotten, Ono,
Quan-Haase, Mesch, Chen, Schulz, Hale & Stern (2015) argue that
[…] digital inequality deserves a place alongside more traditional forms of
inequality in the twenty-first century pantheon of inequalities [… because]
it is increasingly clear that individuals’ digital engagements and digital
capital play key roles in a range of outcomes, from academic performance
to labor market success to entrepreneurship […]. (Robinson et al., 2015, p.
Digital inequalities can be conceptualised as
[…] emerging from the differences in actual access to technology, as well
as differences in digital literacy (the degree to which individuals have the
capacity, knowledge, motivation and competence to access, process,
engage and understand the information needed to obtain benefits from the
use of digital technologies, such as computers, Internet, mobile devices
and applications. (Beaunoyer, Dupéré & Guitton, 2020, p.2).
In this article, the term educational inequities is used to refer to inequalities in teaching and
learning and digital inequalities.
Although all education systems and all countries present inequalities in education and
heterogeneity in learner performances (Demeuse & Baye, 2008), Belgium presents one of the
starkest performance gaps between high and low-achieving students (Baye, Demeuse,
Monseur & Goffin, 2006). Dupriez and Vandenberghe (2004) have shown that inequalities
are more conspicuous in the French speaking Community of Belgium. When compared to
other countries, the social and cultural characteristics of families have a greater impact on
test-scores of students in Belgium—in mathematics, reading and sciences.Other research (e.g.
De Witte & Hindriks, 2017) highlights little social mobility and considerable inequalities
between schools in Belgium, especially in FWB (impact of free school choice, cf. Danhier &
Friant, 2019; impact of differentiated school systems, cf. Dupriez & Dumay, 2006; social and
academic segregation, cf. Lafontaine & Monseur, 2011, etc.). In order to reduce these
educational inequalities, a large-scale reform called the Pacte pour un enseignement
d'excellence [Pact for an excellent education] was commenced in 2015. This reform is the
product of a strong collective work of different education actors and partners (politicians,
researchers, teachers, parents, etc.) and aims to strengthen the quality of education for all
learners on three levels. The first level aims to establish a common core starting from the first
year of preschool education until the third year of lower-secondary education (Central Group,
2017). The second level seeks to reduce school retention practices and the third one is to
increase practices of differentiation. Differentiation practices are defined in the Décret
Missionsii (Ministère de la Communauté Française, 1997) as teaching methods that are
adapted to consider the heterogeneity of classes, the diversity of learning needs of learners
and their modes of learning; the aim of which is to advance learners at their own pace.
While the health crisis has postponed some axes of the Pacte pour un enseignement
d’excellence, the situation has especially raised some questions about the impact of the crisis
on educational inequalities that already existed. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the
question about educational inequalities was widely discussed between various actors such as
the general public (e.g. Hutin, 2020; Coalition des parents de milieux populaires, 2020), the
education stakeholders (e.g. Devauchelle, 2020) and researchers (e.g. Armitage & Nellums,
2020; Doyle, 2020). Indeed, the closure of schools and the switch to distance education can
exacerbate existing educational inequalities (Di Pietro, Biagi, Costa, Karpiński & Mazza,
2020; Andrew, Cattan, Costa Dias, Farquharson, Kraftman, Krutikova, Phimister & Sevilla,
2020). Moreover, the global pandemic of COVID-19 is now related to the rising school
This article provides a first broad situational analysis of some potential causes of inequalities
in primary and secondary education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if research shows
that the home environment of learners ordinarily induces inequalities and probably more in
case of distance learning (e.g. Di Pietro, Biagi, Costa, Karpiński & Mazza, 2020; Andrew,
Cattan, Costa Dias, Farquharson, Kraftman, Krutikova, Phimister & Sevilla, 2020), we
investigate here other factors. The research on which this article reports sought to answer the
following questions: What are the potential factors of educational inequalities created and
exacerbated during COVID-19 confinement in primary and secondary education? Do
teachers’ pedagogical decisions cause educational inequalities? Can we see the technology as
a causal factor of educational inequalities? Furthermore, we have sought to determine whether
the situation was similar at the level of primary and secondary schools. Indeed, a majority of
political measures at the two school levels were the same, while realities may have differed.
The analysis of our findings supports a better understanding of the general situation and
specific consequences of the crisis, for which we otherwise have only incidental information
(e.g. comments from teachers). To this end, a survey was conducted at the end of the 2020
school year to assess practices and observations among primary and secondary teachers
during COVID-19 confinement. This article is structured as follows. First, the methodology is
described; after which we present our analysis. We conclude by discussing our findings;
notably, the role of the technological equipment used by the teacher as a factor that increases
A survey about practices preferred by teachers during the COVID-19 schools closure was
carried out between the end of June and the end of August 2020 in FWB. The digital survey
was developed using the online survey software tool LimeSurvey®. This survey covered a
convenience sample of primary and secondary school teachers in FWB. The survey was
distributed via networking sites and social media to extend the scope of the survey because
there is no single platform dedicated to the communication between francophone teachers in
The aim of the survey was to identify teacher perceptions, practices and observations related
to the COVID-19 confinement. To this aim, the survey included a total of 139 questions
divided in three parts, with an estimated completion time of 20 minutes. The first part of the
survey addressed the socio-demographic background of participants (e.g. age, gender, etc.)
and information about their career (e.g. qualification, years of experience, grade, etc.). This
information enables a deeper understanding of the sample. The second part of the survey
collected information on teaching practices during the COVID-19 confinement. The third part
of the survey collected teacher perceptions regarding the 2020-2021 back to school year.
This article only presents the results of the second part of the survey. It explores different
factors for understanding how the COVID-19 confinement during the 2019–2020 school year
has created and/or highlighted educational inequalities. This part of the survey mainly
contained closed questions (MCQ, Likert scale) which are more adapted for analysis of large-
scale surveys and making a first situational analysis. The content of the survey was shared
with other surveys carried out in other countries (Deles, Dussel, Hultqvist & Pirone, 2022;
Pirone, 2021) and was drawn from exchanges with pedagogical actors (teachers, directors,
etc.). It explored different factors which could a priori lead to inequalities. First, we addressed
the technological equipment of teachers; a topic linked with inequalities because the
technological equipment of teachers is likely to determine distance learning practices used for
maintaining continuity in teaching (Weppe, Le Squeren & Lecocq, 2020). Next, the survey
included questions about specific pedagogical practices which can exacerbate or mitigate
inequalities between learners:
actions to maintain social ties with learners—a premise of all pedagogical actions
and a high priority during COVID-19 confinement (Circular 7515; Baudouin,
Dellisse, Lafontaine, Coertjens, Crépin, Baye & Galand, 2020)
distance learning specific practices
practices of differentiation—these are closely linked to teachers management of
inequalities (i.e. Feyfant, 2016; Duroisin, Simon & Tanghe, 2021; Duroisin,
Beauset, Simon & Tanghe, 2022);
use of technologies
content taught during activities—to determine whether regulations for limiting
inequalities (Circular 7515) were respected.
For analysing changes in practices (e.g. differentiation, usage of technologies), this section
collected information also about practices used by teachers before the COVID-19 pandemic.
This helped us to analyse whether an intensification of inequalities had taken place. Of course,
we are aware that the list of practices explored is non-exhaustive and that some other factors
could have been explored.
Finally, teachers were asked about their observations concerning dropout and the availability
of technological equipment—factors that affect inequalities according to Di Pietro, Biagi,
Costa, Karpiński & Mazza (2020). Table 1 shows examples of questions in the survey.
Table 1.Examples of questions in the different subdivisions of the second part of the survey
Subdivision Examples of questions
Was our technological equipment (PC, touchpad, Internet connection)
During the confinement period, did you try to get in touch with learners
Did you introduce any distance learning practices during the confinement
practices before and
Do you usually practice differentiation (in a normal school context, not
Use of ICT before
Before schools closed, did you use ICT in general?
Content taught and
During the confinement period, did you mostly sought to consolidate prior
In your class or classes, how many learners (more or less) had access to
Internet for online learning during the confinement period?
Rate of dropout and
Approximately, how many learners constantly participated in distance
A total of 759 teachers responded to the survey in full or in part, 261 primary school teachers
and 498 secondary school teachers. Only those questionnaires that were more than half-
completed (N=473) were analysed in the final sample. The final sample included 140 primary
school teachers (30%) and 333 secondary school teachers (70%).
The survey sample contains more women (83%) than men (17%). A majority of participants
were between 30 and 39 years old (37%), 26% were between 40 and 49 years, 18% between
20 and 29 years, 18% between 50 and 59 years and 2% were 60 or older. One quarter of these
teachers had between 16 and 25 years of experience (25%), 22% between 10 and 15 years,
19% between 5 and 9 years, 18% less than 5 years, 13% between 26 and 35 years of
experience and 4% more than 35 years of experience.
3.3 Statistical analysis
All the answers were coded, tabulated and statistically analysed using the software Jasp®.
Descriptive statistics were conducted on the different closed questions. Chi-square tests (χ²)
were used to quantify the differences between the primary and secondary school teachers.
Furthermore, some cross-analyses were carried out (e.g. technological equipment and
pedagogical decisions) using a contingency table approach. It is necessary to be aware that
chi-square tests do not allow to discover links of causality between variables or to examine
influences or impacts. However, chi-square tests provide additional information to enrich
analyses about factors of educational inequalities.
In the following, we present our results in four parts. The two first parts focus on teachers.
First, their technological equipment and subsequently their pedagogical decisions. The factor
of teacher technological equipment is cross-analysed with teacher pedagogical decisions. The
third and fourth parts present observations made by teachers about learners, they respectively
describe results about the technological equipment used by their students during distance
learning and student dropout. The results section concludes with two tables presenting
statistical results for key questions—concerning equipment and teacher practice (table 2), as
well as equipment and student dropout (table 3).
4.1 Digital divide among teachers
Some questions of the survey related to the technological equipment that teachers work with.
Although a majority of the teachers (88%) declared that their technological equipment was
suitable to ensure the pedagogical continuity during the confinement, many of them (51.5%)
faced difficulties with it. The chi-square test used to compare results between primary and
secondary teachers is not statistically significant (χ² (2, 473) = 0.224, p = .894).
4.2 A variety of pedagogical decisions
Teachers were free to use an individual or a collective way to maintain the social ties with
their learners. The results of the survey reveal that only a minority of teachers did not try to
contact their students individually (13.5%) or collectively (15%). The groups of teachers
using collective and individual communication were of similar proportions. The frequency of
collective or individual meetings varied between teachers. More or less 40% of teachers (41%)
tried to contact their learners more than once a week individually. We found that 31.50% of
teachers did not do individual meetings daily but tried to meet with learners more than once a
week, and 10% tried to meet daily. A small proportion of teachers (22.5%) tried to contact
students individually at least once a week, and a similar proportion of teachers tried to contact
students individually less than once a week. There is no statistically significant difference
between primary and secondary teachers (χ² (4, 473) = 4.604, p= .330). Results indicate that
15% of teachers tried to contact students collectively on a daily or almost daily basis. A small
proportion of teachers (34.5%) did not contact their learners daily but tried to contact them
collectively more than once a week. Some teachers (27%) tried to contact learners once a
week and only 8.5% of teachers tried to contact students less frequently. There is a
statistically significant difference between primary and secondary teachers (χ² (1, 473) =
28.102, p< .001). A greater number of primary school teachers (28%), when compared to
secondary teachers (9%), did not try to contact their learners.
4.3 Specific actions of distance learning
Even though schools closed during the confinement, teachers could organise distance teaching
practices to ensure pedagogical continuity. Practices needed to comply with regulations.
Distance learning practices were proposed by 84.5% of teachers during the confinement;
some teachers preferred not to propose distance learning practices (15.5%). There is a
statistically significant difference between primary and secondary teachers (χ² (1, 473) =
11.251, p< .001). These activities were proposed by more secondary teachers (88%) than
primary teachers (75.5%). Among all teachers who had implemented specific actions in the
context of distance learning, only 36% proposed holding teaching sessions using applications
for videoconferencing. This shows that videoconferencing was not an important practice in
distance teaching. The chi-square test highlights a statistically significant difference between
primary and secondary teachers (χ² (1, 399) = 8.032, p= .005) for the implementation of
distance learning sessions using videoconferencing. More secondary teachers (40%) than
primary teachers (24.5%) used videoconferencing for teaching online.
4.3.1 No compliance with the ban to teach new contentiii
At the outset of the confinement, circulars related to the Covid-19 measures prohibited the
approach of new learnings and asked to only address content previously discussed in class
Roughly half of the teachers (46%) proposed only RCS activities at the outset of the
confinement. However, there is a significant difference between primary and secondary
teachers (χ² (2, 473) = 24.152, p< .001). Over 60% of primary teachers (64.5%) declared they
only offered RCS activities. At the secondary level of education, only 39% of secondary
teachers proposed RCS activities at the outset of confinement.
At the outset of confinement, 29% of the teachers would have preferred to suggest new
content. Significant difference between primary and secondary teachers is observed (χ² (2,
473) = 15.712, p< .001). More secondary teachers (35%) than primary teachers (16%)
wanted to teach new content.
Half of the teachers declared that they faced difficulties to only propose RCS activities as the
confinement continued. Fewer primary teachers (37%) than secondary teachers (55.5%)
experienced this difficulty (χ² (2, 473) = 12.193, p= .002).
Despite the ban on teaching new content, 45% declared that they proposed activities which
involved new content during the confinement period. More secondary teachers (53%) than
primary teachers (22%) made this pedagogical choice (χ² (1, 399) = 31.312, p< .001).
Nevertheless, if a part of teachers did not comply with the rules of circulars, 87.5% of
teachers declared that they worked more on consolidating prior content than introducing new
learnings. More primary than secondary teachers worked on consolidating past learnings, but
the difference is not significant (χ² (1, 399) = 3.271, p= .070).
4.4 Stagnation or decrease of differentiation practices
In a normal context, teachers would sometimes (51%) or most of the time (42%) practice
pedagogical differentiation. Primary teachers declared to practice differentiation most of the
time (67%) while many of the secondary teachers (59%) declared to sometimes practice the
differentiation. Few teachers (7%) indicated that they did not practice differentiation in
normal circumstances. The chi-square test highlights a statistically significant difference
between primary and secondary teachers (χ² (2, 473) = 54.418, p< .001).
During confinement, many teachers (43%) declared to sometimes practice educational
differentiation. However, the rate of teachers who did not use differentiation strategies in their
practices during the confinement is nearly a third of all teachers (32.5%). This demonstrates
that teachers do not practice differentiation during confinement to the same extent as before
confinement. Results come across as identical at both levels of education (χ² (2, 395) = 3.994,
p = .136).
The survey shows that 90% of teachers have stagnated (46.5%) or decreased (43.5%) and
only 10% have increased differentiation practices during confinement (figure 1). Primary
teachers seem to have reduced their differentiation practices more than secondary teachers:
54.5% of primary teachers and 39% of secondary teachers have decreased their differentiation
practices. In contrast, more than 10% of secondary teachers have increased differentiation
practices during confinement compared to only less than 2% of the primary teachers. A
statistically significant difference is observed between primary and secondary teachers for the
evolution of this practice before and during the crisis (χ² (3, 395) = 16.290, p< .001).
Figure 1. Evolution of differentiation practices before and during COVID-19 confinement in
4.5 Increase of ICT use mostly at secondary school
In general, roughly 95% of respondents used Information and Communications Technology
(ICT) applications before the pandemic. Out of the teachers surveyed, 20% responded that
they rarely used technologies under normal circumstances and 33% stated that they used them
sometimes. Prior to the crisis, ICT was often used by 31% of respondents and always by 12%
of respondents. Meanwhile, 5% of respondents never used ICT applications before the
pandemic crisis. A statistically significant difference in ICT usage existed between primary
and secondary school teachers (χ² (4, 473) = 15.889, p= .003).
Roughly 99% of respondents used ICT for teaching and learning during the pandemic crisis.
Among these teachers, majority of them (63%) indicated that they always used ICT during the
COVID-19 crisis. Frequent use of ICT was reported by 26% of teachers and 6% stated that
they sometimes used them. Few teachers (4%) reported using ICT rarely during the crisis.
Nevertheless, 1% responded that they never used ICT applications during the pandemic crisis.
A statistically significant difference in ICT usage during the pandemic crisis existed between
primary and secondary school teachers (χ² (4, 473) = 29.715, p< .001). The rate of teachers
who always used ICT during the crisis is more prominent at the secondary level (71%) than at
the primary level (46%).
By comparing answers to questions addressing ICT use before and during the crisis, we
observe that a majority of teachers (74.5%) increased the use of ICT applications during this
period and some teachers (4%) decreased the use of ICT during the health crisis (figure 2).
The observed changes seem to be identical at both levels of education (χ² (2, 473) = 3.782, p
Figure 2. ICT use before and during COVID-19 confinement in 2020
4.6 Pedagogical decisions were not really linked to the technological
equipment of teachers
To understand if technology was a factor linked with choice of teaching practices during
confinement—and thereby had an impact on inequalities—we conducted a cross-analysis of
the factors technological equipment and pedagogical decisions. Chi-square tests were used to
compare pedagogical decisions between teachers with unsuitable equipment, teachers with
suitable equipment but who faced difficulties and teachers with suitable equipment. Results
show there is no significant difference between the three groups of teachers related to these
pedagogical decisions: contacting learners individually (χ² (2, 473) = 5.936, p= .051) or
collectively (χ ² (2, 473) = 3.322, p= .190), introduction of distance learning practices (χ² (2,
473) = 2.168, p= .338) using videoconferencing (χ² (2, 399) = 0.029, p= .986) and practicing
differentiation (χ² (4, 395) = 5.316, p= .256). The only pedagogical decision with statistically
significant difference is related to the use of ITC during confinement (χ² (8, 473) = 25.090, p
= .002). ITC equipment were used more by teachers who had suitable equipment than it was
by teacher who did not.
4.7 Teachers did not know whether students had access to digital devices
Aprecondition for any type of online learning activity is that learners have access to a digital
device (computer, smartphone, tablet). Many teachers (43%) reported that more of 75% of
their learners have a digital device they can use for school. Only 21% of respondents reported
that all their learners have a digital device they can use for online teaching and schoolwork. A
slightly smaller proportion of teachers (15.5%) reported that between 50% and 75% of
learners have a digital device dedicated to schoolwork. Some respondents (4%) indicated that
only between 25% and 50% of learners have a digital device they can use for school and 3.5%
of respondents reported that less than 25% of learners have access to a digital device
dedicated to online teaching. Meanwhile, 13% of teachers indicated that they did not know
whether students had access to technology; this was more frequent at the primary level
(18.5%) than the secondary level (11%) (χ² (5, 434) = 28.036, p< .001).
Only 10% of teacher responses declared that their school did nothing because there was no
family in need. Teachers frequently (62%) indicated that their school did not lend digital
devices to learners in need even if it was necessary. Only few teachers (20.5%) reported that
their school provided a partial support to some families in need. Only some of the teachers
(7.5%) reported that their school provided digital devices to almost all families in need. There
is a significant difference between responses from the secondary teachers and the primary
teachers; secondary learners received more support from their school (χ² (3, 439) = 35.563, p
The most frequent response among teachers (45%) was that they did not know if students had
access to a printer. Not knowing about printer access was more common at the secondary
level (52.5%) than at the primary level (27%) (χ² (1, 473) = 22.142, p< .001).
A large number of respondents (46%) reported that more than 75% of learners had Internet for
online learning. Only 19.5% of respondents reported that all learners had an Internet
connection. A slightly smaller proportion (13.5%) reported that between 50% and 75% of
learners had Internet access. Some respondents (6%) indicated that only between 25% and
50% of learners had an Internet connection and 1.5% of respondents reported that less than
25% of learners had Internet connections. Meanwhile, no less than 13.5% of teachers
indicated that they did not have any information related to this. This lack of information at the
primary level (14.5%) was more or less the same at the secondary level (13%). Access to
Internet seems to be greater at the secondary level.
No less than 49% of teachers indicated that they did not have any information about the
smartphones used by learners. The majority of the respondents (14%) declared that between
25% and 50% of learners used the smartphone for online teaching. The smartphone is more
used by learners at the secondary level than at the primary level (χ² (5, 432) = 18.922, p
No less than 45.5% of teachers indicated that they did not have any information about the
computers used by learners. Most of the respondents (14.5%) declared that between 25% and
50% of learners used the computer for online teaching. It seems there is no difference
between the two levels of education.
Many teachers (67%) declared that they did not have any information about the tablets used
by learners. This lack of information was greater at the secondary level (72%) than at the
primary level (56%). Most of the respondents (19%) declared that less than 25% of learners
used the tablet for the online teaching.
Among the different digital devices, the tablet seems to be the one that is used less by the
learners, but teachers have little information about the extent to which students use this device
compared to computer and smartphone use.
4.8 A high rate of dropout observed by teachers
Teachers who used introduced distance learning practices were asked about attendance, to
estimate an overall student dropout rate. Teachers were asked to estimate how many learners
continually participated in distance learning activities organised. No dropout was noted by
10.5% of teachers (everyone or almost everyone learners constantly participated). In contrast,
all students dropped out from online teaching for 2% of teachers. According to 36% of
teachers, approximately three quarters of learners constantly participated. Approximately half
of the students were reported to participate by 28% of teachers; a quarter of students
participated in the online teaching of 23.5% of the teachers. A statistically consistent
difference appears between secondary and primary teachers (χ² (4, 396) = 19.952, p< .001).
Dropout (continuous participation of one half or less of learners) was more commonly noted
by secondary teachers (60%) than primary teachers (37%).
For a better analysis of inequalities, results about content taught by teachers (new content or
not) and dropout of learners were combined. The rate of teachers who did not develop new
content was greater for teachers concerned by a higher rate of dropout (few constant
participation). Chi-square test shows a significant difference between results from teachers
reporting high dropout and low dropout (χ² (4, 396) = 14.190, p= .007). Nevertheless, the
survey shows that 35% of teachers with a participation rate of 25% learners had developed
Most of the teachers, irrespective of dropout rate, proposed to consolidate prior content rather
than develop new. However, more than a tenth (11%) of the teachers with no or almost no
dropouts chose to develop new learning. The teachers with higher dropout rate were
proportionally more represented among teachers who did not introduce new content. A chi-
square test shows a significant difference between results from teachers with high and low
dropout rate (χ² (4, 396) = 20.703, p< .001).
Table 2. Teachers’ equipment and practices
Was your technological equipment (PC, touchpad, Internet connection) suitable for
the continuity of teaching practice during the confinement?
χ² (2, 473) = 0.224, p = .894
During the confinement period, did
you try to get in touch with learners
Did you introduce distance learning practices during the confinement period? Total Primary
Did you hold a distance learning session (by videoconferencing) during the
During the confinement period, I
have proposed activities …
… which involved new content … which aimed to consolidate past learnings
During the confinement period, I mostly sought to … Total Primary
Did you actively seek to implement
before confinement? during confinement?
Did you use ICT (information and
before schools closed? during the COVID-19 pandemic?
χ² (4, 473) = 15.889, p = .003 χ² (4, 473) = 29.715, p < .001
Table 3. Teacher observations regarding student equipment and drop-out
Among your class/classes, how many learners (more or less) had access to a digital
device for schoolwork (tablet, smartphone, computer)?
During the confinement period, did your school lend computers or tablets to
families in need, to ensure online learning?
χ² (3, 439) = 35.563, p < .001
Among your class/classes, during the
confinement, how many learners
(more or less) had access to
a printer? an Internet connection?
Among your class/classes, how many
learners (more or less) used a
Approximately how many learners constantly participated in distance learning
During the confinement
period, did you propose
involved new learning?
Approximately how many learners constantly participated in distance learning activities
No one (or almost
quarter of learners
half of learners
three quarters of
During the confinement
period, I mostly sought
Approximately how many learners constantly participated in distance learning activities
No one (or almost
quarter of learners
half of learners
three quarters of
89% 98% 88% 85% 70.5%
χ² (4, 396) = 20.703, p < .001
In the French speaking Community of Belgium, face-to-face classes were suspended due to
the COVID-19 pandemic. From mid-March to the end of June 2020, teachers were asked to
secure pedagogical continuity via distance education. Belgian authorities sought to limit the
development of inequalities through regulations and recommendations. Nevertheless,
numerous authors agree that the COVID-19 confinement and distance teaching have increased
educational inequalities (e.g. Wagnon, 2020; Darnon, 2020; Azevedo, Hasan, Goldemberg,
Geven & Iqbal 2021) and most teachers seem to agree with this (Duroisin, Beauset, Tanghe &
This article reports on analysis that draws on a large-scale survey of primary and secondary
school teachers on practices and observations regarding their students during the confinement
period. The survey aimed to improve understanding of inequalities between learners during
the confinement and to identify some factors which might explain inequalities. On the one
hand, teacher specific factors (technological equipment and pedagogical decisions) were
developed to highlight inequalities between students by school classes. On the other hand,
learners factors (equipment and dropout) revealed inequalities between learners in the same
Even before the crisis the successful numerical transition implementation was an aim of
Belgian authorities. This ambition is highlighted in the large-scale reform Pacte pour un
enseignement d'excellence (Central Group, 2017; Duroisin, Monney & Duquette, 2021) which
identified areas of improvement. Nevertheless, there is little information about the
technological equipment of teachers in FWB, Belgium. During the pandemic crisis,
technology helped to secure educational continuity (Weppe, Le Squeren & Lecocq, 2020).
Our results show that the access teachers had to technological equipment varied. Many
primary and secondary teachers faced difficulties with their equipment and some did not have
the access they needed. This represents a digital divide on the part of the teachers (see also
Duroisin & Beauset, 2021). The divide may be more important as the survey was an online
survey in which teachers lacking access to ICT could not participate—which is a limitation of
this research. This divide can produce inequalities between different groups of students.
Indeed, this unequal situation in teacher ICT access may lead to different pedagogical
decisions and different distance teaching methods between school classes. Teachers lack of
ICT equipment can lead to reduced teaching practices during periods of confinement. It can
impact all learners, especially at the secondary level of education where a teacher has a lot of
classes and learners.
Nevertheless, results of this survey show that the central role of this factor must be nuanced.
In fact, there is no statistical difference between teachers who did or did not have appropriate
ICT equipment (with or without difficulties) in terms of pedagogical decisions such as
contacting learners collectively or individually; introducing distance teaching practices and
videoconference sessions, and practicing differentiation. Equipment is not the major factor
that explains teaching practices during confinement—to provide equipment to teachers as
such is not sufficient to manage inequality in distance education.
In addition to the variability of teachers’ equipment, this survey reveals a disparity of actions
implemented by teachers during the confinement, which inevitably leads to inequalities
between students in Belgium. These results seem consistent with results of Baudouin et al.
(2020) who conducted a survey of students in Belgium.
Despite the authorities’ recommendations about maintaining social ties, all of them did not try
to get in touch with learners to the same extent. Some teachers proposed frequent collective or
individual discussions while others did not, or did so to a lesser extent. Introduction of
distance learning practices, such as videoconferencing sessions were carried out more by
secondary teachers. During confinement, opportunities for learning and maintaining social
ties were different between groups of students. These results confirm strong inequalities
between school classes because some learners did not receive any opportunities and some
others received it sometimes several times a week.
Pedagogical choices varied—for content and differentiation— among teachers who
introduced distance learning practices, despite regulations that sought to mitigate inequalities
between school classes and within classes between learners. Results show that several
teachers, especially secondary teachers, did not comply with the regulation to only work on
previously introduced content. Paradoxically, survey results demonstrate that inequality
between students for teachers who introduced new content was mitigated. For this reason, we
believe that inequalities were greater at the level of secondary education. However, the
majority of teachers preferred to work on consolidating prior learning rather than take on new
content. Moreover, cross-analysis reveals that teachers teaching new content during the
confinement had fewer students dropping out.
Differentiation practices aim to mitigate inequalities between learners because this practice
responds to the needs of each learner (Feyfant, 2016; Duroisin, Simon & Tanghe, 2021).
Nevertheless, results of this survey highlight that a majority of teachers used differentiation
practices as much or less during as before the confinement period. This supports our
proposition that educational inequalities increased during the confinement. However, we
would have thought that a majority of teachers improved differentiation practices during the
confinement because ITC can improve the development of a pedagogical approach including
differentiation (Benoit & Sagot, 2008; Beziat, 2000). We also expected that teachers using
differentiation practices during the confinement were able to improve the development of a
pedagogical approach that integrates this practice with ITC to respond to specific needs of
The technological equipment of students is crucial for the implementation of distance
teaching (Darnon 2020). Therefore, it is important to have data to assess the situation about
the technological equipment available to learners at home. In FWB, only a few data are
available and allow us to have some indications about this (e.g. Wiard,
Huys, Vanneste, Collard, Soudon, Gobert, Guffens, Culot, 2020; Schleicher, 2019). We know
that primary school learners mainly use television, tablet, video games console and the
smartphone. At the secondary level of education, learners mainly opt for smartphone,
television, laptop and the video games console (Wiard,
Huys, Vanneste, Collard, Soudon, Gobert, Guffens, Culot, 2020). We also know that digital
equipment is used at home by 15-year-old students a little more frequently in FWB compared
to other OECD countries (Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2020a). According to information
from teachers in this survey, there are disparities in the technological tools used by learners.
While teachers affirmed that all learners are not equipped with printer or an Internet
connection allowing them to follow distance learning, the survey results show that the
majority of learners have at least one of the following digital devices: smartphone, tablet or
Each of these digital devices have an impact on the working conditions of learners. Indeed,
the small screen size of some smartphones can be uncomfortable and might cause reading
difficulties for learners (e.g. reading diagrams or concept maps). Moreover, these digital
devices do not offer the same potential for teaching and learning. Access to digital tools
determines the learner’s ability to accomplish the learning activities proposed by the teacher.
Differences may occur between learners due to the type of digital device used in the context
of distance learning. In fact, a learner using a computer can more easily store the results of his
research on the Internet and produce a graph or write an essay rather than a learner using a
Some schools provided material assistance to learners in need (for those who did not have
operational digital equipment at home) to enable them to follow the distance learning. This
assistance concerned a restricted percentage of schools, whereas, according to the surveyed
teachers, the demand was much higher. We observe a significant difference between the
support provided by secondary schools compared to the support provided by primary schools.
It can be explained by the fact that secondary school learners must be equipped with a digital
device to take part in most school activities at distance. In primary education, parents are
often asked to print out exercises at home. When schools lend ICT equipment to students it
must be returned to the school at the end of the confinement. Both teachers and school
leadership supported since the start of the pandemic local initiatives for this type of support.
In line with the 2018 Digital Strategy for Education (Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2018) —
and the September 2020 amendment Digital Strategy:Digital equipment and connectivity
(Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, 2020b) — several action plans for supporting digital
equipment have been adopted in FWB. These policies fund measures for supporting low
socio-economic index schools that have put in place an online learning platform. These
strategic policies target general, qualifying and specialised upper secondary education—
primary schools cannot benefit from these supports.
The FWB provides secondary schools with a budget for acquiring a stock of computers
corresponding to at least 5% of their school population; also, the FWB supports parents for
students in grades 3–7 to get a computer by either purchasing or by renting from a list pre-
established by the school (support of € 75 to purchase, or € 25 per year for three years rent, or
€ 18,75 for four years rent).
The survey shows that a significant part of teachers ignored the learners' ICT equipment
despite this information is crucial to propose appropriate activities. This lack of information
might lead to educational inequalities. The situation differs between primary and secondary
teachers depending on the equipment. Indeed, more secondary teachers than primary teachers
did not know if their learners had access to a printer. This difference can be explained through
the limited handling capacities of digital devices by the youngest learners. While primary
learners are less able to manipulate behavioural interfaces (such as the computer keyboard and
mouse) than secondary learners, primary school teachers ask their learners to perform the
exercises on paper, which requires knowing if a printer is available at home. In primary
education, parents also manage their child's schooling more, for example by printing
homework assignments. Jeynes (2012) has observed that primary teachers mobilise parents
more easily than secondary teachers.
Moreover, primary school learners may encounter more difficulties in using digital equipment
in the context of distance learning than secondary learners. If some learners know how to use
digital tools for leisure activities (social networks, chat with friends, etc.), not all young
people are digitally savvy (Beckman, Apps, Bennett & Lockyer, 2018) and they do not
necessarily know how to use digital equipment for learning.
During the confinement some teachers did not propose distance learning activities while
others implemented them with low rates of learner attendance. Teachers observed more
student dropouts in secondary than in primary school. These differences can be explained by
the active role that parents play in managing primary education, whereas secondary learners
are expected to manage their own schooling. Several factors may explain the high dropout
rate, including teachers not knowing about students’ access to equipment, difficulties working
independently, the ban on new content which can lead to boredom and decreased motivation
due to reduced social ties between learners and teachers during confinement.
As an issue, equality of access has not been understood as severely in need of attention as are
the issues of equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes (Dupriez & Vandenberghe,
2004). However, results from our large-scale survey show that the health crisis highlights the
issue of equality of access. During confinement, many students no longer had access to
distance education because of a lack of digital equipment, or because some teachers did not
offer any lessons during this period.
At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, teachers faced more heterogeneous classes
than the previous year. Varied student experiences during the confinement contribute to this
heterogeneity. During the confinement, all learners did not receive the same education
because some teachers have encouraged the consolidation of prior content while others
preferred to work on new content and some learners have not received instruction because
teachers did not offer any activities or because the learners dropped out. All of these results
are consistent with those of a survey conducted to assess French-speaking Belgian parents
during the confinement (Gauthier, 2020). School closures have probably increased inequality
between and within the school classes and constitutes a challenge for the teachers and policy
makers. One of the major challenges is to have mixed classes (i.e. learners in the first year of
secondary come from many primary schools). This challenge can be overcome with
differentiation practices. In addition, the Belgian authorities have put in place several
measures to balance inequalities such as the granting of personalised learning periods to help
teachers (Circular 7725).
There are different limitations to this research. Firstly, this large-scale study is based on a
convenience and restricted sample and this kind of sample is not always representative and we
can for this reason not make generalisations based of these results. Moreover, in this research,
all information about the learners is based on statements from teachers. It might be interesting
to compare with results from a survey of student statements and to link these results with this
survey to enrich analyses. For example, the learning environment at home and social contacts
with peers could be considered in a student survey.
Other limitations concern analyses of differences between primary and secondary education.
In Belgium, the age difference in primary education, and also in secondary education, is six
years. This is a considerable age difference between learners in different grades. Comparing
primary and secondary teachers is interesting for a broad situational analysis, but a
differentiation by age groups when collecting and analysing data (specifically on the role of
technical equipment of the families as well as the teachers) could be relevant.
Furthermore, the content of the survey is also debatable. Only closed questions were analysed
which restricts the factors explored (digital equipment, some teaching practices, etc.) to
explain inequalities between learners. Many questions were cross analysed; yet, different
approaches for interpreting the results are possible. Accordingly, it is difficult to identify with
certainty the primary factors of educational inequality. However, analyses highlight links
between answers and allow to suggest the proportional impact of different factors. It should
be noted that when contingency tables show correlations between two factors, it is not
possible to say with any degree of certitude which of the two factors influences the other one.
For example, it is not clear whether the teachers approached new learnings because they had a
high participation rate or vice versa. To identify accurate causalities, we would need to
change some survey questions. To assess if the participation rate induced the teaching of new
learning, we would have to ask teachers: Did you teach new content because you had a high
participation rate ? As a reminder, the aim of this survey was to make a first and large
situational analysis of the situation in FWB by exploring teacher statements. To complete the
results of the first survey, other studies or surveys were conducted or are planned for specific
subjects (Duroisin, 2020 about higher education; Duroisin, Beauset, Simon & Tanghe, 2022
about differentiation and evaluation practices). Indeed, if the results of the study proposed in
this article contain some interesting clues for explaining educational inequalities, an in-depth
examination with other surveys could allow a better understanding of the educational
inequalities in FWB during the COVID-19 crisis. A second survey—about the organisation of
the start of the new school year, digital tools, school learning and assessments, class
management, well-being and stress and school inequalities at the start of the 2020-2021
school year—was submitted between the end of September and the beginning of November
2020 to teachers. A third survey, submitted to teachers in 2021, concerns teaching practices in
pandemic times, making it possible to provide more answers about educational inequalities.
Data availability statement
The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the
corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy or ethical restrictions.
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iThe Wallonia-Brussels Federation designate the French Community referred to in Article 2 of the belgian
Constitution. By a resolution of 25 May 2011, the Parliament of the French Community decided to
systematically use the name "Federation Wallonia-Brussels" to usually designate the French Community in its
communications. The Government is doing the same. In the teaching circulars, we find the term “Federation
ii A key reference for the mission of schools in the French speaking Community of Belgium.
iii Questions regarding content taught and practices of differentiation were only addressed with teachers who said
they took actions during the confinement; a sample of 399 subjects.