Education in the era of COVID-19

Since my last blog entry a lot has changed both personally and globally. Personally, I have taken on the responsibility for leading literacy in my current school (more on this to come in future blogs) and globally the world has been changed drastically by something smaller than a cell. 

As I write this, Romania has just entered its second month of lockdown procedures and my school has been delivering home learning content for five weeks in total. These are truly unique times and I have used the Easter break to reflect on where we are now in terms of education and where I think we need to go next. 

Where should we be going as educators in the age of COVID-19?

My current school has adopted an on-demand style approach to home learning. Teachers create video lessons using Chrome extensions, like Screencastify and Loom, and then upload this video, along with the resources the students need, to a Google Site which the students and parents can access at a time convenient to them. These lessons are then supplemented with regular Google Hangouts in small or large groups for the students to have a vehicle for catching up with their teachers and then there is the option for students to organise individual or small group Hangouts for help with their work. Other schools are instead running regular school timetables with students having video lessons using Zoom or Google Hangouts at their regular prescribed time and then there are other schools who are relying on sending packs of work home for students to complete.

 

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.14.29

You can see what my site looks like by clicking on this image. You will also see the steep learning curve I had to take when creating video content.  

It is clear that everyone is working hard to replicate the best they can what happens in a school setting and the majority of people I work with are working considerably harder now than they would have to if school was open. However, as teachers continue to grapple with new technology, new ways of teaching and new educational paradigms it has become more and more apparent to me that the people who are (hopefully) the central driver for these efforts, the students, are suffering in ways other than academics. 

From my small sample size, a trend is happening for some students to become ever more socially isolated due to limitations in access to reliable, fully functioning technology at home. I imagine, with some confidence, that this observation could be extrapolated to a wider group. We are not just talking about the number of laptops, tablets and smartphones at home but we are also talking about laptops without working webcams and devices with faulty microphones. What is already a foreign social situation can be exasperated when a student cannot easily share their thoughts in a conversation or use their face to convey non-verbal cues. Throw into the mix the variety of internet connection speeds in a class, families varying schedules as parents are working hard from home to keep their jobs or save their businesses and the availability of comfortable, private working spaces in a home and you have a toxic combination of factors which can limit students social connections and have an adverse effect on their mental health. Everyone assumes that because a child has been born since the advent of smartphones and are described as digital natives that they are by the very same virtue digitally literate. This is not the case and we need to be aware of this. A significant minority of my students are not having any social interaction with their peers outside of prescribed school slots and some are not even able to access those opportunities. It is with this in mind that I would propose that we need to rethink how we approach home learning during the time of COVID-19.

Reduce the amount of lesson time for primary/ elementary school children

Let’s be clear, we cannot replicate school via home learning. Students’ relationships with their parents are vastly different to their relationship with their teachers. It is not fair for parents to be expected to step into this role and we cannot be there to give the students the same non-verbal reminders, support and gentle push that we can in person. These things are often intangible and cannot be replicated through a monitor. Likewise, even with access to the same lessons, resources and availability of the teachers’ support we are not going to be able to ensure a levelled educational playing field. Some parents will be furloughed and have time to work with their child and others are going to be working around the clock to keep things afloat. It is with this in mind that I believe we need to be working smarter, not harder. We need to scale back how many lessons/activities we provide our primary/elementary students and use this time to have a more beneficial impact on the students in our care. So how should we use this extra time?

Greater focus on student well-being and social interactions

We should be using this extra time to provide the extra necessary support for the students in our pastoral roles as teachers. We need to be there more to support the students, play games with them online and to facilitate social interactions with their peers for those at risk students. Mental health is one of the largest factors when determining an individual’s access to employment and their place within society. We are going through a potentially profound and live changing experience and there are undoubtedly going to be some mental health repercussions from this experience. We need to look to minimise this where we can and begin to plan for the future. We still need to support the students in developing essential skills and knowledge but I am sure that the lesson on how trains have changed over the years can wait for a game of Pictionary on Zoom whilst providing students time to be laughing with their colleagues.

Plan intervention programmes now

So what do I think we should be planning for? First, I fervently believe that opening school for 2-6 weeks over the summer holiday is a waste of time. Students and teachers will both begin to burn out by November, even with a mid-term break in October, and you will not be able to replicate 8+ weeks of in person schooling in that time. Learning is not a linear process and therefore we need to be more nuanced in our approach. 

As I mentioned before, due to a variety of reasons, some students will continue to make the same progress at home whilst others will fall behind either against where they had the potential to be before the schools switched to home learning or it could be in relation to their peers overall. We need to plan for this now. We need to decide on how we are going to assess the students who will need extra support and how we are going to provide free, small group after school tuition for these students as soon as we can get back into school. The focus needs to be on helping those students to catch up who have been disadvantaged most by the school closures. This small, focussed, regular intervention I believe would have more impact on learning outcomes than opening up school in a period when many families will hopefully be able to enjoy a holiday together in a different setting from which they have spent lockdown.

These are unique times, sacrifices need to be made and we need to take time to look at the bigger picture. It may not seem it now, but this is the best possible time this pandemic could happen in human history. People are healthier, medical systems are more advanced and the sharing of information can happen quicker than ever before. We need to use these advantages to help make sure that we, in our role as educators, can have the greatest possible positive impact on the students in our care.

 

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