Desirée Denaro is a Project Assistant at Scholas Occurrentes – an educational nonprofit organization led by Pope Francis that promotes training projects around the world. Scholas links technology with art and engages sport to promote social integration and culture gatherings in search for peace. It is also member of the 21st Century Skills Coalition joined by different public and private organizations to promote the development of transversal skills in Latin America and the Caribbean.
It seems like yesterday when Pope Francis, in a deserted St. Peter’s Square, was telling a scared and worried world that “no one reaches salvation by themselves”. Covid-19 pandemic had already become a global concern.
Despite starting in China, indeed, it left little time for surprise and astonishment, and forced all governments to deal with an unprecedented emergency: lockdown, closures, and suspensions became the recipe’s ingredients for facing this invisible enemy. Schools have obviously been among the first institutions hit by the crisis. In no time, more than 1.5 billion students around the world found the doors of their schools closed, since isolation became the countries’ priority.
Education institutions have been urged to provide essential learning opportunities for children and youngsters, betting everything on emergency remote learning. If, on the one hand, technology and distance learning represent a valid resource to ensure the continuity of the educational activities, they cannot replace schools as a place of encounter, social growth, exchange, and experience. Moreover, parents, families, and guardians are now asked to perform educational tasks for which they are not prepared, especially in contexts of vulnerability and limited educational resources.
The sudden suspension of educational activities, combined with social isolation, represents a huge test for youngsters’ mental health: this combination of uncertainty, emergency and “suspension of normality” is causing anxiety, stress, depression, loss of motivation, fear and sadness. Worries about the future of schools and education have arisen among students, teachers and parents, since they have started to realize that something more important is happening elsewhere: they started to agree that, when future becomes uncertain and when death represents a real threat, then a new sense in life should be searched.
Scholas, as an organization that promotes the culture of the encounter by involving youngsters in an education that generates meaning, wanted one more time to answer to this new call. This has meant promoting the culture of encounter through new technologies, thus continuing to accomplish its mission, starting from some basic concepts that have always been embedded in Scholas’ spirit: education as a key factor for wellbeing and health, the importance of expressing people’s emotions, the beauty of sharing and the power of the encounter.
Throughout its history, the organization has put socio-emotional skills, considered as cross-cutting skills necessary for the future, at the very center of its experiences. The pedagogic approach carried on by Scholas has always recognized the importance of skills such as empathy, solidarity, compassion, communication, adaptability and resilience, as well as the need to include the “promotion” of such capacities in education and in life. The current crisis, however, has proved to be threatening in three, interconnected regards:
- The stress caused by isolation and uncertainty represents a risk for youngsters’ socio-emotional stability;
- School closures and the launch of emergency remote learning have taken away one of the main spaces where such skills can be cultivated, empowered and expressed, especially on a peer-to-peer approach;
- Teachers, families and students have been forced to reconsider and reinvent their roles within the educational process. This could represent an opportunity to conceive and push for a new Educational Pact,launched by Pope Francis on September 2019. The pact would re-think education by calling all the actors involved. On the other hand, however, the negative consequences on mental health and on the psychosocial aspect caused by the current situation, could break an already fragile equilibrium among the different stakeholders, thus compromising the future of education.
Scholas was really surprised when finding out that the kind of education it promotes can have a positive impact on health. Even if Scholas had felt it since its origins, it has never had a chance to test this link empirically, and on a global scale. And, at the same time, we had never conducted an evaluation on the impact on its own beneficiaries. But things can change with a phone call.
One surreal afternoon back in March, Scholas’ Coordinator in Italy, Alessandra Graziosi’s telephone starts to ring: a teacher from North Italy is calling to ask for help. Her students are not reacting to her proposed activities and assignments due to the anguish and fear they are living in. After some days, another teacher calls: one of her students has lost his grandfather to COVID-19 without the possibility of saying goodbye. The decisions that followed seem almost necessary and logic: gathering a larger number of teachers from different parts of Italy to give them the opportunity to share their concerns, experiences and ideas, with a particular emphasis on the psychological wellness of their students.
From that first encounter, in a climate of reciprocal listening and collaboration, a new project called “Piazzetta Digitale” was born and financed by the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research. The project foresaw a series of virtual meetings, involving more than 100 students from different Italian cities, to share their experiences, and to listen to their peers while reflecting on the current situation.
After Italy, the same thing started to occur in Spain and Scholas decided to progressively involve more countries, teachers and students, since COVID-19 was spreading at a worrying pace in different parts if the world. On April, it organized the First Global Virtual Meeting of Youth on Covid-19, with the participation of more than 120 students from 60 different cities, from Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, Italy, United States, Japan, Portugal, Mozambique and other countries.
What happened during the meeting? Different people, from different countries, with different backgrounds played, listened to each other, danced, expressed their opinions, worries and proposals for the future, while celebrating their encounter.
“Scholas is a breath of fresh air in all this, it is like many pieces of heart scattered all over the world, it is special. Thank you for continuing to make me live emotions that I can never put into words”, said Sonia, from Palermo, Italy. The general feedback was so positive that, up until now, Scholas has organized 10 international virtual meetings and 16 local virtual meetings (in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Italy and Spain). The projects scaled up to the involve more than 1,500 students from different countries in the last encounter.
In times of crisis, we have tried to pursue what should be a consolidated objective for education: improving students’ wellbeing and health in a time of global challenges, reinforcing their socio-emotional skills and building up their resilience.
In addition, we have carried out a continuous impact evaluation, by applying a “mood assessment scale” to measure the intensity of some emotions before and after the meetings. With regards to the first international meeting, for example, it has been found that: motivation has increased by 33% after the meeting, prosocial attitudes by 52.35%, hope by 43.5% and happiness has increased by 68.46%. At the same time, loneliness decreased of 44.6%, nervousness and restlessness by 46,07% and sadness by almost 70%. Reflective capacity increased by44.6%. These data is even more relevant if we consider that about the 66% of participants declared not feeling motivated with the contents of classes during this period, 64.1% stated that teachers are poorly helping them to feel motivated and almost 51% declared that they feel poorly motivated by the questions asked to them during virtual meetings, activities and classes.
The positive results are pushing for systematizing and institutionalizing the experience, in order to scale it up, involving more youngsters and for a longer period of time. But always taking into consideration that other important actors cannot be neglected, because education means participation, and also caring. For these reasons, meetings have been organized to involve teachers and families.
A lot has already been built, and many challenges remain ahead, but education has been proven to be a powerful tool to help students harness their emotions, feelings, freedom of expression, and cross-cutting participation: these have become the ingredients of our personal recipe to go through the crisis and start building today the world we want to live in.
Stay tuned and follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus. Read the first entry of these series here. Download the Future is now and don’t forget to keep an eye out for our news!
How do you think that 21st century skills like empathy, solidarity, compassion, communication, adaptability and resilience can help students cope with the impacts of COVID-19? Share your comments below or mentioning @BIDEducacion #EnfoqueEducacion on Twitter.