Students are slowly returning to schools. However, schools are not the same as before, and they are gradually transitioning to a “new normal’’. Experts foresee that COVID-19 will forever alter the world order and paint a new landscape for education. Schools in the education systems that opened recently offer a glimpse of what this change may look like. In Korea, the 9th and 12th graders were the first to return as they prepared for the exams that allow them to proceed to the next level of education. In Denmark, the youngest children were prioritized and admitted early so that their parents could work. In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), Uruguay partially opened schools in rural areas where the chance of contracting the virus is low, and the connectivity is poor for students to access the digital learning platform. Now the necessity compels the education systems to adapt to the changes and transform schools: what limited improvement in student achievement could not do for the past 150 years.
The 21st century is a time characterized by accelerated changes, interconnectedness, and interdependence, which in Spring 2020 struck us in the form of a pandemic. It can also challenge us in the form of other disruptions such as climate change, migration, or yet another outbreak, or even the second wave of Coronavirus that many health experts foresee in the winter. Amid the crisis, what are the strategies that must be in place not only to ensure the continuity of learning, but also to make learning relevant and meaningful for students from all backgrounds to serve as tools to navigate and weather through difficult times? What are the immediate, medium, and long term strategies that can help students stay engaged, develop skills relevant in the 21st century, and ensure their lifelong personal and professional development?
Immediate term strategy: Emergency remote teaching (ERT)
The education systems around the world responded to the crisis by seeking ways to reach students and ensuring the continuity of learning. The education provided during the immediate term is characterized as emergency remote teaching as the governments intend to provide temporary access to education via alternative modes otherwise provided in person. In LAC, radio and TV have been the most common technologies used to reach students and deliver education. It must be noted that the education during this time is frequently limited to unidirectional teaching or learning given the limited interaction between teacher-student or among peers.
Medium term strategy: Remote learning with 21st century skills
While the immediate education response rolls out, the government must closely monitor the status of the crisis and start planning for the medium term. If the crisis shows no sign of dwindling and the remote learning continues, it is important that education quickly transcends from unidirectional teaching and make learning more interactive. For learning to be effective, it is important that teachers interact with their students, discussing, assessing, reviewing, and then reevaluating the work of students, instead of simply granting access to learning materials. This transition from unidirectional teaching to interactive learning is with what many countries in LAC struggle the most. In our region, only Uruguay was able to offer virtual classrooms where teachers and students can meet and interact online during the school closure.
As the confinement prolongs to a medium term, it is important that students stay connected and communicate with teachers and peers, not only for learning purposes but also for the social emotional support. During lockdown, some children and youth experience domestic and gender-based violence and suffer from stress, fear, and anxiety. For many kids from vulnerable backgrounds, schools give them a sense of normalcy and it is often the one place where they feel safe and where they are taken care of. Therefore, education systems must offer social emotional learning (SEL) taking advantage of all the channels identified for the ERT and emphasize SEL in equal weight as any other subjects delivered during the emergency. It not only provides foundation and leverage to academic performance but when deprived, students with high levels of anxiety and stress find it difficult to stay focused and engage in learning. There are multiple SEL activities available online that can be done at home with parents and in the classroom when schools are back in session.
In addition, advanced cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, etc. are also crucial in the time of uncertainty. Children and youth are surrounded by information on pandemic (both true and false) which is often fueled by sensationalist media reporting. This exposure not only increases insecurity but also serves as fertile ground for the spread of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes which call for the transversal skills listed above. Teachers can help students develop those skills by designing activities that include discerning facts on coronavirus outbreak, developing strategies to prevent the spread of viruses in the community, and organizing an online campaign.
Long term strategy: Transforming education with technology
More than 70% of countries that employed school closure continue with the measure. Schools will reopen eventually but not all students are expected to return. A projection for Fall enrollment in the US universities is that it will be reduced to 80% compared to pre-COVID enrollment. In Guinea, for example, the 9 month school closure due to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, caused a 15% loss in enrollment across all levels of education.
Who are these children and youth and why don’t they return? Many include students from marginalized backgrounds who were already on the verge of dropping out due to multifaceted reasons ranging from poverty, lack of motivation, and the disconnect between what is offered in schools and what is demanded in the labor market. If every crisis causes up to unforgiving 15-20% of school dropouts, can we afford it as a region given the alarming rate that we already experience? Nearly half of students in LAC do not finish secondary school. It is opportune time to flip the crisis into an opportunity and transform schools.
The good news is that technology can help. Korea, a country with high connectivity, experienced less damage from school closures, because students and teachers can stay connected and continue learning even through a lockdown. Also, thanks to the flexibility and adaptability that technology granted, the government was able to wait for the safest time to reopen its schools and meticulously plan for their gradual opening minimizing the risks and taking all the required health and safety precautions. More on how the education system in Korea responded to COVID-19 can be found in the upcoming blog.
Technology can help but cannot solve all the problems that education encounters. That is why only a few countries were able to capitalize on technology to yield meaningful learning outcomes for students. Discover more in our report What Technology Can and Cannot Do For Education which elaborates on the success stories of five countries that transformed education by widely but not exclusively incorporating technology. Also, follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus and read the first entry here. Download Future is now and don’t forget to keep an eye out for our news!
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