The current spread of coronavirus poses a major public health challenge to every country in the world. Schools and their administrators may be the next in line to face the test, as these institutions have traditionally been a key channel of contagion of all sorts of illnesses.
Let’s take a look at the case of China—when the virus became endemic, school authorities postponed sine die the beginning of classes in 31 provinces. This decision was later reconsidered due to pressures from the children’s families, with the Education Ministry ordering schools to begin the school cycle in an online fashion. The system reacted incredibly fast and by Feb. 2, 22 digital platforms started to offer 24,000-plus online courses, including 401 experimental courses on virtual simulation.
Despite this outstanding expansion of digital education services, this was far from enough for a country with the characteristics of China. For one thing, many schools simply do not have the resources needed to adopt the open or unified platforms offered by the government. For another, although digital penetration has made major inroads in China in recent years, many teachers and schoolchildren, particularly in rural areas, don’t have a home computer or internet connection.
China’s case highlights at least three challenges that school systems will be facing in our region:
- Response protocols. Do schools have the capacity to deal with patients zero? Is there enough trained manpower to manage these situations? How do schools interact with public health institutions on identifying and referencing potential cases?
- Family stress. What provisions are being made so that parents can keep children at home?
- Online schooling. Are platforms, internet access and devices readily available to support a remote teaching and learning process?
These are the challenges. Now let’s also discuss the issue of a necessary potential change. So far, education is not taking full advantage of technology’s transformational potential. This is due in part to a lack of equal access to platforms and devices as well as to a low adoption rate of digital tools by teachers and schools. The truth is that those schools that do have the technology in place lack scale and transformational power.
It is fair to assume that if education systems are put to the test by the coronavirus pandemic, this could hasten the pace of necessary change. We can for example expect that China’s schooling will emerge from this crisis totally transformed, but how will the emergency affect education systems in Latin America and the Caribbean? Will countries in the region be capable of reacting and transforming their systems?