Back to School: Yes or No?

As you know, I run a Business Insights Blog and hence you might be asking, what does this topic have to do with Business? Believe me it does. What happens with our children and whether they will return to school or not, will have an impact on how thousands of workers, employees, managers and business leaders, will work in the coming weeks and months.

I have been reviewing what other countries have been doing is this regard, as educators, public-health officials and parents try to balance the need to reduce the spread of the coronavirus with the desire to get students into more productive learning environments, all across the globe.

The first priority of every school system must be to reduce virus-transmission rates and protect the health and safety of students and staff. In a fast-moving pandemic, that’s no easy task. Circumstances change weekly and even countries with low case counts today are being vigilant and ready to change course in the event of a resurgence.

At the moment, there is no common template for determining whether to educate students remotely, bring them back into the classroom or create a hybrid model that combines both. In the United States, for example, more than three-quarters of the 50 largest school districts have decided to start the school year remotely as a result of continued infections. In the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, by contrast, many schools plan to resume teaching all students full time in the classroom.

However, whatever model, the first step is to get the health protocols right. Once officials have a clear sense of what’s required to reduce transmission rates and save lives, they can develop robust models to minimise further learning delays and support students throughout the crisis. What is true however that a full-time return to the classroom won’t be 100% safe for some time. I therefore feel it is important to understand three lessons to get remote and hybrid learning right.

Lesson #1: Differentiate by the level of need and capability
Educators have long understood the value of tailoring curriculums and classroom environments to the needs of different age groups, students and school systems. There is similarly no one-size-fits-all strategy for determining the optimal model for learning in the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, opening schools should not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Here are some potential priorities:

  • Focus resources on students experiencing the greatest challenges: Remote learning is especially tough on students who also have to deal with challenges such as learning disabilities, economic hardship or unstable home environments. Many of these students will struggle to thrive in a remote environment where they lack hands-on guidance, emotional support and access to technology. Thus, prioritising the small number of students most in need of in-person instruction makes it possible to have smaller class sizes—which makes it easier for students to follow distancing and sanitation protocols that reduce the spread of the virus. During the first wave of COVID-19, that strategy enabled the United Kingdom to continue educating children of essential workers and those with child-protection plans or special needs in the classroom, without experiencing meaningful outbreaks in schools.
  • Prioritise younger children for classroom teaching: Remote learning has been particularly challenging for young students. Younger children need a level of guidance, social interaction and tactile-learning opportunities that are difficult to replicate in an online classroom. They are also less able to focus on remote classes for long periods, so parents must take on the time-consuming task of actively helping them learn. In most cases, that task falls to women. In fact, closing kindergardens and primary schools proved to be especially devastating for working mothers. The societal consequences here could be profound: forcing women to reduce their hours or leave their jobs would possibly delay the economic recovery. Other parents simply can’t afford to quit their jobs and may feel forced to leave their young children in unsafe situations. Hybrid models that combine remote and in-person learning don’t fully address such issues. School systems should therefore prioritise finding solutions that get these children back in the classroom full time as soon as possible. Although the risk of infection among young children is real, it can be managed if administrators enforce vigorous health safeguards and protocols. Younger children are much less likely than older people to experience severe complications from the coronavirus and studies from South Korea,Australia and China,suggest that children under ten are also less likely to transmit the virus. The risk of infection for teachers can be mitigated by creating small cohorts of students, enforcing screening, handwashing and other safety protocols. That said, no group is free from risk and hence even young students living with vulnerable family members can be given a remote-learning option. Several countries have adopted the approach of opening primary schools while tending to keep older students in remote-learning environments. Indeed, European countries such as Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway brought primary school students back to schools while national infection rates continued to fall. In countries or states that rushed to open secondary schools at the same time as primary schools, and did not put adequate safeguards in place, infection rates soared and schools had to be closed again.

Lesson #2: Design systems specifically for remote and hybrid environments
Remote and hybrid learning are more than just digital versions of the classroom. When the pandemic struck earlier this year, many educators had little choice but to move existing classes online. Now we have the opportunity to design better solutions to maximise student learning in remote and hybrid settings. In a traditional homework model, teachers provide instruction at school and students practice at home, either online or through traditional workbooks. In a “flipped classroom” model, students learn new ideas by watching prerecorded videos and then coming together as a class to complete exercises and assignments, with the teacher acting as a coach. In an asynchronous hybrid model, students experience a mix of learning activities at school and at home. When they meet in person, teachers assess their understanding of the remote content and then provide further instruction, practice and feedback on new material. When they are remote, they work independently through asynchronous content.

Lesson #3: Relationships are the foundation of learning
Schools are more than places for learning. They are the centers for ensuring the physical safety, mental health and social and emotional well-being of students. As school systems roll out their remote- and hybrid-learning plans, they must ensure that they are not only building trust with teachers, parents and students but also developing plans to help teachers build the kinds of relationships with students that encourage learning.As the frontline professionals in the classroom, teachers should play an integral role in designing sustainable models for remote and hybrid learning. Parents are also part of the solution. One side effect of the recent school shutdowns is that parents have become more engaged with their children’s education. As educators bring students back to school for remote or hybrid learning, they can encourage that effort. Each school might commit to regularly connecting one-on-one with families to understand what is working, convey information about the curriculum and address specific challenges. Simple tips and tricks for parents can make a big difference: for example, disabling notifications and locking down the devices students use for schoolwork to restrict access to non-learning apps can transform online learning from a battle against distractions into a productive learning experience.

All this may seem daunting, especially in light of an ongoing pandemic. However, to ensure a more equitable future, we must act together to overcome these difficulties. We can also use this difficult time as an opportunity to build a better educational system for the future.

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