Each morning for the past few weeks, my alarm has roused me from my bed, I’ve scrambled to make myself presentable, and I’ve headed to school. That is, I’ve pulled on some sweatpants and a hoodie, trooped across the room, settled in front of my computer, and opened an online meeting platform to the pixelated faces of my teachers and classmates. We all have experienced significant changes in our personal, professional, and educational lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is disrupting routine institutions around the world, and school systems have seldom undergone such drastic and widespread shifts in such a short period of time. Students and educators are confronted with the task of continuing to learn and teach without the familiarity of in-person interaction.
The current global health crisis necessitates fundamental shifts in the structure and operation of schools. Amidst continuous changes in data and conflicting forecasts, educational networks are under pressure to process rapid decisions that will affect vast populations — students, families, teachers, and school staff. The most common decision by countries across the globe has been to close all schools nationally. Many school district administrations also have instituted remote education initiatives to mitigate loss of learning, such as communicating online and distributing paper materials (Azzi-Huck and Shmis; Winthrop). According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as of April 20th of 2020, 1,575,270,054 learners had been affected by 191 country-wide school closures; this is 91.3% of total enrolled learners around the globe (see fig. 1).
Fig. 1. Global monitoring of school closures caused by COVID-19
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Source: UNESCO. “COVID-19 Educational Disruption and Response.” [i]United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization[/i], 2020, [url=https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse]https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse[/url]. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Structural shifts in schools have affected numerous areas of learning quality, including such matters as: assessments, graduation, inequity, and effectiveness (Burgess and Sievertsen; Hodges). First, administrations must decide how students can be adequately and fairly evaluated without supervised assessments, such as finals or standardized testing. My own high school, for instance, currently is offering the option to request a “pass/fail” grade, depending on how work progresses over the term; this raises potentially unavoidable concerns regarding student response to that option.
Second, this year’s secondary school and university graduates may face significant roadblocks. Upper grades at secondary schools are missing the chance to tour colleges and to demonstrate their full scholarly capacity, leaving them with difficult decisions to make about furthering their education. And any graduates looking for jobs or careers may find that options are limited; in many regions, the workforce has been diminished to essential workers only, leaving others desperately trying to shift course. My cousin, as one small example, has been studying since middle school to work in theater; now that she is about to graduate, all of her training and career options have been closed.
Third, inequalities on both local and global scales are exacerbated when the process of scholarly inquiry is expected to take place at home (Burgess and Sievertsen). Successful learning is bolstered by such luxuries as sufficient electronics, reliable utilities, food sources, and adult support. Due to societal and economic inequities, there are both countries [b]— [/b]and students within countries [b]— [/b]who have little difficulty accessing the essential supplies and resources necessary to complete work remotely, while other countries [b]— [/b]and students within countries [b]— [/b]are finding themselves on the other side of a digital divide without the same buttressing (Azzi-Huck and Shmis). While there are many more extreme examples for this point, I know a family on my street facing these conundrums on a more superficial level: The mother is a seventh grade teacher with the responsibility of converting her class to an online experience. She is also taking care of a three-year-old preschooler, and her kindergarten-aged daughter was sent home with a paper packet of materials, as it was too difficult for the teacher to manage an online class of five-year-olds — the twist is that the daughter attends a Spanish immersion school, so all of the work is in Spanish, which the mother does not speak.
Fourth, even if students are able to gain access to the proffered materials, there is the fundamental question of how rich any learning experience can be under these circumstances — what will be the depth of knowledge, creativity, and critical thinking, as compared to on-site education? Educause Review, an organization that focuses on positive contributions of technology to higher education, cautions that society should understand the distinction between two forms of remote learning: a carefully crafted offering of technologic tools designed to enrich community engagement that is developed over time as a full educational solution; versus a rapidly deployed stopgap established in order to provide some continuity in learning during a crisis. Currently, we are clearly in the second category, and the expectations for outcomes cannot be held to the same standard as that of the first category. As institutions and individuals adapt, results may be more optimal when there is the ability to employ flexibility of methodology, personalization in use of home resources, engagement of student interests, and integration of our current crisis into the curricula (Hodges et al.). As another minor example in a sea of severe breakdowns, early signs of foundering can be seen in an online class for my younger sister — the students quickly learned how to shut off cameras, leave the “classroom,” and text each other, unbeknownst to the teacher until several days later. This prompted communications from the teacher requesting that parents regularly enforce engagement with the distance learning.
The numerous unknowns of the current global societal crisis leave us with significant unanswered questions regarding educational ramifications: When will regular academic operations will return? Will we push for updates and modernizations to these operations in order to more effectively prepare for the future? How many students will actually return to these systems? How many might drop out due to a need for earned income? How many will simply become lost in the confusion? How many might decide to continue learning outside of a structured system, finding that the flexibility and personalization suits them (Strauss)? Regardless, in this moment, it is more crucial than ever for students, educators, and families to work collaboratively in order to disseminate accurate information and to maintain empathy for the disparate needs of others. Perhaps, as we find novel approaches to learning together, we may even develop strategies and generate ideas that apply to combatting COVID-19.
Azzi-Huck, Kaliope, and Tigran Shmis. “Managing the impact of COVID-19 on education systems around the world: How countries are preparing, coping, and planning for recovery.” [i]World Bank Blogs[/i], 18 March 2020, [url=https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/managing-impact-covid-19-education-systems-around-world-how-countries-are-preparing]https://blogs.worldbank.org/education/managing-impact-covid-19-education-systems-around-world-how-countries-are-preparing[/url]. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Burgess, Simon, and Hans H. Sievertsen. “Schools, skills, and learning: The impact of COVID-19 on education.” [i]VoxEU[/i], 1 April 2020, [url=https://voxeu.org/article/impact-covid-19-education]https://voxeu.org/article/impact-covid-19-education[/url]. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Hodges, Charles, et al. “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.” [i]Educause Review[/i], 27 March 2020, [url=https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning]https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning[/url]. Accessed 16 April 2020.
Strauss, Valerie. “When this is over, what will education researchers want to study about the 2020 covid-19 crisis? Here are some answers.” [i]Washington Post[/i], 12 April 2020, [url=https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/04/12/when-this-is-over-what-will-education-researchers-want-study-about-2020-covid-19-crisis-here-are-some-answers/]https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/04/12/when-this-is-over-what-will-education-researchers-want-study-about-2020-covid-19-crisis-here-are-some-answers/[/url]. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Winthrop, Rebecca. “COVID-19 and school closures: What can countries learn from past emergencies?” [i]Brookings[/i], 31 March 2020, [url=https://www.brookings.edu/research/covid-19-and-school-closures-what-can-countries-learn-from-past-emergencies/]https://www.brookings.edu/research/covid-19-and-school-closures-what-can-countries-learn-from-past-emergencies/[/url]. Accessed 15 April 2020.
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