Schools across the UK were shut down on 20 March as a preventative measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Almost three months down the line, there is a general consensus that keeping children away from school for a long period could have potentially detrimental consequences on their long-term health and academic performance. This concern has been studied to show the direct impact of school attendance on exam performance. Policymakers and thought leaders have also talked about the “summer slide” impact i.e the lag in learning that occurs as a result of long absences from school like over long holidays.
Acting upon those concerns, the government has announced a phased lifting of the lockdown and return to schools. Now, the governing bodies and senior leadership at schools have an array of tough and sensitive decisions at hand. The safety and wellbeing of children are paramount, but the pandemic is an evolving situation; this makes it hard to have rigid structures and plans in place. Certain guidelines, templates and checklists can help in ensuring the wellbeing of children. We look at each of these pressing concerns one by one.
What’s the safest way to get back to a routine? How can the risk of reigniting infections be controlled?
So far in the study of the pandemic trends, children seem to show fewer symptoms of Covid-19. Yet, there’s no definitive evidence of the role of children as carriers of the virus, or for that matter, the amount of susceptibility they have towards it. Could they be transmission agents for staff and adults back home? We don’t know yet.
In a way, we are shooting in the dark, so the best practice here is to take all possible precautions as children head back to school. We’ve listed some actionable steps below.
- Schools should establish the capacity of the campus for teaching under conditions of physical distancing beforehand. Assessment of the reduced capacity in quantifiable terms will provide a solid basis for critical decisions related to scheduling and management.
- In order for physical distancing to work, it is imperative that the physical teaching hours are restricted. One solution is splitting classes into micro-groups and re-arranging time tables to accommodate the reduced capacity. Many classes will only be able to run 2 days a week, for instance.
- Schools should also stagger arrival, departure and break times to avoid crowds and congestion.
- In addition to staggered attendance, a blended learning approach will be quintessential to limit the number of children and staff on the school premises.
- Health measures specific to COVID-19 would include temperature screening at the entrance to schools and classrooms, sanitisation routines to clean furniture, fixtures and facilities and monitoring the usage of masks or shields.
- Schools should come up with detailed isolation and hospitalisation protocols for children and/or staff presenting at school with a temperature and communicate these measures to parents.
- Physical distancing would also necessitate spatial reconstruction. These measures would include providing seating that is two metres (6ft 6in) apart, using spaces and rooms like libraries, community halls, leisure centres, conference venues etc as makeshift classrooms to boost capacity.
- Mobility plans should be revamped. The teacher can move from one class to another instead of a significant number of children doing the same. If the school has enough entry points, a one-directional movement path can be set up using tapes and arrows.
- Schools should also identify socialising spots where children tend to gather and monitor those areas.
- If educational programmes and infrastructural elements are redesigned, they should be made accessible to children with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- School transport should also be accounted for in the plan. With the recommended seating guidelines, each school bus can now carry just seven children. These numbers should be considered when creating new schedules.
- Playtime should be reinvented. Solo indoor activities should be encouraged, games involving tossing of balls or exchanging hands should be discouraged. Substitutes can be creatively invented, for example, children can chase shadows of their friends instead of complete physical touch.
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How can schools facilitate children who have fallen behind during school closures?
Once we have the safety measures in place, the focus should be on the learning recovery process. We understand that the sudden school closures could have created learning chasms and that these disparities need to be addressed. So, what’s the best way forward? Murray Morrison, a leading education expert and founder of EdTech learning program Tassomai.com shares:
“I’d suggest avoiding overreaction - schools construct excellent schemes of work for their curriculum and put a lot of thought into their intervention strategies to make sure every child gets the best possible education. We should trust in that rather than indulge in knee-jerk measures that end up distracting the very professionals we're relying on. What does need changing, however, is probably pupil funding to ensure that each can access that support especially when they have less access to the school building. Some of that needs to be on school budgets, but also provision for childcare will be needed to make sure that families can continue to function and parents can keep working too.”
Thus, the reopening of schools should be seen as an opportunity to deliver meaningful education to every child, including the marginalised children who were at risk of being left behind by distance learning modalities. In simple words, this can be an opportunity to fill the gaps in resources for the hitherto marginalised groups. Since schools will not go back to operations at full capacity in the near future, it is important to look at how flexible learning approaches can be made inclusive.
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Student engagement in blended/remote learning: Learning from global perspectives
This moment is an opportunity to test out new pedagogies that complement flipped classrooms, blended approaches, virtual breakout rooms and other technology-based learning models. It is, therefore, the time to protect and redirect education budgets into innovations and technologies. Morrison takes stock of the situation, “I cannot see how it can work without a good deal of remote working, so, with funding to support, schools need to invest in robust, quality and evidenced EdTech to give students the structure to manage self-directed learning.”
In Denmark, the first country to reopen, children operate in small groups, across classrooms, playgrounds, breaks. There is a massive emphasis on hand washing and sterilising. Germany uses the blended learning approach – classrooms can only hold 10 children at a time, so school days are shorter and complemented with online classes. Belgium and Norway have also followed a similar approach. Countries like France and Israel were forced to close schools after reopening, more proof that the way forward has to be blended learning.
In places like Italy, Portugal, New York and California, schools are likely to remain closed until September. In India, the government is not prepared to take any risks, so there’s a strong reliance on digital education. Guidelines are being prepared for the same, covering cyber safety, capping synchronous interaction to 3 hours and expediting the development of multilingual educational apps.
We are not going ‘back’ to normal, instead, we are headed towards a ‘new’ normal in education. This will impact children in more ways than immediately obvious.
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How can we assess the consequences to children’s mental health & to the social development of young children? How can we preserve their wellbeing?
There are multiple precedents across natural disasters and disease outbreaks to help us understand that in an event marked by significant collective trauma, loss or ongoing community disruption, the impact on children extends beyond the actual moments of panic during the event.
Besides, wellbeing needs to be seen as a psychosocial concept. The pandemic – and the consequent closure of schools – has likely disrupted learning and created a learning chasm (due to lack of access to computer devices), interrupted social protection or nutrition, and distanced children from their emotional support systems. The nature of the pandemic has only aggravated the situation; we cannot ignore the psychological impact of increased isolation and treating everyone as a potential threat.
Another aspect of the lockdown – and a rather grave one – is the possible exposure of vulnerable children to a greater risk of exploitation or abuse. Kate Young, CEO of the Safeguarding Association, sheds light on this aspect:
“Some schools will find that their vulnerable student register gets bigger. There are a few things in terms of safeguarding that I think we really need to be watchful of. Number one is the significant increase in domestic abuse. We are bound to find cases where children who may never have experienced it previously – but have now been living with parents who are struggling and therefore losing temper – are now witness to the escalation of ugly family conflicts. It’s a long spectrum – the seemingly harmless but prolonged frustration and skirmishes over less-than-ideal working conditions for parents to serious physical abuse.”
There are other tangential concerns. Loss of a loved one, for instance, could throw off the emotional balance of a family. Young adds, “What if a family member is struggling to cope, or takes to unhealthy coping mechanisms? Some parents have also seen an impact of the pandemic on their jobs and incomes, so factor that in and we can anticipate that people would have taken to alcoholism, too. ”
Schools should chalk out a wellbeing plan that includes measures like the ones listed below:
- Provide robust access to counselling services and regular check-ins with children.
- Keep a keen eye for children showing signs of anxiety or depression. All educators can be provided training on mental health first-aid.
- Help children build resilience. To alleviate the impact of the pandemic, give them a message of hope. They need to be told that it is possible to ride out this wave – anything from affirmations to chalk messages on footpaths, or signs in the windows will help.
- Peer interaction should be encouraged – as long as such interaction is not in discord with the norms of health and hygiene.
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Communication is imperative
All the steps we take for ensuring safety in education in the ‘new normal’ will be underpinned by robust and timely consultation and communication with parents, teachers, children and communities at large. The best interests of children should be paramount.
The decisions made in this regard are also context-specific and will vary across districts, countries and schools. The overarching aim remains the same – to reopen better, healthier and safer schools to impart education as well as develop resilience in children.