What it Might Look Like to Safely Reopen Schools
As a part of the lockdown, along with all other institutions, schools across the country were shut in the month of March. While status quo exists as of now, it is becoming increasingly obvious that this cannot remain so for a very long time. Recently, summer vacations have been declared by most schools but sooner rather than later some bold – but cautious – steps will have to be taken to gradually reopen.
So what could these be? A lot of information is available on the net regarding what different countries are doing in this regard. However, since India has its own challenges in terms of numbers not all of these solutions may be applicable to our country. While we develop our own strategies, it is interesting to learn what other countries are planning. As we examine best practices from around the world it is critical to remember that howsoever watertight any plan may sound the key lies in implementation. And in this context teacher training and sensitization gains paramount importance.
Here are nine key ideas — drawn from interviews with public health experts, education officials and educators around the country — for what reopening might look like in the US.
- First and foremost, stepped-up health and hygiene measures are of essence. “A school building is not what you would call an ideal place in the middle of a pandemic,” says Michael Mulgrew, the head of the New York City Teachers Union, the United Federation of Teachers. Measures planned for reopening include wearing masks, temperature checks, hand-washing, frequent sanitization and social distancing rules enforced even for very small children.
- Limiting class sizes of 12 or fewer is another step that comes across as an obvious solution. Based on the typical size of a classroom in New York City, 12 would be the most children that can be accommodated while maintaining social distancing, says the UFT’s Mulgrew. At the International School in Denmark, they are grouping kids in classes of 10.
- A staggered schedule is being actively considered by some schools. Reducing class size drastically would probably mean staggering schedules. By way of example, Mulgrew suggests that one group of kids might attend school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week, then Tuesday and Thursday the following week. Others have discussed morning and afternoon shifts. This is quite reminiscent of the odd-even car number scheme in Delhi implementing for controlling pollution.
- So here’s a question. Should younger kids go back to school first? Denmark reopened its day cares and primary schools first. Norway started with kindergartens, and Israel with special education kindergartens. On the other hand, some researchers point out that younger children are more likely to be “putting their hands and their mouths on their face” and, therefore, potentially spreading infection. Maria Litvinova, a researcher at the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Turin, Italy, has modelled how school closures reduce the spread of illness. She argues that without treatments or a vaccine, “there is no such thing as ‘safe’ reopening.
- New calendars will definitely have to be drawn out as schools go back to a new normal. To make up for the learning lost while schools are closed, there have been suggestions of starting school sooner, or continuing through next summer, or both. And while districts are rewriting calendars, Litvinova says, they should probably prepare for having to close schools again when and if outbreaks recur, until there is a vaccine. A disturbing thought indeed!
- Some educationists have suggested different attendance policies. There is a likelihood that schools can open up, but some parents might still choose to keep their children at home. A policy of “leniency” for absences during this time may have to be considered. Might not be easy to implement and assessments may become a challenge.
- This one may take away some of the core activities of a school but assemblies, sports games and parent-teacher conferences may find themselves in the corona casualty list. In the immediate future, students will not be allowed to mix in large groups, and parents probably won’t be allowed in school buildings either.
- Social, emotional and practical help for kids is bound to be viewed as an essential support. Developmental experts say disruption from the pandemic constitutes an “adverse childhood experience”. When schools reopen, ameliorating this trauma will be at the core.” I also think that there is a need for us to focus on social and emotional learning for students,” Virginia’s James Lane says, “and not only how we can provide the academic support, but how can we provide the mental health support and the wraparound supports for students when they come back, to help them recover and bring back that safety net of schools.”
- The only affirmative outcome here seems that remote learning will continue. It appears that distance learning or learning from home is not only poised to become the predominant pedagogical support for now but it is here to stay.
Every expert has predicted that the need for remote learning would continue because of staggered schedules, schools prepared to close again for future waves of infection, and many students needing remediation. And that means training and support for teachers, and equipment for children.
Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA says the equity issue is acute: “What we’ve been telling [political leaders] for years is that the digital divide is hurting children. It’s hurting entire communities. To have broadband, a tablet or a laptop is not to play video games. It is as essential as indoor plumbing. It is what you need to succeed. And now it’s been laid bare.”
And so it seems edutech and virtual learning platforms are the solutions the world is looking for. There are plenty of existing options but almost all of them offer a lot of scope for improvement and upgradation in the near future.
Major takeaways from the above trends then are:
- Investing in research and development, and updation/creation of state-of-the-art edutech solutions.
- Immediate & intense teacher training and capacity building leading to familiarisation with virtual platforms and ease of delivering remotely.
- Evaluation and assessment tools are set to move up to a prime position as remote teaching/training shall naturally culminate in remote assessment.
- Improving student engagement levels through interactive digital platforms.
Learning objectives must bear fruit as learning outcomes and the future holds endless possibilities for those who have tech-based solutions to present day challenges.
So let’s get started …..and our time starts now!!!
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