If we must close schools, let’s do it better.
Although we are only beginning to understand the impact of COVID school closures, schools in many locations are set to start the next term online.
When the news of the Omicron variant broke in November, I pushed it out of my mind. My children have been learning in person since September 2020, and I don’t want that to change. I’ve resumed in-person work and travel. My boys and I had just celebrated Thanksgiving with cousins.
Fast forward one month, and I understand why we might need to close schools now. I’ve never known so many people with COVID at one time. As I write this, my mother is quarantining in the room next to me, thankfully on her 8th day of an exceptionally mild case. Well-boosted and usually double-masked, I can’t help but feel she picked it up when I talked her into having a cappuccino with me at a shopping mall eleven days ago.
Indeed, schools can move online with agility and deliver some continuity of learning amidst a crisis. But we need to harvest insights from 2020 to ensure that efforts better meet the needs of children, families, schools, and teachers.
First, we need to avoid closing schools and ensure that closed schools reopen as soon as possible.
Online learning is not new, and it can be very effective. Yet as one speaker emphasized during the QS/Wharton Reimagine Education Conference, we need to be careful not to confuse purpose-built online learning with crisis learning.
Additionally, if we have learned anything from almost two years, in-person schooling plays a crucial role in our society.
School is often the safest place for children during the day. It’s where children build the relationships they need with their peers and other adults. It’s where many children receive pastoral care and meals. It allows parents and caregivers to work.
During the 2020–2021 closures, schools discovered that learning delivery was easiest for older students without special or additional learning needs in non-practical subjects. The UK, for example, kept special education needs schools open during their second lockdown.
The lack of efficacy of online learning for young children or the difficulty of balancing work and supporting online learning appears to have sparked an overall reduction in students enrolled in ECE, especially in the most marginalized communities. In the US, many high-poverty communities saw a decrease in enrolment of over 20%. My hometown of Philadelphia saw a decline in kindergarten enrolment of 28%.
If the Omicron variant is a brush fire, school closures may serve as an important temporary boundary. If South Africa’s experience holds true, the variant will peak quickly and schools should be able to reopen.
The possibility of transitioning back to online learning had my children in a tailspin as early as late November. When I asked for their recommendations should they return to online learning, I was met with dual death glares.
Children are not alone in their feelings about online crisis learning. Research from the American Psychological Association showed that within two months into the pandemic, parents with children at home under 18 were markedly more stressed than non-parents. A study from the University of Oregon found that this was especially true for parents of children under 5, many citing that they simply didn’t know what to do to support their children.
Teachers felt stress as well. In fact, according to a report by the Brookings Institution, 25% of teachers in the US were planning to leave the profession (compared to a typical average of 16%). Teachers interviewed by NPR spoke about the difficulty of maintaining student engagement online and the challenges of hybrid learning.
With that in mind, schools might consider the following well-being recommendations, should they have to move online again:
- Build relationships through small, recurring community activities. This can include online team challenges, special interest clubs, or hosted lunch groups. It is essential to ensure that the same students meet multiple times to relate and avoid dreaded break-out room silence.
- Help students joining the school during a closure make friends. Students who move from one school to another during distance learning are particularly vulnerable. Assign a buddy (or two) to the new student and guide the child’s caregivers — perhaps a parent who has been at the school for some time.
- Encourage caregivers and teachers to engage with each other through digital drop-offs and periodic direct phone calls. A digital drop-off is simply 15–20 minutes in the morning before class, during which the teacher is available to parents to questions.
- Reduce the length and number of synchronous, whole-class sessions to give teachers additional time to provide individual and small group feedback/coaching and connect with caregivers.
- When learning is synchronous, try to make it 3-D. Below is a picture from a scavenger hunt we held during a recent team meeting.
Plan with online learning in mind.
One Schoolhouse published recommended standards for online teaching and learning. At the heart of these standards is a call to engage in what we at Mirai call Digital First planning. Digital First planning is an approach that balances online, in-person, synchronous, asynchronous, individual, small group, and whole-class learning experiences in service of robust objectives. Digital First planning may be how we avoid some of the downsides of crisis learning in the future.
Over the past year, we’ve worked with several school groups to make this transition as they returned to in-person learning. In doing so, they’ve applied their understanding of what works best across learning modalities to create differentiated learning playlists (adapted from the work of Anthony Loxston-Baker) that transcend 45-minute class periods.
Greensprings Education operates four school campuses across the Lagos metropolitan area. The Greensprings teachers found that learning playlists improve student engagement and learning outcomes because students come to class primed to learn and can review multi-media learning at the time and location that best suits them.
The school has been flexible with staff as they adapt lesson planning to incorporate the best online tools, greater digitization and personalization, and increased modes of collaboration.
Focus on meeting learning objectives, not synchronous participation.
While the synchronous engagement of learners is essential, it’s not always feasible, especially for families sharing devices. Expecting synchronous learning to comprise the bulk of students’ experiences in an online teaching environment may neutralize the most powerful aspects of digital learning.
Digitally supported teaching and learning held (and still holds) the promise of high levels of personalization and laser-focused, data-driven instruction.
The technology exists for children to follow personalized pathways, receive AI-based coaching as they study, and even be supported by data-driven learning concierges. Personalized pathways have existed over 50 years — one of the earliest was Plato Learning, now the popular curriculum platform Edmentum. Plato Learning began as software that supported adult learners preparing for a high school diploma. Contemporary examples such as Century Tech can deliver core elements of the National Curriculum of England and the IB Primary Years Program. Adaptive programs such as this allow for appropriate for all students and alerting a teacher to which students may require additional assistance.
But there are even more “fun” applications. The Indian test prep app Embibe provides personal coaching as students prepare for exams — calling students out for guessing and providing tips based on common misconceptions.
Understand the learning and online behavior patterns of children.
The HP IDEA (Innovation and Digital Education Academy) program funded by Intel supports teachers in creating contextual, pedagogical innovation. The teachers in the program are from a diverse range of public and private schools across the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa.
As part of the program, teachers engage in a range of reflective, observational exercises that appear in Inquiry-Driven Innovation by Liz Dawes Duraisingh and Andrea Sachdeva to ensure that their innovations meet the needs of their community.
Mary is an HP IDEA Fellow and secondary public-school teacher. During the 2020–2021 academic year, Mary’s school moved to a shift schedule to reduce classroom density. Yet, Mary noticed that few of her children attended the sessions held online. Her initial assumption that this was due to a lack of devices proved unfounded as her students frequently referenced online memes or came to class agitated due to online interactions with their peers.
Through an exercise called Slow Looking, Mary learned that many of her students were working during their out-of-school hours. Moreover, they were more likely to have a device in the later evening between 10 pm and 11:30. Mary created late-night revision sessions for her students that have proven exceptionally popular, with close to 75% of her students attending. Mary has since trained other teachers to use WhatsApp for teaching and has set up additional late-night study programs with her colleagues.
Schools should aim to be flexible with both teachers and students.
Ask the children.
I asked my education experts, my teenage sons, what they would want along with a host of children from 6 to 16.
- “Just don’t do it. Please.” 15-year-old, boarding student in Boston
- “We should use more collaborative tools like breakout rooms.” 14-year-old, Dubai
- “I could do all of the work our teachers gave us in two days the last time, so it would be great to have the other days to play and make things.” 8-year old, Maryland
- “Our teachers should give us free time to talk to our friends on zoom.” 8-year old, Pennsylvania
- “Our teachers should give us five minutes or an hour to write and put us in breakout rooms to read what we wrote to our friends.” 6-year-old, Pennsylvania
- “Either open or close. But don’t go hybrid. And let us know what you decide as soon as possible.” 16-year-old, Dubai
- “If it will protect our parents, teachers, and us, just close.” 14-year-old, Pennsylvania
And ask the educators.
My educator friends were more than happy to weigh in as well.
- “In school and online, ensure that the basics are covered, especially reading and writing.” Online School Principal, IB school, Oman
- “Whether schools close or not, the highly contagious nature of Omicron means that some students will be online for at least the next month. Even without an official closure notice, teachers should plan now for hybrid learning.” Curriculum and Instruction Leader, American Curriculum School, UAE
- “Parents have also been there before, so have strategies in place to support their children (even though it’s tough). Schools understand more than ever the importance of student wellbeing and need to put strategies in place to consider wellbeing.” Instructional Coach, National Curriculum for England, Northern Ireland, and Wales school, UAE
- “We need the flexibility to use a wider range of data. Traditional assessments don’t work well in an online environment, but rubric and criteria-based marking of assignments can.” Teacher, American Curriculum School, UAE
- “Governments, donors, development agencies, and other partners need to invest in digital learning before it’s essential.” NGO Leader, Liberia
The good news is that this round of closures can be short and strategic.