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The Pandemic: Lessons Learned or Goodbye to All That

As I write this it will be 675 days since the start of the spread of Covid. If what the scientists are telling us is true that the threat from this pandemic is receding, is this the opportunity to reflect on what positive lessons in education we have learned from this painful and incredibly disruptive experience? What is the legacy for schools?

By: Peter Daly, Chief Education Consultant, Esol Education

During this period school leaders, teachers, students and parents have been forced to adapt, transform and respond rapidly to a changing situation. It has placed the education sector into a position it has never been situated in before. It has brought into focus just how, when and in what format or style does a school communicate with their parents. Schools had to establish a shared sense of purpose, a sense of calm and authority. They had to show that they were on top of this situation and parents would have trust and confidence in them to get things right. The message had to be clear that even though we suspected the opposite, virtual learning would not impinge too heavily on the learning experience and progress of students. As schools moved to full on distance learning followed by periods of blended, hybrid and face to face opportunities, it was made clear that schools would not compromise safety and that school leaders were aware of the challenges parents were facing with a disrupted situation that was often impacting on their livelihoods and putting them in very unfamiliar situations with their child’s education. At the same time leaders and medical staff communicated more regularly with parents, often daily related to ever changing health and safety protocols, explaining and decodifying conflicting guidelines from the variety of regulatory bodies that evolved overnight and at the same time reassure parents that their children would continue to receive a quality education in an ever-changing situation. 

During the latter half of 2020 and throughout 2021 students and teachers had to come to terms with teaching and learning that moved from full on distance virtual learning at home interspersed with blended and hybrid options with the gradual return of face-to-face learning in school. Communications became more frequent and varied with schools continuing to use the traditional forms of communication through newsletters and email announcements to newer forms of contact through videos, open virtual sessions, blogs, social media and the ubiquitous WhatsApp parent groups. For many parents this was an opportunity to have an unparalleled and exceptional access to school and their child’s education and a similar level of access to the leadership team of the school.

This is a time to reflect and consider what did work in schools and what could be taken forward for the future.

Through the creation of the virtual classroom parents, many for the first time, had direct access into their child’s classroom and firsthand involvement in their child’s learning. Almost overnight the appreciation by parents for teachers grew as a greater understanding of their role and the challenge of their occupation was recognised. For many parents they had to relearn how to read with their younger children and assist with complex mathematics problems that suddenly seemed so much more difficult than when they were at school. They became partners in their child’s education. There was no longer the mystery of what happens in a classroom. Parents had a direct lens into the educational life of their child and the work of a teacher and a direct contact with the teacher, particularly in secondary schools, that they had previously not experienced. They were more aware of the progress of their child and virtual parent teacher meets was celebrated as a streamlined and effective means of finding out about their childs progress. 

After a few weeks of lockdown and virtual teaching everyone began to realise the importance of why children must attend school not just for their academic growth. The impact all over the world on students with their faces glued to screens for long periods of the day was impacting negatively on their social, emotional and personal development exacerbated by the lack of daily interactions with peers. Wellbeing and mental health came under the spotlight. The absence of collaborative learning and the challenge of learning virtually more active subjects such as art, music, physical education and science compounded by the absence of extra-curricular activities were skewing a child’s learning experience. The reaction was a range of initiatives were developed that involved counsellors, other support staff including external agencies, after school classes, buddy systems, break out groups and peer teaching by older to younger students who could provide one to one tutorials and much needed support to the hard pressed and isolated teacher. The teacher realised they now had an even greater role in providing emotional support for their students and the need for more one to one conversations and support. Some students became more confident in their learning; some students such as the recluse, the loner, the introvert, those who are less outgoing seemed to cope and enjoy the new situation. Maybe they at last had a voice. For the majority this was a dull and uninspiring way to learn. The fun had gone out of school.

This is a time to reflect and consider what did work in schools and what could be taken forward for the future.

The quick and easy to complete survey began to proliferate as schools required immediate feedback on success of communications with parents, the wellbeing of students and views and opinions of the success and preference for of virtual, distance, hybrid or face to face learning. This became a vital source of information for schools to act upon with immediacy.

What are the positives to take away from this time that we can look to retain? The option of the virtual parent teacher meet has been retained by many schools and welcomed by parents who have the found the process much improved. Gone was the drudge of the traffic challenged journey to school, the queuing, the rising anger at parent who would skip the line or the one who exceeded their time limit. An evening of frustration and annoyance suddenly transformed into a more serene and positive experience. 

It has forced schools to view modifications to the curriculum in a more positive way given that the priority was what content would and would not work in a virtual environment. Digital platforms have proliferated as well as personalised on-line learning with built in assessments. Students are improved researchers with many taking a much greater responsibility for their own learning. Technological innovation has been accelerated and all teachers have become comfortable and expert in use of systems to enhance teaching and learning that otherwise would have taken years to develop.  ‘Necessity was the mother of invention’ as schools had to ramp up their technical infrastructures and improve their networks to accommodate the new teaching, learning and assessment requirements.  For many schools there was a need to support the isolated, and sometimes frustrated and overworked teacher.  Wellness groups were formed with the use of mentors and coaches with a focus on the  mental health and wellbeing of staff. Distributed leadership was practiced more than ever before

However, the disruption has been enormous and the impact on many children not so positive particularly in the public/state school sector. Many students are experiencing curriculum deficit.  There are now studies emerging indicating students in some countries have fallen up to three years behind their reading age.  The pandemic led to a slower pace of learning and these deficits must be recovered. The impact on the mental health and wellbeing of students has been well documented. This is a time to reflect and consider what did work in schools and what could be taken forward for the future. We cannot ignore the progress and the success of what did work over the last two years and schools should look to reflect, identify and then embed those changes and adaptations that have resulted in positive outcomes for students, parents, school leaders and teachers.