By Dr Tariq Jagnarine, BSc, MD, MMED FAM Med, CCFP
The coronavirus is sweeping its way around the world and its impact is only beginning to be visible. The news is full of stories about the need to reduce social contact, which for educational organisations, really does negatively affect long-term viability, not to mention the impact on learning opportunities. Sadly, most educational organisations are now identifying options to deal with these major challenges.
As part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, most Government have temporarily closed public spaces such as schools, universities, and offices so that people can stay at home and prevent further spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2. In countries, such as China, testing and quarantine measures such as social distancing, hand sanitizing, use of facemask and closure of most services have slowed the rate of infection. These strategies have helped to ensure that people limit their interactions with others in order to slow the spread of the virus easing pressure on the healthcare system during the pandemic.
This unseen enemy, COVID-19 has dramatically reshaped the way global higher education is delivered. Universities are now rapidly shifting the way they communicate and operate to meet the evolving needs of students and staff during the pandemic. These nationwide closures are impacting over 72% of the world’s student population.
Social distancing has become an imperative in this fight against a mighty and invisible enemy. However, the success of social distancing depends not only on an individual but also all those around them. Thus, school closures in the context of this rapidly spreading virus have been deemed necessary by health authorities across the globe, to both slow the spread of the disease and to mitigate the effects on health systems that will not be able to cope with potentially massive numbers of critically ill patients. In some contexts, confinement is becoming not only an act of civil solidarity, but also an imperative measure for protecting public health.
However, confinement and school closures often have longer-term consequences, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized, magnifying already-existing disparities within the education system.
Some of the issues faced by students during this health crisis includes:
- Delay in learning
Classes and semesters are being delayed as staff and teachers acclimate to the new online platforms and try to switch their material to a new teaching style.
- Digital inequality
As many school systems are now offering online learning modalities while schools are closed, it is imperative to tackle the digital inequality moving forward. This includes looking at issues related to access, teacher preparedness, and school-family communication; students access to technology and connectivity (tablets, notebooks, laptops and internet); or to radio and television modalities that are also relevant in some contexts and have been used successfully in crisis settings. Training teachers and students to use these various online platform can also be a challenge. Establishing communication lines between teachers and parents before crises and maintaining them as children learn from home is also key to support the most at risk children.
- Ensure healthy meals beyond schools
Solutions to reach students who rely on school meals are also important. Strategies can include mobilizing school buses to deliver school meals and establishing partnerships with food delivery services could be another. Working with food and nutrition authorities to provide daily prepared meals or hampers that can be distributed via school pickups by class while limiting close interactions.
- Plan for inclusive learning solutions
Education authorities must also take special care in planning for the diverse needs of all learners during school closures. This is paramount for students with learning difficulties, who may struggle to work autonomously and at a distance. It may be desirable to maintain minimum opportunities for classroom learning, with small groups of special needs learners.
- Parental care
With young children at home from school and their normal schedules disrupted, parents needs to make schedules for children who would normally be in school. Even with online classes, parents need to help younger children navigate school on the computer, and parents with kindergarten children are unable to work unless other arrangements can be made.
- Challenges for low-income families
Unfortunately, many families rely on the public school system, not only for education, but also for necessities like food and childcare. With schools cancelled, many children are left without proper meals, and parents are unable to find work, or take time off in order to care for their young children.
Although many schools are continuing online, many students do not have access to computers or the internet in their homes. Without the proper technology, many students will be forced to miss out on their education until further solutions can be arranged.
- Concentration difficulties
Younger children, as well as, students with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other special needs, or those who have to care for younger siblings, take care of extensive chores at home may find it difficult to concentrate on instructions in a typical frontal class conducted on a computer. Students with special needs, who also rely on in-person instruction, may find it especially difficult to switch to online platforms.
These difficulties may require a unique approach to online learning or may demand the extra assistance of parents as these students navigate a new educational paradigm.
Another way that students are continuing their studies is through distance education, which uses online programs that replace instructors with educational material that students study on their own which is more suited for mature students in upper classes and university.
- Leverage teachers and communities: Work closely with teachers, school staff and communities to ensure inclusive methods of distance learning are adopted.
- Adopt appropriate distance learning practices: In contexts where digital solutions are less accessible, consider low-tech and gender-responsive approaches. Send reading and writing materials home and use radio and television broadcasts to reach the most marginalised. Ensure programme scheduling and learning structures are flexible and allow self-paced learning so as not to deter students who often disproportionately shoulder the burden of care.
- Consider the digital inequality: In contexts where digital solutions to distance learning and internet is accessible, ensure that students are trained with the necessary digital skills, including the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe online.
- Safeguard vital services: Young people and the most vulnerable children miss out on vital services when schools are closed, specifically school meals and social protection. Make schools access points for psychosocial support and food distribution, work across sectors to ensure alternative social services and deliver support over the phone, text or other forms of media.
- Engage young people: Give space to youth, particularly girls, to shape the decisions made about their education. Include them in the development of strategies and policies around school closures and distance learning based on their experiences and needs.
- Ensure return to school: Provide flexible learning approaches so that students are not deterred from returning to school when they re-open, especially in the Private institutions. This includes reduce academic packages, since many parents and care givers are without jobs or experiencing pay cuts.
- Allow automatic promotion and appropriate opportunities in admissions processes that recognise the particular challenges faced by students. Catch-up courses and accelerated learning may be necessary for students who return to school.
With efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the entire education system is rapidly moving online. It may be too early to assess how students and teachers who are accustomed to a face to face classroom setting will cope with online learning as they figure out and adapt to these new platforms. Once the COVID-19 pandemic settles down, we may see a continued increase in education systems using online platforms for study aids, as well as, students embracing online education for their higher learning degree programs.