Responding to Coronavirus: Back to school

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

OECD Tackling coronavirus (COVID‑19) Contributing to a global effort

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has challenged the world. But although there is an overload of information, there is still much that is unknown. Aggressive testing in South Korea and Germany, and massive early lockdown in New Zealand contained the virus early. But questions remain about whether and how containment and immunity work. For countries in lockdown, it is not clear what the best exit strategy is.

The sobering reality is that there is likely to be recurring waves of contagion, similar to the 1918 H1N1 "Spanish flu'', the 1957 H2N2 "Asian flu'' and the 1968 H3N2 "Hong Kong flu''. As a result, many countries could face a series of rolling school closures over the next months or even year.

Disruption is the new normal, at least for the next 18 months

As the first shock passes, education authorities must thus prepare responses on two timescales: the immediate return to school; and the mid-term strategy for the next 18-24 months.

Today, many systems are reopening schools with increased social distancing of students, for example through more space between students in a class and staggering school hours and break times across classes. Once back in the classroom, teachers will be working to mitigate the impact of any learning losses during this period, and ensuring the well-being of children as they return to “the new normal”.

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In the mid-term, we must also start preparing for potential future waves of contagion. As scientific knowledge about COVID-19 evolves, so too will our planning. Potential rolling school closures require agile systems that can adapt and respond at the same time as they steer a course towards established goals. This will be a challenge for most of our current structures, which are not designed for times of crisis.

We must learn from what took place during school closures and what is being tested in the return to school now. We can build on this knowledge — to fix weaknesses, to build trust, to rethink outmoded ways of doing things.

Here are three takeaways for me from our experience thus far and some questions they pose for the future of education: 

Necessity really is the mother of invention

Most teachers and students used a variety of digital tools and many had more agency over their teaching and learning. We have seen collective learning, also for teachers, who often report feeling isolated in their classrooms. We must take stock of what has worked, what has not, and for whom. Can we use this evidence to rethink ways of organising and delivering the curriculum? Reinforce multidisciplinary and collaborative models of teaching and learning? 

Read the OECD's policy response: "Education Responses to COVID-19: Embracing digital learning and online collaboration"

Similarly, adjustments and cancellation of end of term exams, in many systems previously unthinkable, have opened the door for innovating assessment and certification more broadly. How can we best align assessment methods and tools with emerging ways of teaching and learning? Is it time to rethink evaluation frameworks? What would this mean for our understanding of quality assurance and certification?

We have been reminded of the power of the physical world

In the rush to digital and distance learning, we are reminded of how important our physicality is. Children need to move, play, actively learn. Humans are social, and thrive on face-to-face connection. A hug emoji is not the same as a hug. How can we balance this “old” knowledge with new digital tools? How can we deliver education that helps children thrive, academically, physically, and psychologically?

This last question is especially important for the most vulnerable. Students will need support for their mental and physical well-being in the return to “normal life”. While targeted learning support is necessary, these efforts must avoid creating systemic traps for the disadvantaged, for example, large-scale grade repetition. What changes need to be made to allow us to reach even the most disadvantaged and provide them the support they need?

Listen to Tracey Burns' webinar on "Covid-19 and the growing digital divide in education."

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Schools are the social fabric of communities

School closures brought home the emotional and social side of schooling. Schools foster a sense of belonging. In many neighbourhoods they act as social centres for the entire community. This is particularly important for teenagers, whose peers are their main social group. For children for whom school was a safe haven away from abusive homes, and for children without homes, school closures compounded the stress they experience on a daily basis.

Also on the Forum Network: "How can teachers and school systems respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? Some lessons from TALIS" by Andreas Schliecher

As schooling shifted massively to distance learning, parents and families were called upon to step forward. This can continue, opening school doors to more parental and community engagement. How can schools continue to reach out to involve all families, even the hardest to reach? How can they continue building coalitions with communities and other key partners?

As economic recession looms, hard choices will need to be made. What resources will be necessary for any future closures? How will newly organised teaching and learning be financed, and who chooses among competing priorities? Political leadership and the engagement of many will be needed to take the road of opening up, rethinking, rewiring.

In 1954 philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it”. Let’s prove her right. 

For more information:

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19 Child Well-being Future of Education & Skills

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Go to the profile of Tracey Burns

Tracey Burns

Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

Tracey Burns is a Senior Analyst in the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. She heads a portfolio of projects including Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning, 21st Century Children, and Trends Shaping Education. Until recently she was also responsible for their work on Governing Complex Education systems. Previous to her time at the OECD she worked on social determinants of health and well-being. As a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The University of British Colombia, Dr. Burns led a research team investigating newborn infants' responses to language, and was an award-winning lecturer on infant and child development. She is the recipient of numerous awards and honours, including The University of British Colombia Post-Doctoral Fellowship and the American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Awards. Tracey holds a B.A. from McGill University, Canada, and an M.A. and Doctor of Philosophy in psychology from Northeastern University, USA.

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