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Archive for the ‘Pandemic Planning’ Category

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic proves, once again, the old adage that “it takes a crisis” and especially so in the world of K-12 education. Surveying the fallout from the school shutdown, the six-month hiatus, and the rocky school-start-up in September, everyone from school leaders to students, educators and parents, is absorbing the lessons, rethinking past assumptions and considering what once seemed like unlikely scenarios.

Pandemic distance learning was mostly an educational disaster. The centralized and overly bureaucratic school system described in my new book, The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools, proved to be vulnerable and ill-equipped to respond to the massive COVID-19 pandemic disruption. Students, parents, and teachers have –in many ways – still not recovered from the disruption and subsequent upheaval.

The three-month long school shutdown exposed what German sociologist Max Weber aptly termed the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure which traps individuals in an invisible web of order, rationality, conformity, and control. We came to see how dependent students, teachers and families were on provincial and school district directives. Little did we realize that it would devolve into a marathon and that possibly the worst was yet to come.

Since the resumption of school in September, the unsettling impact of the massive distance learning experiment, compounded by fears and anxieties over COVID-19 health risks, have destabilized whole school systems. Tens of thousands of Ontario students and parents, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, abandoned in-person schooling for hastily assembled online learning programs. Some 11,000 parents, in spired by Toronto parent Rachel Marmer, flirted with creating pandemic “learning pods” and hiring teacher/tutors to serve small groups of four or five students.

The initial school schedule combining in-person and online classes proved incredibly complex to manage and, in some cases, unsustainable. Hundreds of teachers were reassigned to centrally managed online instruction and school timetables ended up being reorganized several times. Smaller class cohorts have now been collapsed as school districts, starting with the Dufferin-Peel and York Region Catholic boards, readjust again and resort to offering single stream combined courses utilizing live streamed lessons.

Building back the disrupted and damaged School System will involve confronting squarely the fragility and limitations of top-down, bureaucratic K-12 education. Cage-busting leadership will be required to transform our schools into more autonomous social institutions that, first and foremost, serve students, families and communities. It’s also looking, more and more, like schools will need to be far more responsive to the radically altered health conditions and shifting preferences of students and families.

Community-school based reform
Some forty years after the advent of decentralized democratic governance in the form of school-based management, provincial authorities and regional centres remain wedded to system-wide management of virtually every aspect of educational service. What is needed is a complete rethink of school governance and a commitment to clear away the obstacles to building a more agile, responsive, community of self-governing schools that puts student needs first. Without re-engineering education governance from the schools up, this is not going to happen.

Humanizing education
Flipping the system has emerged as a new COVID-19 era imperative, but decentralizing management and control, by itself, has little or no effect on what really matters—teaching and learning in the schools. It is only the first stage of an overall strategy to make our schools more democratic, responsive and accountable to parents, teachers, students and communities.

Students should come first in our schools, and this is best achieved in smaller schools operating on a human, student scale. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s draw upon the lessons learned through the Human Scale Education (HSE) movement, particularly downsizing high schools, giving students a voice, and building genuine partnerships with parents.

Teaching-centred classrooms
Teachers are clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools. The recent wave of neo-liberal education reform, driven by large-scale testing and accountability, has chipped away at teacher autonomy in the classroom. That has bred what Gert Biesta has termed “learnification” – a new educational language where students are “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” and the classroom is a “learning environment.” Now promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, the technocratic language threatens to subvert the real point of education—to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone.

Teachers know what works in the classroom and are attuned to the spread of unproven theories and practices. Challenging education gurus and the school improvement industry will be essential if we are to base teaching on evidence-based practice and what works with students in the classroom.

Engaging parents in family-centric schools
Parent engagement is now part of the standard educational lexicon, but, in practice, it is incredibly hard to find it exhibited, particularly during the COVID-19 disruption.

One of Canada’s leading researchers on parent-school relations, Debbie Pushor, makes a clear distinction between school-managed parent involvement and genuine parent engagement. School superintendents, consultants and many school principals have a lot to unlearn.
What we need is a completely different model: the family-centric approach, embracing a philosophy of “walking alongside” parents and genuinely supporting the active engagement of the families that make up the school community.

Looking ahead—seize the day
Centralization of school administration has had its day. Eliminating or neutering locally elected school boards has moved us further in the direction of centralizing control over provincial systems. Without access to school-level education governance, concerned parents, educators and the public were left with nowhere to turn to address a host of COVID-19 education problems.

Global learning corporations, exemplified by Pearson International and Google, have achieved dominance through the spread of educational technology and licensed learning resources—and are finally attracting critical scrutiny. The pandemic has also laid bare parental concerns about technology-driven “21st-century learning” and student skill deficits in mathematics and literacy.

A new set of priorities are emerging: put students first, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers in the schools. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. The pandemic shock has made us more aware of the critical need for meaningful public engagement, rebuilding social capital and revitalizing local communities. Rescuing the system may turn out to be essentially about taking back our schools and charting a more constructive path forward.

What’s happened to our centralized, bureaucratic and stable K-12 school system? Will the pandemic shock lead to a complete rethinking of the current structure and clear the way for systemic reform? Where do we start in building education back from the schools up?

*Adapted from The State of The System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

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Slowly but surely the evidence is gathering that the three-month-long 2020 experiment with “emergency home learning” was an “unmitigated disaster.” A recent Toronto Life feature story by investigative journalist Raizel Robin painted an alarming picture of the Toronto District School Board’s rollout of online learning in March and April of 2020. “Teachers flailed, parents lost it, and kids suffered,” the article summary declared. “Chronic squabbling between Queen’s Park (the Ontario Government) and the unions” was “mostly to blame — and that all spells a chaotic school year ahead.”  While the TDSB may be an extreme example, the general pattern was repeated from province to province, school district to school district, right across Canada.

The rapid and unplanned transition to distance learning turned the Canadian school system upside down and disrupted the lives of some 5 million children and families, and their teachers. Our system, reputed to be one of the world’s best, experienced a power outage, leaving educators scrambling to master new technology and the vast majority of children to “do their own thing” in family isolation operating, for the most part, under a vague and changing set of home learning guidelines.

Student surveys, school district reports, and investigative journalism are beginning to reveal where distance learning went off track and what needs to be corrected the next time. What follows is a brief diagnosis of what went wrong and a proposed prescription for getting the most out of the online learning experience.

The School Shutdown and its Impact  — A Diagnosis

Slapped together distance learning was a mass application of the triage system in the educational Emergency Room. Provincial authorities produced hastily assembled Learn at Home programs and posted broad student homework expectations with a dramatically reduced number of “hours of work” per week. In actual practice, these programs took on a crazy-quilt pattern ranging from high tech to low tech to no tech, highly dependent upon a student’s school district, individual school or classroom teacher. Deciding to guarantee students their March grades removed most of the incentive to work until the end of the year. The most vulnerable children and neediest students living in poverty or facing severe learning challenges lost their “system of supports” and, without in-person education, their families were left to fend for themselves.

Normal student attendance and achievement tracking appears to have mostly evaporated. TorontoDSB’s outgoing director John Malloy put such trust in his teachers that he considered it “very inappropriate” to keep track of how much time teachers were spending in direct contact with their students because it would demonstrate a lack of confidence in them as professionals. He and other system leaders, we have learned, did not think it was their job to establish or enforce teacher-led activity guidelines or track student work completion.

Many students, an estimated one out of four in junior and senior high schools, went missing or completely unaccounted for, according to the CBC News Investigation unit in the Maritime provinces.  No school authorities, including the TDSB, have yet produced a reliable, comprehensive report on student participation rates, attendance at scheduled sessions, achievement levels and graduation rates.

Getting it Right the Next Time — A Prescription

Concerned parents and the vast majority of students were so  poorly served that, by June 2020, most clamoured for a full return to in-person school in September 2020. Once school was dismissed for the summer, organized parent groups surfaced demanding full-time school for all grades under safe health conditions. Lobbying for a hybrid model combining in-class and remote learning, popular among teachers, gained little traction and, aside from some implementation in high schools, gradually died down. Seven provinces eventually opted for a full resumption of regular classes, and the remaining three, Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba, continued with some form of online learning from Grades 9 to 12. In most provinces, the near exclusive focus of debate was on implementing “COVID-19 health and safety” regulations to address residual parental fears and anxieties.

The biggest lessons , based upon my own “rapid response” analysis, were:

Teacher-guided instruction:  Be far more explicit in setting out teacher expectations when the system defaults to distance learning.

Only two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, attempted to include teacher expectations in the March-April 2020 home learning guidelines.  In Alberta, the student work guidelines specified that the hours of work would be assigned by teachers. Ontario’s guidelines described the work as “teacher-led” activities. Initially, there was no mention whatsoever of any explicit requirement for time commitment on the part of teachers. In the midst of the pandemic, the conventional administrative “span of control” was relaxed and teachers, for the most part, left to exercise their professional judgement, heeding the advice and counsel of their unions.

Synchronous Learning: Focus on maintaining daily contact with students and give a much higher priority to sustaining real time interaction and engagement with students on an individual and small group or class basis. Interacting twice a week in half-hour sessions proved insufficient to securing and maintaining student attention, participation, and meaningful engagement.

Simulating, as much as possible, in-person teaching involves giving a much higher priority to synchronous learning or real time online teaching utilizing video, interactive media, or text messaging. During the initial trial run, most teachers turned to assigning regular homework and continuing, where possible, with their preferred strategies, short posted or e-mailed assignments and project-based learning (PBL). This is known as asynchronous learning because it involves assigning work to be completed later in a day, week, or term. It is not generally interactive or engaging for students, especially after a few weeks of uninterrupted home learning. Ontario’s August 2020 education directive (Regulation 164) addresses the problem with an explicit mandate for utilizing synchronous learning strategies in the online learning environment.  Assuming 300 minutes of instructional time a day, it’s likely unwise to require, in Grade 1 to 12, exactly 75% of the time to be allocated to synchronous learning activities.

Supporting the Neediest and Marginalized:  School systems exist to support everyone and especially those children and teens living in poverty or struggling with learning challenges or complex needs — and that definitely needs to be addressed the next time.

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Inclusive education needs to be factored into future plans during the default to distance education because far too many students, some 15 to 20 per cent in most school districts, are dependent upon either “learning supports” or intensive “special education services.” While congregated classes are not ideal for every special needs child or teen, they tend to be smaller in size and small enough to classify as ‘classroom bubbles’ meeting most public health pandemic guidelines. Some educational jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, for that reason, opened schools in June 2020  for the expressed purpose of supporting both special needs students and the children of essential workers. This policy option should be on the table next time around in the current pandemic cycle.

Student Assessment and Reporting: Establish and maintain a fair, consistent and predictable system of student evaluation irrespective of the mode of curriculum delivery and continue to issue student progress reports with clear, easy to understand marks.

Student marks and grading are ingrained in the system and form a critical part of the terms of engagement. Suspending grading of term tests and assignments affects student motivation and makes it even more challenging to hold and sustain their participation in an online environment. Abandoning grades or reverting to pass-fail marking systems sends out the implicit signal that somehow the work does not count or is of lesser importance to their overall academic performance. It also fuels the widespread phenomenon of grade inflation widening the gap between student performance and rewards for that performance.

Provincial Testing and Accountability:  Commit to maintaining provincial and national student testing systems so students, parents and the public can assess student achievement and have some gauge of how the school shutdown actually impacted the acquisition of knowledge and the development of academic skills.

Three months of school shutdown is bound to have affected student achievement, particularly in the development of fundamental skills in Grades 1 to 6 and in academic preparation for higher education and the modern workplace. Suspending provincial testing, as Ontario has done in 2020-21, is unwise because it will deny educators, parents and the public of one of the most objective and validated forms of student assessment. Shortening the advance preparation time for such tests makes good sense, but not suspending the evaluations altogether. No one expects students to perform as well after a prolonged absence from regular in-person classes. We do need some kind of reliable yardstick to identify learning loss and to provide us with a benchmark for remediation.

Educators everywhere are committed to doing better the next time with their newly acquired knowledge and skills in education technology. Coming out of the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we will all be better prepared and educators have every right to expect enhanced support in terms of training, resources, and ongoing professional support. Instead of focusing almost exclusively on “COVID safety” and health protection, it’s time to give more attention to what ultimately matters — teaching and learning — the core function of K-12 education.

What are the biggest lessons coming out of the COVID-19 school shutdown and that frightening pandemic?  Was the radical and abrupt transition to distance learning a failure of pandemic proportions?  Should we be focusing on the positive and highlighting examples of its “silver linings”? Is it possible that educational conditions could get worse in the coming year? What’s the best way to build back our shaken and fractured K-12 school system? 

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‘Everyone is doing their best’ was the prevailing narrative during the COVID-19 school disruption.  That may explain why school authorities either suspended system-wide student tracking or chose to conceal data collected relating to student progress and engagement.  A June 2020 CBC Investigation into this issue in four Atlantic Canadian provinces came up almost empty  and revealed that no one was able to provide any credible information on how many students went missing during pandemic distance learning.

“Doing Our Best” education may well have lasting consequences for students. Coming out of a three-month suspension of in-person, face-to-face teaching and learning, we are beginning to confront the hard realities: the coronavirus generation has fallen months behind, most housebound children were bored and disengaged, and struggling students have lost the most ground.

What we know about the real COVID-19 impact on children and teens did not emanate from education officialdom. With senior education leaders and school districts remaining tight-lipped, public opinion survey pollsters stepped up to fill the vacuum and assist intrepid education reporters trying to penetrate the wall of silence. Back on May 10, over a month ago, the Angus Reid Institute broke the code: “Canadian children are done with school from home, fear falling behind, and miss their friends.” The kids, it turned out, were not alright.

What actually happened during the COVID-19 crisis is coming into clearer focus with the benefit of hindsight. For the first month,  ministries of education, school districts, and educators scrambled to fill the learning gap with “emergency distance learning,” building upon patchy online infrastructure and cobbled together together curriculum combining e-learning and hastily-assembled ‘learning packages.” With few exceptions, Canadian K-12 education was completely unprepared for the system-wide shutdowns.

Thrown completely off-kilter, educational leadership was left fumbling around in the dark looking for the proverbial light switch. Perpetually optimistic technology-driven educators found ‘silver linings amidst the dark clouds, progressive educators focused on responding to children’s “fears, anxieties and trauma,” and global thought leaders rhapsodized about a “better normal where Maslow (finally triumphed) over Bloom. With little warning, parents were expected to guide “Home Learning” with their housebound children.  It looked ominous, but most educators sounded upbeat, made the best of an unsatisfactory situation, and retained some hope that it would all work out somehow.

Taking a closer look at the May 2020 Angus Reid survey, it’s now clear that, despite everyone’s efforts, the COVID-19 educational experience was decidedly substandard for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K-12 students, and possibly damaging for those from disadvantaged and racialized communities. Here’s a succinct summary of the worrisome findings:

  • The biggest worry for over half of all children (ages 10-17) surveyed was “missing out on  work” this school year and next, roughly equal the proportion who feared getting sick themselves.
  • A clear majority of children “attending” school online (60 per cent) were bored or  unmotivated, not very busy with the work, but still “keeping up” with the reduced academic expectations.
  • Children and teens, outside of homework, spent the vast majority of their time glued to small screens, dominated by watching TV/Netflicks, You Tube (88 per cent), and playing video games (74 per cent).
  • Parents may have been doing their best, but it was not good enough, because over half of teens ages 13 to 17 reported needing more help with their work.
  • Some 70 per cent of children and teens reported missing seeing friends and participating in extra-curricular activities, but fewer than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) were willing to concede that they missed going to school.

Missing so much regular schooling, after two of the three months, was already having adverse effects. Most of the students reported that they were “missing out” on school work and were struggling to remain positive, mainly because of deteriorating friendships and relationships.  The so-called “home education blues” were real and, for the most part, went unacknowledged and unreported by Canadian school authorities.

Close education observers and inquisitive parents seeking straight talk about the actual impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown invariably come up empty when seeking answers to questions or any evidence to support periodic accounts of heroic individual efforts or hopeful reports of ‘silver linings.” Education reports out of the United States provided us with a much-needed wake-up call when it came to getting the straight goods on what was really happening to students and parents during the school shutdown.

Two key U.S. education stories exposed the harsh realities of COVID-19 education for students, parents and teachers and raised serious questions about the veil of silence shrouding Canadian K-12 education. New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein blew the lid off the real story on June 5, 2020 with a feature demonstrating the impact in terms of learning loss.  By September 2020, she reported, most students would be “months behind” with “some losing the equivalent of a full year’s worth of academic gains.” Furthermore, “racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps” would “most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

A Boston Globe feature on May 23 confirmed that the COVID-19 disruption exposed the reality of digital divide. One in five Boston Public Schools children were found to be “unplugged” from Google Classroom and disengaged to the point where they were essentially “virtual dropouts.” Significant education technology challenges and language difficulties were keeping children from continuing school online. That finding was confirmed in a large-scale study of some 800,000 students conducted by a team of Harvard and Brown university researchers. Mining academic research into student use of Zearn, an online math program, they reported that student progress in math between March 15 and April 30 decreased by some 48 per cent in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, and by one-third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, in microcosm, the extent of the public disclosure deficit in our provincial public education systems. Without American investigative education reporting, we would probably know little or nothing about the stubborn COVID-19 problems of getting students to engage in distance learning or the incredible proportion of children and teens who skipped out on home learning or lacked proper access to the alternative programs.  Knowing that the kids are not alright should spark some needed public discussion about working together on developing and acting upon a comprehensive, evidence-based learning recovery plan.

What happened to the initial plans for COVID-19 Home Learning in Canadian K-12 education? How did most children and teens fare in terms of “continuous learning” during the COVID-19 school disruption? Why were provincial and district education authorities so tight-lipped about the state of distance learning?  Should ministries of education and school districts be responsible for monitoring, collecting and reporting on alternative distance learning programs?  Does the public have a right to know how many children logged-in, remained engaged, and met the expected curricular standards? 

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The COVID-19 pandemic will shutter most Canadian and American schools for three months, preceding the normal two month summer holiday. For the first month, educational leaders, district superintendents, and classroom educators scrambled to patch-together emergency Learn at Home programs, combining distance learning and conventional ‘old school’ lesson packages delivered both online and by ground delivery services. While the great COVID-19 disruption did inspire bursts of creativity, exemplified on blogs and social media, as well as in webinars, the vast majority of students, parents and teachers were essentially left to their own devices, often with patchy curriculum, unreliable internet, and uneven teaching.  Students living in poverty, with severe learning challenges, and complex needs will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the suspension of regular, in-person, K-12 education. 

Prominent education thought leaders appear to see the educational disruption as an opportunity to re-imagine education. “Moving ahead in the COVID-19 era,” Pamela Osmond-Johnson, Carol Campbell, and Katina Pollock recently claimed,  will involve building upon its lessons and tapping into the vision articulated by Education International, the global teachers’ organization. Coming out of a maelstrom of “illness, grief and trauma,” they believe that “Maslow before Bloom must be “the guiding principle moving forward.”  We should not be seduced by technology in the form of virtual schools or real time video-conferencing, but instead leverage the new-found creativity, build upon project-based learning experimentation, and seek a permanent cessation of standardized student assessment.  In this new path forward, there is no mention whatsoever of the costs of the great disruption in terms of student intellectual growth and achievement. 

Missing twelve weeks of schooling and then experiencing two months of school holidays is bound to have significant impact in terms of student learning loss. Reopening schools and resuming regular K-12 in-school education will have to confront the reality that students, out of school for nearly half a year, will be significantly behind in their expected academic and social development. An American education research institute, the Portland, Oregon-based, North West Education Association has already produced some sobering forecasts, based upon statistical analysis, demonstrating the potential “learning loss” during the shutdown. That study builds upon earlier Brookings Institute studies examining the impact of “summer learning loss’ on student achievement.  Schools and particularly front-line teachers will confront this problem first-hand when school resumes in September 2020 or sometime thereafter.  

Millions of students have either missed out or been minimally engaged in COVID-19 emergency Learn at Home education. While COVID-19 disruption period student attendance and participation rates are not readily accessible in Canada, the evidence surfacing in dozens of American states is that student attendance has been highly irregular, and as many as 25 per cent of all students rarely or never checked-in with their teachers. Leading American education policy researcher Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education, reports that anywhere from 7 million to 12 million students have received “no formal schooling” because of the uneven implementation of “in-between” programs, as well as inequities in device and internet access. 

Seasonal learning research allows researchers to compare student learning patterns when school is in versus out of session — and it has definite application in the case of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. NWEA researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa estimated COVID-19-related learning loss by using data from a group of 5 million Grade 3 to 8 students who took assessment tests in 2017-18. The research compared what student achievement would be if learning growth continued at the same rate as when schools closed to what it would be if learning loss was typical of a summer slide.

The April 2020 NWEA study was the first to attempt an assessment of the potential learning loss. For their purposes, the two researchers used March 15, 2015 as the last day of school. Their COVID-19 slide estimates, according to the report, suggest students would return in fall 2020 with 63 to 68 % of the learning gains in reading and less than 50% of the learning gains in mathematics— and nearly a year behind in some grades — compared to a regular school year. One caveat is that, unlike the summer holidays, thre was some distance learning provided, likely offsetting some of the projected losses. 

COVIDNWEAMathLoss

With 60 million students in Canada and the United States out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educational planners are now wrestling with the fallout affecting students and families, including how to approach instruction in the fall of 2020 when most students will be farther behind than in a typical year.  In Canada, unlike the United States, there is little or no research on the impact of missing school, so it will be largely a matter of guesswork and may fall to regular classroom teachers to figure it out on their own 

The COVID-19 school interruption and summer slide will, in all likelihood, aggravate educational inequalities, compounding the “operation catch-up” problem facing educators. The NWEA researchers, in fact, estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures will not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for fall 2020, education leaders and classroom educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction.

Minimizing or ignoring the learning loss, which is common in the Canadian K-12 education milieu, would be unwise given the length of the gap in schooling and the reality of deepening inequities in access to education.  Here, too, education policy-makers will have to look to the United States for evidence-based recovery plans. The NWEA research team recommends four remedial strategies:

  1. Conduct initial diagnostic student assessments to ascertain where to start your instruction. It needs to be done early, will vary by grade level, and should be as individualized as possible;
  2. Addressing the greater variability in academic skills will render whole class teaching very challenging, and will require more differentiation to meet the learning needs of all students;
  3. Develop student “catch-up” plans that address the ground that needs to be covered and the learning growth rates needed to get back-on-track with learning goals that are more ambitious than usual and yet obtainable;
  4. Respond to the socio-emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by being sensitive to challenging students while being responsive to their student well-being. Be prepared for some residual effects and accommodate them in your teaching, including family illness, loss of older relatives, parental job losses, and fear of catching the virus themselves. 

Missing school for such a prolonged period will, in all likelihood, have major impacts upon student achievement. With the acute period of COVID-19 infections behind us, the focus of schooling will be on “catching-up” on missed work and acquiring the skills to move forward in academic and social development.  Without standardized student assessments, school systems will be flying blind with no way of either assessing the COVID-19 impact or measuring progress made in closing the anticipated student achievement gap. Instead of rhapsodizing about a post-COVID-19 burst of creativity, it may be wiser to focus on shoring up the educational foundations with evidence-informed educational recovery plans.  

What’s most critical in the planning for the resumption of in-school teaching and learning?  Should we be pivoting from “care-mongering” and social and emotional support to addressing the glaring academic inequities and the significant loss in learning across the grades? What are the most essential components of an educational recovery plan responsive to the academic and intellectual development needs of the COVID-19 generation of students? 

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What a difference a global health crisis has made in Canadian K-12 education.  All of a sudden everyone has been thrust into “online learning” for weeks on end and “learning packets” are something housebound parents and children see as a welcome break from staring at small screens. It’s a completely new experience for the vast majority of students, teachers and parents with a few notable exceptions — those living in North American school districts with established E-Learning Day programs to support students during unplanned school closures.

eLearning2019DaysCoverThe unexpected and unplanned COVID-16 school closures catapulted teachers into the unfamiliar territory of e-learning, forcing most to learn to use the new technology on the fly. It was no less a shock for parents, scrambling to grapple with Learning at Home programs while tending to their children cooped-up in social isolation. Now that there’s a glint of light at the end of the first wave COVID-19 school shutdown, it may be time to consider being better prepared the next time.

Some North American school districts were far better prepared than others for the radical shift to COVID-19 emergency online learning. Which ones?  Those in the twelve American states which had already adopted E-Learning Days as a means of making-up lost instructional time as a result of winter storms or unexpected calamities.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville made that exact point in a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette (April 10, 2020).  While assessing the paradigm shift to e-learning now underway, he mentioned that school districts in New Hampshire with established e-learning days were far better prepared and made a much “easier transition” because they already had “a back-up online learning system.”

No region in North America cancels school days with the frequency and duration found in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Introducing E-Learning Days in the Maritimes had been proposed, considered, and tossed aside several times in the preceding decade. For those who may have forgotten what transpired, a refresher might be in order.

Since a Nova Scotia Storm Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of  recouping learning time and the number of days lost to storms almost doubled over the intervening years.

A succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred some promised action.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Education Minister Casey drew what sounded like ‘a line in the ice’ and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for some five lost days.

The resulting furor actually set back the cause. Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays. Nothing more happened.

EDaysCartoonIndyStar

Five years ago, E-Learning Days were proposed in media interviews and in a series of commentaries for the Maritime Canada media and local news talk radio stations. Embracing E-Days and providing students without internet access with so-called “blizzard bags” was endorsed in editorials recognizing it as a ‘smart solution’ to appropriating school holidays or extending the school year.

Replacing Storm Days with E-Learning Days was advanced as a way of protecting learning time, clicking-in after five days of school were lost to storm day cancellations.  The mere idea of providing “homework pouches” for those children without internet access was mocked by skeptical teachers as totally impractical and of little value to children or families.

A December 2019 progress report on the spread of E-Learning Days, produced by the U.S.-based Digital Learning Collaborative, demonstrates the gradual spread of E-Learning Days and its vital role in expanding digital learning in mainstream American school districts.

E-Learning Days are now used in a dozen states to fill the specific need to “maintain instruction during unplanned school closures.”  Six U.S. states, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, all have their own policies and exemplary programs.

While the prime use remains as a means of ensuring ‘continuity of learning’ during adverse weather conditions or natural disasters, they are now being employed during “widespread illness” and for parent-teacher conferences or teacher professional development purposes.

Much like COVID-19 Home Learning Days, E-Days work best when they follow a simple, predictable daily schedule. Students access online instructional modules from home or elsewhere, usually in the mornings and submit work at day’s end.

Using a leaning management system, teachers post digital instructional materials and assignments, as well as refer students to core texts or resource books at home. Video conferencing is used periodically for brief check-ins. School systems expect teachers to be available during specific hours in case students have questions or to gather-up and date-stamp assignments. Learning packets are provided to students without access to ed tech or internet.

Critical lessons learned in implementing E-Days prove extremely useful during prolonged periods of school shutdown. “Planning, preparing and implementing E-Learning days well,” the recent report points out, “requires significant effort, and without significant planning and preparation, E-Learning days are unlikely to result in meaningful learning.”

Implementing E-Days now looks entirely feasible in the wake of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. With such a back-up plan, school districts everywhere would definitely be much better prepared next time an epidemic knocks out regular in-person classes.

What stood in the way of adopting E-Learning Day plans and programs before the COVID-19 pandemic?  Why is it that some American states have proven much better equipped for a smooth transition to primarily online learning?  Why did previous Public Health pandemic plans simply default to cancelling school and sending students home without any real continuity of learning plan?  Which Canadian education authority will be the first to establish an exemplary E-Learning Day policy and program? 

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Shaking hands is, for now, socially unacceptable and ‘keeping your distance’ is the new normal in all public settings. Following the strict advice of our Chief Medial Officers of Health, the vast majority of citizens, groups and organizations are complying with ‘physical distancing’ to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.  If the new public health conventions become ingrained and persist beyond the immediate crisis, the fundamental change in social norms outside the household sphere will profoundly alter life in public settings, particularly in K-12 schools and classrooms.

Seeing images of public schools in Taipei, Taiwan, in full operation during the COVID-19 heath crisis, is jarring, if not downright shocking. Based upon hard lessons gleaned from the 2003 SARS pandemic, Taiwanese authorities, including school heads, were quick to recognize the crisis and activated stringent emergency health management plans to keep schools running instead of simply closing them down.

School life during COVID-19 was transformed into a virtual health protection zone. Students at Daija Elementary School in Taipei were asked to disinfect their hands and shoes before entering the school building, while a security guard took their temperature, and, once in class, the children were seated in separated rows wearing masks.  What set that school apart, and drew international attention, was the sight of elementary children eating their own lunches while sitting behind bright yellow dividers on their desks.

With the frightening pandemic upon us, education planners and policy-makers need to look beyond the immediate crisis and start making plans for the resumption of in-person schooling, likely months from now.  A whole generation of students, parents and families, having survived the ravages of the virus, may be not only more receptive to online learning, but expecting, a different kind of K-12 day school education.

School practices intended to promote social distancing may well be an unintended legacy of the current crisis.  If and when influenza pandemic control measures become higher priorities, social distancing conventions that increase space between people and reduce the frequency of contacts may well overturn progressive teaching methodologies and spell the end, in real time, of clustered seating, learning centres, and interactive small group learning.

Today’s student-centred, interactive classroom based upon ‘hands-on’ learning was, it is becoming clear, greatly advanced by the widespread adoption of vaccines and school-based vaccination and related health programs. The emergency health risk posed by COVID-19 is more reminiscent of the scourge of childhood diseases, unchecked by vaccines, up until the 1960s. While class sizes were larger then, the traditional classroom exemplified social distancing  because children were seated in individual desks, spaced apart, lined-up before moving from place to place, and taught personal hygiene in elementary classes.

Classroom design and seating since the 1970s has tended to focus on creating settings that supported ‘active learning’ and reputedly ‘progressive’ teaching methods, such as learning circles, cooperative learning, and project-based groupings.  Scanning the North American physical classroom environment research, it’s striking how may action-research projects were undertaken to demonstrate that teaching children sitting in rows was detrimental to student engagement, widely considered an end in and of itself.

Neglected research on physical proximity and anxieties about crowding will get a much closer look in the post-COVID-19 era of education. Coming out of household quarantine and re-entering school, students, parents and teachers will be far more conscious of infectious diseases and the physical conditions contributing to its transmission. Ministries of education, school districts and principals will likely give a much higher priority to providing face-to-face teaching and learning in classrooms meeting stricter health protection standards.

Academic studies of “peers in proximity” and the few analyzing the “mixing patterns of students in school environments” do provide us with signposts for deeper dives.  One 2015 Dutch study of interpersonal processes in the classroom, conducted by Yvonne Van den Berg, demonstrates how  “a careful management of physical distance between classmates” can improve classroom climate, but it focuses almost exclusively on rectifying identified imbalances in social status in classes where students choose their own seats.

The role of children in the community spread of respiratory diseases such as H1N1 and COVID-19 identified by medical health authorities has attracted relatively little attention from education researchers based in graduate schools of education. One Canadian health policy study, produced in 2013 by University of Toronto researcher Laena Maunula may have compounded the problem. It claimed that public health messages were “dangerous” because they reinforce “bio power” and “governmentality” (i.e., a coercive state reducing citizens to ‘trained subjectivities.’)

For more promising disease prevention studies, we have to look to Europe and the pioneering work of two research teams, led by Marcel Salathé of the Salathe Lab at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Juliette Stehlé of Marseille, working with the University of Lyon-based National Influenza Centre. Utilizing wireless sensor network technology, they have studied the social networks in both primary and secondary schools which facilitate infectious disease transmission. Logging the data for CPIs (close proximity interactions), the researchers honed-in on the problem presented by schools as high potential sites for pandemic spread. Follow-up studies by American health researchers applied this research and concluded that extensive alternative school-based interventions regulating free student movement, as an alternative to school closure, can significantly reduce contacts and potential exposure to infectious diseases.

A more recent 2018 Rand Corporation study, building upon the close proximity studies findings, examined American school influenza pandemic policies and practices. It found that, while strictly limiting student interactions in hallways and classrooms reduced transmission rates, only four of 50 U.S. states ( Georgia, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia) had firm policies authorizing the full range of social distancing regulations. Ontario’s 2013 Health Plan for an Influenza Epidemic, much like those south of the border, relied upon school closures and made no provision for resumption of school after a pandemic outbreak.

Near future schools reopening after the hiatus will not look or feel the same, given the prospects for a second wave.  Taiwanese schools during the current pandemic might represent an extreme akin to a dystopian village, but post-COVID-19 K-12 public schools will in all likelihood incorporate some of those rigid protocols, at least until student, parent and teacher anxieties subside in the coming years.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 26, 2020.

What will classrooms look like following the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic?  Will the heightened awareness of the threat of epidemic diseases impact upon attendance monitoring, classroom design and layout, and teaching methodologies?  Will the post-COVID-19 classrooms look more like those in Taiwan during the pandemic?  How much e-learning will survive when face-to-face, in-person teaching resumes in the coming months? 

 

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