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Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19 School Closures’

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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The global footprint of coronavirus – COVID-19 – is expanding and national governments as well as regional school districts are making the difficult decision to shutdown the schools. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared it a “pandemic” and all of Canada’s education ministers participated in a teleconference to discuss the situation and potential policy responses, specifically following the annual March break for students and teachers.

Political leaders at the highest levels, working closely with public health authorities, are weighing their emergency measures options to combat the pandemic, ranging from school closures to mass quarantines. Closing schools may be politically expedient, but its effectiveness in curbing transmission is far from clear.

School closures have already interrupted the public education of some 300 million students across the globe. The first nation to close schools was Hong Kong, back in January, then Japan on February 27, and now many more jurisdictions have followed suit, including Italy, South Korea, Iran, France, Pakistan, New Delhi, the New York City region and northern Washington State.

Deciding to close schools in the case of COVID-19 is particularly challenging for one major reason. In the initial wave, the novel coronavirus, unlike HIN1 in 2009, had not affected children at high rates. Out of 44,672 initial confirmed cases in China, fewer than 2 per cent occurred in children under 19 years of age, and no deaths were recorded among those younger than 10 years old. That may be a low estimate because the attack rate for children, at a later stage in Shenzhen, was 13 per cent.

Closing schools, in some previous epidemics, has proven helpful in reducing transmission of seasonal flu among children. One 2013 British Medical Journal report, based upon a systematic review of epidemiological studies, concluded that school closures contained rates of transmission, even in the absence of other intentions. Yet determining “the optimal school closure strategy” remained “unclear” because of the wide variation in its forms of implementation.

Tracking the impact of school closures has proven tricky for researchers.  Some closures were limited to individual schools and, in other cases, whole school systems. Closing before the peak of the outbreak or well into the outbreak suggests that decisions are being made as either a precaution or a reaction to rising student influenza-related absenteeism. In some cases, schools close so children can receive antiviral medicines or vaccines, or in conjunction with a strategy of “social distancing.”  Such wide variations in implementation strategies makes it a challenge in determining which change actually affected transmission.

The body of research on school closure impacts during epidemics is surprisingly large, encompassing the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, and the 2009 HINI flu outbreak.

Yet the results of those school closures have been mixed. Closing schools for more than two weeks has been linked to lower transmission rates in Hong Kong (seasonal and pandemic flus) and in England (H1N1), but not so in Peru (pandemic) or the United States (during seasonal flu epidemics).

The 2008 Hong Kong outbreak, the 1957 epidemic experience of France, and the 1918 pandemic records in some U.S. cities demonstrate that shutting schools can have no discernible impact, especially if decisions come too late in the cycle of the outbreak. Relying upon older parents or grandparents to be caregivers during closures may actually increase mortality rates among more susceptible populations.

Public heath experts caution educational leaders and school principals against basing decisions on the North American H1N1 experience. “The sensitivity of the 2009 pandemic to school closures probably relates to the high attack rates in children compared with adults,” the BMJ study pointed out. “Outbreaks in which children are less affected” such as COVID-19, “might be less sensitive to school closure.”

Closing schools also has broader socio-economic impacts and unrecognized health effects. There are trade-offs in being overly cautious by closing schools, including potential lengthy disruptions in student learning and compelling parents to stay home from work. Students from lower socio-economic neighbourhoods would also be deprived of school meal programs and cost-free supervised athletics activities.

The most authoritative study of school closure impacts, in the August 2009 issue of The Lancet, actually assesses broader community impacts. If all U.K. schools closed, some 30 per cent of health and social care workers would be taken out of commission, compounding adverse effects on the financial health and viability of communities.

School authorities would be well-advised to consider the potential duration of closures in their emergency response plans.  While it is probably wise to err on the side of caution with school-age children, the longer the closure lasts, the more problematic it becomes, especially in the absence of e-learning bridge programs.

Closing schools for more than two weeks to combat COVID-19, as in the case of Hong Kong, could have a detrimental effect upon the school schedule, year-end-examinations, and the conventional grade- promotion system. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that students will be seriously set back by missing so much instructional time.

Implementing “e-learning plans,” including digital and distance learning, is recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but there’s a major problem with that constructive proposal in its guide for school administrators. It’s feasible in e-learning ready school systems like those in Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, and the State of Ohio, but not yet in our provincial school systems.

Few Canadian school districts are prepared or trained to implement e-learning days system-wide, and they have, with few exceptions, resisted piloting e-leaning modules during winter season storm days.  Scrambling to implement hastily prepared distance learning or online courses will not prove effective at all. Nor are schools fully equipped to administer year-end assessments online or to report the results electronically to students and parents.

Closing schools may be expedient in assuring the concerned public that actions are being taken to control the spread of the contagion. This is especially so now that managing the fears and anxieties of children and families is emerging as a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the lower attack rates for children and the weight of research evidence, it’s much harder to make the call to dismiss classes and suspend school for what may well be an indeterminate period of time.

 Should schools be closed to contain and reduce the transmission of the 2019-20 coronavirus?  What does past experience closing schools during epidemics tell us?  Should schools be closed early in the cycle as a precaution or in reaction to escalating attack rates among children and their teachers? How prepared are school districts to implement e-learning as a bridge in the teaching-learning process?  If schools do close, the question is — for how long given the unpredictability of the spreading contagion?  

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The National Post, March 11, 2020. 

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