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Posts Tagged ‘Pandemic schooling’

Flattening the curve of the pandemic is a long slog, but a few lessons are being learned, particularly in the K-12 education domain. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, pandemic emergency response plans embraced a singular education strategy – close all K-12 schools and default to hastily-assembled and largely-untested “home learning” programs.

Following public health directives, close to five million Canadian K-12 students and 451,400 teachers were left scrambling to master unfamiliar technology, slap together learning packages, and muddle-through until the end of the 2019-20 school year. The school year mostly petered-out, ending two-weeks earlier than ever before. Without reliable student tracking or achievement data, assessing the real impact is guesswork. Provincial systems and school districts did their best under stressful conditions. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board, it was aptly described as an “unmitigated disaster.” Few students, parents, teachers, or child psychologists would ever like to see that experience repeated again.

Nine months into the pandemic, public health authorities, ministries of education, and and school system superintendents are singing a different tune: keeping students in school is the first priority as we prepare to ride-out the second wave of viral infections. Everyone is far more acutely aware of the accumulating academic, human, and social costs of shutting down schools, falling unevenly upon children and teens in the most disadvantaged communities.

Combating the relentless virus and keeping regional economies in tact will not likely be greatly affected through system-wide shutdowns. What is needed is a new arsenal of strategies embracing a “flexible response” doctrine, borrowing a phrase popularized by former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara in the early 1960s. Banishing the devastating pandemic, much like vanquishing the Russian nuclear arms threat, requires a carefully considered set of options and a calibrated range of responses.

With COVID-19 infection rates spiking again, school closures are becoming a distinct possibility, if only as a temporary respite, for shaken-up students, fatigued teachers and bewildered parents. Setting a relatively low infection positivity number, such the 3 per cent figure applied in closing New York City schools, is unwise because, by that standard, all schools will ultimately close at some point this school year.

Some far more effective strategies are coming to the fore:

Isolating Cases and Suspending Exposed Classes
A case-by-case isolation strategy, in provinces and districts with lower transmission rates, has proven reasonably effective, as long as the public health system can sustain contact tracing and isolate children and staff who have COVID-19 exposures. It was working, up until now, in most provinces covered by the Atlantic Bubble. Implementation challenges are compromising its effectiveness in Ontario, where the numbers of infections exceed the capacity for contact tracing.

Short-Time Limited School Closures
Extending school holidays is emerging as the most expedient way of applying an education “circuit breaker.” Starting the Christmas holidays early, as in Quebec and Alberta, and extending the break (as in Manitoba) into January 2021 are the latest “quick fixes” gaining traction from province-to-province right across Canada. It’s much easier to extend school holiday time because that policy response resonates with teachers and education support workers and is more minimally disruptive for working parents. Policy-makers often opt for the path of least resistance.

Dual Track-Student Choice Model
Giving students and families the choice of completing courses in-person or online was implemented in Ontario and it caused an array of unanticipated, disruptive and unpredictable consequences. Students and parents in more affluent school districts in the TDSB chose in-person schooling, while online enrolment was highest in the district’s poorest and most racialized communities. School schedules were constantly changing as students bailed out of in-person classes, generating unexpected demand for online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students in Toronto, Peel and York Region have shifted online, rendering the two-track strategy essentially unsustainable over the longer-term.

Hybrid Blended Learning Model
Moving to a Mixed In-Person and Hybrid Learning Model on a so-called “rotation system” is a response full of implementation bugs. Some Ontario school districts have resorted to dual track delivery models with classes combining in-person and video streamed classes. Since September 2020, New Brunswick has implemented a Hybrid Blended Learning Model with alternating days in all high schools with decidedly mixed results. Curriculum coverage suffers, with loses estimated at up to 30 per cent of learning outcomes, and student participation rates reportedly low during the hybrid off-days in checkerboard the high school schedule.

Defaulting to Virtual Home Learning in Upper Grades
Younger children benefit more from teacher-guided instruction and do not as readily spread the virus, judging from K-6 in-person classes in Denmark and British Columbia. Splitting larger classes in urban or suburban school zones is prohibitively expensive, so school districts resort to shifting everyone to online classes. That has made defaulting to virtual home learning in the upper grades a more practical and more easily implemented option. Online learning has a better track record in Grades 9 to 12 when all students are enrolled and teachers possess the training and resources to use a full repertoire of pedagogies and resources.


The pandemic continues to bedevil our modern bureaucratic school systems that tend to thrive on fixed school schedules, top-down leadership, orderly transitions, systems thinking, and algorithms. Public health pronouncements can, and have already had, unintended adverse effects on our children’s education and well-being. It’s time to apply those lessons.

Closing all schools should probably be the last resort this time around. That’s the consensus among leading British, Canadian and American pediatricians and epidemiologists. Sending kids home should only be considered if and when transmission rates turn schools into vectors and staff infection rates make it impossible to provide a reasonable quality of education.

Nothing is predictable when it comes to the current pandemic. Resurgent rates of infection and community transmission in October and November produced what Science Magazine acknowledged is “a more complex picture” of the very real risks and the need to be flexible and responsive in the face of a rapidly changing, unpredictable public health crisis. While there’s no perfect solution, keeping schools open remains a priority and a “flexible response” strategy will likely be required to ride out the second wave.

Will public health authorities and school systems apply the lessons learned during the first wave of the pandemic? What is the tipping point for moving away from in-person schooling? Which are the most viable alternatives to system-wide shutdowns? Is it a case of responding with flexibility and in response to local or regional pandemic health risks?

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Learnification has finally been exposed and classroom teachers everywhere are gradually awakening to its debilitating effects on their professional autonomy and teaching practice. It took a global education system shutdown to reveal that all things educational had been, over the past forty years, redefined in terms of “learning” and reducing “teaching” to the “facilitation of learning.” Warnings from Dutch-born education philosopher Dr. Gert Biesta, the recognized leader of the reclaiming teaching movement, went unheeded; it took an education crisis to bring about that awakening.

Dr. Gert Biesta, Dutch-born education philosopher, and author of The Rediscovery of Teaching (2017) who identified the dominance of learnification in contemporary education

The gradual shift from teaching to learning from the 1980s onward transformed far more than the language of education, and significantly altered the role, position, and the identity of the teacher. A whole generation of teachers were schooled to shift from teacher as ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ and, in the eyes of some, to ‘peer at the rear.’ System change theorists and progressive education reformers socialized and in-serviced classroom practitioners to blend-in as a learner among learners in a ‘learning community,’ to the point where many were almost indistinguishable from their students.

The global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic essentially turned the K-12 education world upside down. Suspending in-person schooling in March 2020 for three months, followed by a pandemic-haunted summer break, then a radically altered crazy-quilt pattern of schedules, has shaken-up our provincial school systems. Today’s generation of teachers has been thrust into technology-enabled distance learning and given a crash course on managing the complexities of hybrid blended learning. Video conferencing and live streaming are emerging as the primary survival tools for educators faced with teaching a combination of in-person and virtual classes.

School systems are still reeling from the COVID-19 impact and it has dealt a serious blow to what I have identified in my new book The State of the System as the modern bureaucratic education state and for the most part disabled its pedagogical companion, learnification. That dramatic development has also thrown school system change theorists and progressive pedagogues for a loop.

With schools closed and traditional classrooms gone, teachers were left on their own to deliver the curriculum and interact, mostly-one-on one, with students. Facing a gallery of students with cameras on logged into Zoom or Microsoft Teams or a system-sanctioned platform changed the terms of engagement in COVID-19 education times. Conventional progressive pedagogical practices such as cooperative learning activities, facilitating group discussion, and project-based learning were far more challenging, if not impossible to implement. Many and perhaps most teachers defaulted to simply assigning homework and hoped for the best. Over the course of the first three months, student participation rates plummeted and an estimated one out of four students went missing in public education.

The new normal in K-12 education is not conducive to the simple resumption of past teaching practices, and particularly elementary learning centres, process-driven activities, and interactive group learning. A whole generation of educators, steeped in progressive pedagogy, is coming to the realization that post-pandemic education may well be defined by physical distancing, spaced-out student desks, plexiglass partitions, and ‘keeping your distance’ education. Standing and delivering a lesson, live-streaming presentations, and whole-class teaching are much more practical and pragmatic responses to post-pandemic educational realities.

Even before the pandemic, teachers were clamouring for a much larger role in setting priorities and determining what happens in today’s schools.  That spirit was captured well in a 2016 collection of essays, Flip the System, edited by two Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber, which made the case for teachers to take the lead in reforming education. Like most of the book’s contributors, the co-editors saw education under threat on a global scale by the so-called “forces of neoliberalism,” exemplified in “high stakes accountability, privatization, and a destructive language of learning” ( Evers and Kneyber, 1-7).

Instead of “being told what to achieve and how to achieve it,” Evers and Kneyber urged fellow teachers to “show leadership in regard to the how and the what” of education. What did it mean in practice?  Reasserting teacher agency in an educational world where many advocating “teacher leadership” were, in fact, appropriating the term as “another tool for domestication” rather than “an instrument for deregulation and professionalization.” Flipping the system would move teachers to the centre of the enterprise and resemble more of “a process of emancipation than a ‘system intervention.’” The voice of teachers would be given a meaningful place, instead of being just part of the ‘noise’ reverberating through the system (Evers and Kneyber, 7).

Today it’s fashionable in K-12 education to attribute all that ails the system to globalization and so-called neo-liberal education reform. Standardized testing and accountability did play an instrumental role in promoting and entrenching efficiency and managerialism, while eroding teacher autonomy in the school and community. It was not, however, the main impetus behind the new technocratic educational language of learnification. That shift was promoted by education change gurus and reformers of all persuasions, and — most notably– by education progressives wedded to student-centred learning.

The educational status quo has clearly experienced a major disruption. Self-styled progressives continue to describe students as “learners,” teaching is “facilitating learning,” broader education is “lifelong learning,” and school is a “learning environment.” The dominance of such a language, promulgated by ministries of education and education faculties, has served to subvert what Gert Biesta identified as the real point of education – to learn something, to learn it for a reason, and to learn it from someone. It may turn out that it took a global pandemic to demonstrate the wisdom of bringing teachers back to centre stage and putting teaching back into K-12 education.

What has happened to teaching in our learnification-driven school systems? To what extent did the almost exclusive focus on “learning” lead to the virtual disappearnance of the teacher? How has the COVID-19 pandemic education crisis impacted upon the teaching practices of classroom teachers? Are “teaching-centred-classrooms,” by definition, always instruments of control or can they be places of emancipation for children? Is the time ripe for reclaiming teaching in education?

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