World divided on efforts to return to schools

Teaching faces future technological challenges after Covid-19 crisis

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One of the largest teaching conventions ever held will be staged on Saturday as educators, parents and pupils around the world grapple with the challenges of returning to school safely after a first peak of coronavirus cases.

Organisers say that 50,000 teachers from 67 countries have registered for the T4 Conference, a free online global event that aims to make sense of what will be the so-called new normal in schools with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

Countries that best coped with the outbreak, including Denmark, New Zealand and South Korea, have already welcomed back some pupils, while the issues of not just when but how to restart looms for the profession.

The T4 event will feature an array of educators speaking from around the world, including Andreas Schleicher, from the Directorate of Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris (OECD); David Edwards, the general secretary of Education International in Belgium; and Hiba Ballout, the science co-ordinator at Saint George Schools in Lebanon.

Banky W, the Nigerian rapper, actor and philanthropist, will address the subject of “Why Teachers Matter”, and Ziauddin Yousafzai, a teacher and the father of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala, will talk on “Giving Girls a Voice”.

In a recorded message to delegates, Mr Yousafzai said that the coronavirus pandemic had affected every sphere of life, including education. “During the pandemic and after, we will be embracing the new normal in our education system,” he said. “I hope we all agree that teachers should be the centre of all these conversations to shape and lead the new normal.”

Many school leaders, educators and policymakers have said that Covid-19 had highlighted stark differences between schools’ abilities to teach their pupils online and those lacking in resources. The most vulnerable could already be falling behind. Specialists have underscored the urgent need for more investment before the relaunch. The Education Foundation, a think tank that focuses on the use of technology in classrooms, called for a national cloud-based system from which schools could download teaching resources.

I think the space exists for teachers to influence what happens

“There needs to be immediate investment in digital infrastructure and digital devices to facilitate and protect learning at home,” the foundation said in its “Protecting Learning” report last month.

One of the most highly charged debates has been taking place in Britain, where teaching and healthcare unions have warned of the risks to pupils and staff.

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, announced on Sunday that the UK would press ahead with the phased reopening of schools from June 1, but the plan has been opposed by those such as Mary Bousted, the joint general-secretary of The National Education Union (NEU).

“The timetable is reckless,” Ms Bousted said. “The timetable is simply not safe, it is not fair, it is not feasible,” she said.

'A new respect' for teachers

For countries where schools have restarted, some have introduced staggered returns, limited class sizes and configured plastic partitions around desks. A week after schooling resumed for one third of French pupils, a flare-up of about 70 new Covid-19 cases prompted authorities to close the gates of a small number of campuses again. Similar small-scale repeat shutdowns were reported in Germany and South Korea.A survey of more than 250,000 parents by the charity Parentkind this month found that 40 per cent of British parents do not wish to consider a schools time frame until safety is assured, whether by government or school leaders. Nearly an additional 10 per cent said they would send their children back only when staff and pupils had been vaccinated, even if that was in 12 to 18 months.

I feel like we're carrying a time bomb

Vikas Pota, the host of the T4 event, comes to the issue as a former chief executive of the Varkey Foundation, a global charity that focuses on improving standards of education for underprivileged children. Mr Pota set up the annual $1 million Global Teacher Prize.

Mr Pota said that teachers had for years been marginalised by policymakers, but were now in a position to use their recently enhanced status to influence education policy. "Given everyone's experience of homeschooling, there's a new respect for the teaching profession," he told The National. "I think the space exists for teachers to influence what happens – and that is the new normal."

On the other side of the debate from groups such as the NEU are bodies that fear the overall effect on education across society. The Education Policy Institute, another think tank in Britain, has raised concerns that the pandemic could increase the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their more affluent counterparts. Pupils facing economic, social or family problems were already 18 months behind by the time they reached the age of 16, the institute said.

'Unprecedented learning'

Some cities will continue to rely on technology for a while longer, with online schooling in New York continuing through the summer for around 177,700 pupils, or about one in six from the public school system, according to the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. School buildings there have been closed since mid-March. “We see this as a summer where unprecedented learning can happen,” said Mr De Blasio.

Many governments view the return of children to school as the first step to restarting their economies, particularly given the widely held belief that children are at lower risk of contracting the virus. Where schools have reopened, the approach appears to have been largely successful despite sporadic outbreaks and significant modifications to limit risks.

In France, where tens of thousands of schools have opened, class sizes have been limited to 15. Schools in neighbouring Germany have been slowly opening up classrooms during the past three weeks, subject to precautions. No major outbreaks related to the restarts have been reported but one school in Berlin’s Spandau borough was ordered to close temporarily after it emerged that a teacher with Covid-19 had been in contact with two classes, an after-school care programme and other staff.

South Africa will resume teaching in schools for some pupils on June 1 after a two-month break but sport will remain off the timetable. The country is the worst-hit African nation with more than 23,000 infections and 481 deaths but has had other effects that authorities want to reverse. School closures there halted a national feeding programme of meals for nine million children in extreme poverty, which will also resume at the start of June.

In South Korea, and teachers were required to wear masks and hundreds of thousands of children had their temperatures checked as they returned to school last week, many for the first time since late last year. More than 60 schools near Seoul immediately sent their students home as a precaution after two who hadn't even attended class were found to be infected.

One teacher in Gyeonggi province told Reuters on condition of anonymity that certain rules, such as setting specific times of the day when students can use the toilet, were "practically impossible to implement".

“I feel like we're carrying a time bomb,” the teacher said.