A view from the Netherlands: Melanie Ehren on school closures and the pandemic

This week’s post features an e-mail interview with Melanie Ehren, Professor and Director of Research of LEARN! at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This post is the third in a series that includes posts from Chile and from Japan.  The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.

IEN: What’s happening with you in Amsterdam? 

Melanie Ehren: The Netherlands has been in ‘intelligent lock down’ for over a month now. Starting the 12th March, cafés, restaurants, hairdressers and many shops closed. Initially, schools were to stay open following advice from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) that there was a minor risk of children spreading the disease. Widespread concern over teachers’ health and national outrage however resulted in a closure of all primary, secondary schools and vocational schools on the 14th. I was at the Dutch Ministry of Education on the 12th to give a talk about ‘trust and accountability’ when the announcement was made. It was a surreal experience to leave the building at the end of the day and say farewell to colleagues, knowing that it would be a while before we would meet in person again. With so much time in lock-down the world has become quite small. In a short amount of time, all national and international events, meetings and conferences were cancelled and the days are now filled with a continuous stream of online meetings interspersed with attempts to write papers, develop proposals for new research (much of it now concerned with the consequences of COVID-19), finish a book on ‘trust and accountability’ with Jacqueline Baxter, and write up case study work from South Africa on the same topic. At LEARN!, as a research institute, we’ve worked hard to build a knowledge bank with our relevant research work.  We have been publishing a series of articles on education and COVID-19 for parents and educators as well as a series of blogs on the relevant education news here and internationally.  That work is informed by the weekly meetings I have on Friday afternoon with a rapid response network of practitioners in the field. The crisis is bringing unprecedented change to teaching here and to how schools are organized, and we have doubled up our efforts to map these changes as well as help schools and policy-makers to make the best evidence-informed decisions.

The view from the author’s desk, picture courtesy of M. Ehren

IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community? 

ME: Our university also closed on Thursday 12th March, one day before I was teaching my group of students on the MA ‘Education and Innovation’. The first week was really hectic with moving all teaching online, finding out about which platform to use for online lectures, allowing for small break out groups. Most of us are now using Zoom with break out rooms for small group work. My own teaching ended after that first week but we are now preparing to move all our courses, even those that are scheduled for the fall online, including assessments with online proctoring. It has been a major challenge and learning curve for many, and we are collaboratively learning about how to teach well in an online learning environment where large seminars just don’t work that well and students don’t show up for them. There is also a real challenge in connecting to students who go off radar, where some also experience anxiety, a lack of motivation or opportunity to study due to living in small, shared and noisy housing or losing a sense of purpose when family and friends have health concerns.

There is a real challenge in connecting to students who go off radar, where some also experience anxiety, a lack of motivation or opportunity to study due to living in small, shared and noisy housing or losing a sense of purpose when family and friends have health concerns.

The National Institute for Public Health have reported that there are over 40,000 positive COVID-19 cases in the Netherlands, but with new hospitalization falling below 50 each day, they suggest that control measures appear to be working. Consequently, primary schools are now set to reopen again on May 11, though with lessons in smaller, alternating groups of students. Secondary schools will reopen on June 1.

IEN: What do you/your community need help with?

ME: We have seen over the past weeks that schools have had to ramp up their offer of online teaching, rethinking their educational partnership with parents. Schools serving pupils from deprived backgrounds have had to think of ways in which to connect to these pupils, given that some did not even have a laptop at home and where many are still unable to understand how to access online teaching. Schools have worked with youth services and municipalities to reach these children and have come up with solutions that work best for the pupils involved. All these solutions have been highly context-specific as the reasons for why pupils are not involved vary and the best solutions capitalize on existing high-trust relations. After schools had a couple of weeks to adapt to the situation, more substantive questions have arisen, such as how to ensure the quality of teaching when schools remain closed for longer periods of time or when they only open in a phased manner and some type of blended online and classroom-based teaching is required.

IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful? 

ME: The problem is that there is just too much out there and it is hard to sift through all the resources, links and support. Many reports also highlight similar issues,  particularly on how the current situation increased inequality. I find the weekly conversations with practitioners most helpful to understand the questions that still need answering and to hear alternative views. One of the practitioners in my network, responsible for inclusive education for example told me that some children are actually doing quite well in the current situation of home-schooling; the safety and structure of the home environment enables them to learn much better then in school.

The problem is that there is just too much out there and it is hard to sift through all the resources, links and support.

IEN: What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?  

As my days are filled with so much COVID-19 related work these days I really want to read, watch and listen to something unrelated. I’ve downloaded archived podcasts like ‘Freakonomics’ and ‘Revisionist History’ and tend to listen these during long hikes in the weekend.

10 responses to “A view from the Netherlands: Melanie Ehren on school closures and the pandemic

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