This article is one a series of articles by Thomas Hatch looking at what can and should change in education post-pandemic.
At the same time that we try to figure out how to reimagine post-pandemic schooling in the future, there are clear, concrete steps that can be taken right now to make educational opportunities more equitable. In particular, strategies are already available that can provide internet access for many students who remain disconnected. These strategies will not work everywhere yet, but, as the World Bank reports, in combination with strategies to reach students through television, radio, WhatsApp and other means, many more students can have access to online and remote educational opportunities than have had them ever before. But how long will it take? Will the energy and funding dry up before universal access is established?
Part 1 of this 2-part post shared articles that show that providing internet access to all is an enduring problem despite the evidence that many disconnected students and families could be connected using available approaches. Part 2 brings together here a few of the many articles that highlight some of the strategies that are already available to increase internet access in the US as well a few articles from India that illustrate what is possible in other parts of the world.
In the US
Several articles in the US this summer focus on the establishment of the Emergency Connectivity Fund – designed to reimburse schools and libraries for equipment and costs incurred to enable students, staff, and patrons who lack internet access to engage in remote learning.
“internet access has shifted from an amenity to a necessity. Nothing has illustrated that shift more clearly than the pandemic… But for the millions of students and families without internet access at home, adapting to the virtual classroom became extremely challenging, if not impossible.”
Beyond funding, a number of articles over the past year have highlighted both overall strategies for increasing internet access and specific initiatives designed to connect students in urban as well as rural areas.
This spring, many students in Finnish comprehensive schools have returned to their classrooms after a 3-week remote learning period that started on March 8, 2021. In contrast to March, 2020 when all schools were forced switch to remote learning with just a few days’ notice, in 2021, remote learning applied only to the students in the upper grades of comprehensive schools (7th to 9th grade). However, in some regions the remote learning period has been extended until the beginning of April due to the high number of local COVID-19 cases.
After the nationwide remote learning period ended in May 2020, the regulations governing remote learning were changed at national level in response to the variation in the spread of the coronavirus around the country. Consequently, since August 2020, the local education organizers (i.e. municipalities) have been given responsibility to make their own decisions on remote learning (e.g. for 1-2 weeks) for a school or certain group of students and teachers if there have been verified Covid-19 cases or exposures. That has made the course of actions concerning needs for temporary local remote learning periods more flexible, and it is in line with the decentralized approach to governance in the Finnish context.
Based on experiences gained during the 8-week remote learning of spring 2020, the government has also made temporary changes in the Basic Education Act (i.e. the legislation guiding work in comprehensive schools) to make sure the most vulnerable student groups can still have access to school. That means schools are required to stay open for students in pre-school (the year before children enter government schools, around age 6), for students in grades 1-3, and for students receiving special support (students with SEN). These students have the right to go to school, with their teaching organized in school buildings. It has been seen as important to secure and support learning and schooling of these students during the exceptional times.
What did remote learning look like in Spring 2020?
In the spring 2020, remote learning divided students’ perceptions of learning. Some students reported that remote learning suited them well and they felt that learning at home had been more effective than at school. However, nearly half of 7th to 9th grade students and a third of students in 4th – 6th reported that they had learned less than usual during remote learning. The researchers concluded that despite the fast transition period, technically, remote learning went surprisingly well. Consequently, they noted that, if schools turn to remote learning again, the focus should be on the content of learning and on supporting students individually.
However, the results also confirmed the researchers’ suspicions that during the exceptional period in spring 2020 equality in education was not achieved as well as under normal circumstances. That is, the researchers found large differences in the distance learning practices of schools. For example, about a quarter of teachers and principals said that the school had jointly decided on loosening assessment requirements or on not lowering student grades, but more than half of the schools did not have such guidelines in place. In one in five schools, assessment practices were not agreed upon at all. In most schools, the aim of remote learning was to arrange teaching according to the school timetable/schedule as much as possible, meaning that the teacher was to be regularly available to students. However, as many as one-fifth of 7th to 9th grade students said that video-based teaching had not been provided at all in their literacy, mathematics and language courses. There were also big differences between schools with respect to how schools had been able to provide their students with the digital equipment they needed for studying. About a third of parents said family members had taken turns using the equipment. In addition, when the usual school timetable/schedule was not followed or their normal teacher was not available to teach, the students’ stress symptoms increased. The differences in operating practices between comprehensive schools with only the upper grades (7-9) were remarkably large. However, schools with lower grades (4-6) typically implemented remote learning practices that were less structured and students received homework packages instead of interactive remote learning instruction.
“… as many as one-fifth of 7th to 9th grade students said that video-based teaching had not been provided at all in their literacy, mathematics and language courses.
Based on these findings, the researchers argued that well-implemented remote learning has a clear structure, it is interactive and students are required to be self-directed in a way that suits their level of development. Especially, for younger students, they found that more guidance was needed. Guardians of the younger students (1st to 3rd) grade were frustrated with remote learning tasks that their children received that did not include teacher guidance.
What did remote learning look like in Fall 2020?
In the autumn 2020, the researchers examined a wide range of safety guidelines that schools were advised to follow. There were large school-specific variations in safety practices reported by teachers that were not explained by regional differences in the coronavirus situation. Guardians’ perceptions of the daily operations of the schools greatly differed from the situation described by the teachers, but confidence in the operation of the schools was strong. School safety practices were related to whether the school had experienced corona exposures during the autumn, although the epidemiological situation in the area explained the exposures more strongly. According to the study results, schools should continue to adhere to safety practices.
Further, the study paid specific attention to the number of and reasons for student absences and their effects on learning. According to the guardians, there were differences in the remote education received by students in the autumn depending on the reason for the absence from school. Remote learning was most positively described by guardians whose children had had many absences due to quarantine imposed by health care staff. In contrast, for students in voluntary quarantine, the situation appeared to be the opposite.
“Remote learning was most positively described by guardians whose children had had many absences due to quarantine imposed by health care staff. In contrast, for students in voluntary quarantine, the situation appeared to be the opposite.
In order to achieve equal learning opportunities for students, the researchers proposed that it would be good for schools to consider whether in the future it would be possible to implement distance learning more uniformly for students absent for various reasons. Overall, students with more school absences felt that they received slightly less support to mitigate the effects of the spring exceptional situation and to keep up with their studies. Personal contact from the teacher, even remotely, was related to the student’s experience of receiving support. The researchers stress that schools should therefore continue to pay attention to reaching students personally who are absent for various reasons in when exceptional circumstances continue. Even a short personal interaction with a student during the school day can act as a means of engagement. The researchers pointed out, however, that in general, a large proportion of both primary and lower secondary school students felt that they had received study help from their teacher when they needed it.
School closures, remote learning, and well-being
Furthermore, school practices are important for the well-being of students and families, especially in distance learning situations. According to the study, the stress associated with a child’s schooling was high among guardians during the exceptional circumstances in spring 2020. Although the situation was not yet normal in the autumn, when the schools were generally open, the stress experienced by the parents was clearly less than in the spring.
“It may be that in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school is perceived as more ready to face school closures in the future“
Stress experienced by teachers and principals due to their work was generally at the same level in the spring and in the autumn in 2020. In contrast, recovery from work-related stress was easier in the autumn than in the spring. The majority of teachers and principals felt that the school was well or very well prepared to implement remote learning if the school would be closed in the future. There were no regional differences in the responses based on the epidemiological situation in the region. However, school-specific variation was found, and part of it was associated with teachers’ experiences of collective efficacy. The researchers found that collective efficacy experiences are built on shared experiences of success and management. Thus, it may be that in teacher communities where teachers are used to collaborating and sharing effective practices, the school is perceived as more ready to face school closures in the future. Schools should therefore strive to maintain and strengthen cooperation between teachers and the team spirit of the school, as it can help the school and its staff to cope with this difficult time.
Note: The research on ‘Schooling, teaching and well-being of school community during the COVID-19 epidemic in Finland’ is funded by the Finnish Ministry of Culture and Education
This week’s post features an e-mail interview that Aidi Bian conducted for IEN with Emma Hua. Hua and Bian are teachers at the HD school, a school with campuses in Shanghai, Ningbo, Beijing and Qingdao. These four schools have close to 3000 enrolled students in total. A fifth campus, in Nanjing, will open in 2021. The school describes itself as a “private experimental school” and each homeroom has one “national teacher” and one “international teacher.” HD school is one of a growing number of bilingual schools in China that have been gaining popularity. Bilingual and international schools in China have been particularly hard hit by the virus because of visa restrictions that have made it hard to find teachers from outside China.
Across China, schools were closed for some time, but most cities reopened schools in April, with schools in heavily affected areas like Beijing and Wuhan opening later. After a small outbreak in Beijing in late June, Beijing’s schools were closed throughout the spring semester. Nationwide, the annual “Gaokao” exam was postponed until July 7, one month later than a normal year. Current regulations in Shanghai require every school to track the temperatures and health status of their students every day and report to the district government.
IEN: What’s happening with you and your family/friends?
Emma Hua: I was originally from Wuhan, Hubei, where Covid19 firstly broke out. I went back to Wuhan for Spring Festival during the winter break and stayed at home since Wuhan was locked down in late January. Things were not too bad after we got used to the situation. Our community in general was in good order: volunteers helped with information collection, people ordered food and things online and got delivery in time. I worked at home from early February to middle April, and then successfully returned back to Shanghai, after I was tested negative for the coronavirus in Wuhan.
IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?
EH: Our school started remote classes since February. For primary school, most of the courses were recorded as 10 or 15-minute videos and uploaded to an online platform where students can download and watch every day at their convenience. This is a deliberate design since it would be hard for young kids to stay focused for a long time in an online live class, and many parents have concerns with their children in front of screens for too long. All the materials and resources were uploaded online, and students took picture of their homework and sent them to teachers. We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents. At the end of each day around 4 or 5 pm, each class would have a Q&A live session where teachers talked about common mistakes in the homework and got updates from students.
We suggested a timetable for the students, which they could adjust, and many students gradually developed a more regular and feasible timetable for themselves with the help from parents.
The online class lasted until April when the situation in Shanghai was basically in control. An interesting discovery was that after students got back to school, some students made better progress than expected as they studied more online at home than at school. We hypothesized this happened because some of them could better individualize the pace of their learning as they watched the videos at home.
IEN: What do you/your community need help with?
EH: At first, many teachers were not familiar with teaching online or making slides and videos, so the school organized some trainings to help teachers with making powerpoints and video editing. Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group. Some traditional teachers especially needed help with technology support from younger teachers. There were also struggles and pains when the internet of some teachers or students was not stable. In particular, when kids were young, they did not know how to deal with the technical problems. Teachers were tired, too, because the working time could be extended when communication with parents wasn’t smooth.
Courses and materials were prepared within a grade, where every teacher was responsible for several sessions of the whole week, to separate the tasks among the grade group.
IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?
EH: We used DingTalk as the main online platform for our second grade. After students selected their school and class, they could do a lot of things such as check in, download lessons and materials, submit homework, get feedback from teachers, etc. A good thing about this platform is that it did evolve and developed many good features that fit educational uses. For example, at first, students could see one another’s homework without any restriction, which could lead to copying. Later the new version changed the rule so that only students who had submitted their homework could access others’ work. Also, the platform allowed teachers to rate and exhibite the best work to the whole class.
IEN: What have you found most inspiring?
EH: I am appreciative that our school principals were very helpful and supportive to teachers. We have both foreign and Chinese principals, and they were responsible for the international teacher and Chinese teacher team respectively. I belong to the Chinese team, and the principal would participate in curriculum design and preparation and gave us support and suggestions. The school also has small gifts for teachers on national holidays. Another inspiration in the latter stage of remote learning was that we were trying to add more elements and activities to the online routine, such as weekly guided reading, which gave students a more diverse and similar-to-school experience even when studying online.