How do we deal with long-term effect of pandemic school shutdown?

I have written before about summer regression or learning loss that students experience over the normal summer holidays. But this year we have to deal with a much more severe problem due to early shutdown of schools due to the covid-19 virus pandemic. With schools having closed to normal business from march 12th and lack of clarity as to exactly when and how hey will reopen for the coming school year we are looking at an unprecedented length of interruption to students’ education. Even where schools have managed to provide some level of instruction and learning remotely it is inferior to the normal face-to-face classroom situation. And in many cases the schools or individual teachers have been totally unprepared to deal with this type of situation. Before this, there was no expectation that they would need to be.

We hope the schools will able to reopen in September, but there is no guarantee that they will. The medical experts are telling us that it is not a question of if but of when we will have spikes in the prevalence of the virus here. We live in hope that these will be minor but can not know in advance their extent. Discussions to date suggest pupils will be split into separate groups or bubbles, going to the classrooms in school for part of the week and working from home for part, alternating with other groups in the same year. Some universities here are saying students will only be on campus one week in every four of a semester. Elsewhere some universities are saying that there will no students on campus at all for the coming year; that all learning will be on line.

So in place of the usual two months summer holidays for primary school pupils and three months for second level we are looking at a minimum extra two and a half months disruption already and an unknown amount after the schools are due to reopen in September. The evidence from past studies is that this is likely to negatively affect students’ concentration levels as well as their reading and even more so their maths. It remains to be seen how detrimental this six months plus turns out to be in terms of learning loss in the long run. How much more of the new school year will be spent in trying to catch up with what should have been covered in the one just gone by?

We know we have a crisis. We know it may last for some time or revisit us periodically going forward. So what steps can we take to minimise the negative effects and how do we help our students come through it in the most advantageous position? I suggest it needs to be addressed at three different levels; national, school and home.

At national level we need a much better infrastructure for remote teaching. Instead of schools having to find their own solutions there should be a common platform that can be used by all schools. It should be preferably open source without dependency on any one particular private company whose primary objective would be making financial profits. There should be central sourcing or buying agreements so that schools get the correctly specified hardware and software at the best prices. The current situation where often a teacher who may not necessarily have that much technical knowledge goes to town and buys a few laptops at whatever is the price on the day instead of being able to access Department of Education specified equipment at keenly negotiated prices is ludicrous. When students move from class to class or even from school to school they should not need to learn to use a new platform to continue their studies. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

The schools should ensure that a single platform or at at least compatible platforms are used by all teachers in the school. The large number of different platforms people had to suddenly try to come to grips with in some cases has being a source of great frustration for parents and students trying to homeschool for the last few months. They should be ensuring that the teachers within their school have a basic level of competence in using the chosen platform.

The home environment also needs to be considered. If students are to achieve their potential, then families need to accept that education is important and take steps to make the most of their existing conditions and where necessary, modify them. Some will have excellent broadband, highly specified computers, their own study room, access to private tutors and all the benefits that affluence facilitates. But in a crowded house, how do they organise where and when students study and do homework. What house rules do they have abut quite periods? If they have to share a laptop, how do they do this. How do they get internet access? Are they trying to work off a laptop with a poor wifi connection or a phone?

At the end of the day, everyone has a certain responsibility to make the most of the situation in which they find themselves. The longer they leave it before taking some positive action the greater the learning regression will be and the longer it will take to make up the lost ground. Those best able to learn themselves without been closely monitored and pushed to get things done will suffer the least setback in their learning. The gap between the achievers and those who let things slide is likely to be much more noticeable in the coming few years. The most important skills are life skills like time management, how to study effectively, and problem solving. A certain amount of trial an error will be needed to find out what works best for a particular student. I suggest that the sooner this starts the better. While students should enjoy their summer, they would be well advised to keep up with a little learning as well.

At Galway Maths Grinds I have cancelled all real face to face classes for the moment. I am using the down time to upgrade and expand my online resources. Obviously I have concentrated on the subjects I normally tutor in, maths and Physics. And on those important life skills just mentioned. To see what what online courses and resource packs are available visit https://gmg.teachable.com/.

For virtual face-to-face support ring 085-1393768 and if need be we can arrange to videoconference using apps like Whatsapp.

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