By Tracey Burns
Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, so do the risks we face.
Education systems around the world are working to react to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Today’s data show that 102 countries around the world have shut all schools in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, affecting almost 900 million children and youth. A further 11 countries have local school closures in certain cities and regions. These figures are changing daily.
Within the OECD we are used to focusing on our member countries. Yet the global nature of a pandemic requires a coordinated international response. A virus does not have a passport. This is an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by initiatives taken by education systems around the world.
Effective responses can be strengthened by leveraging the experience gained in countries where the threat struck first. The OECD, together with our colleagues from other intergovernmental organisations, is working to help effectively mobilise and share this knowledge.
Where schools remain open
Schools can play a key role in teaching students how best to avoid risky behaviours (for example, touching your face). With this knowledge, students can be empowered to advocate for healthy behaviours. This is especially important as children are generally less compliant with effective hygiene practices, such as hand washing, and they tend to socialise in a way that is likely to increase virus transmission.
A practical resource has just been released by the International Federation of the Red Cross , UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) on the prevention and control of COVID-19 in schools. It provides key messages for school leaders, teachers, students and communities to keep schools safe, covering pre-primary through to upper secondary education. Using easy to understand language, it contains practical checklists that can be used to help develop and enact action plans.
Countries with widespread school closures
For the growing list of countries that have closed their schools, the OECD is tracking innovative technological solutions to delivering quality teaching and learning. France, for example, has created the digital platform “Ma classe à la maison” (my classroom at home). Using a computer, tablet or mobile phone, students whose schools have closed can access an individual account that provides four weeks of courses with confirmed pedagogical content.
Japan has a platform that profiles digital learning opportunities that private sector companies have offered free of charge for students confined to home. Public-private partnerships are similarly growing in many jurisdictions, including working with national telecom providers to allow access to broadband free of charge for educational purposes. In addition, the large platforms, such as Google and Microsoft, are also working to help expand their offer of digital tools for education as well as work.
As more schools close, we must pay special attention to the most vulnerable, not just physically, but also academically and psychologically.
In the immediate term, the first response is, if at all possible, to use more of what is already in place, rather than create entirely new services. In the medium term, many innovations will continue to emerge as country responses develop. It is particularly inspiring to see entirely new ways of working emerging, ones that go beyond simply replacing physical schools with digital analogues.
Two important implications
As we move forward through this uncertain time, two things remain abundantly clear.
First, school closures will continue to be necessary in many jurisdictions, and we can be inspired by the numerous technological solutions that continue to deliver quality teaching and learning. However, we must remember that school closures have deep impacts, not just on students but on entire communities. These include stress and anxiety, impacts on nutrition for students who depend on free breakfast or lunch programmes, as well as decreased economic productivity as individuals and families are requested to isolate themselves.
Second, all responses must be designed to avoid deepening educational and social inequality. As systems massively move to e-learning, the digital divide in connectivity, access to devices and skill levels takes on more weight. For example, advantaged families are more likely to have parents with higher levels of digital skill who can support the learning of children who cannot attend school. Students from less well-off families are less likely to have this support, which means they risk falling further behind. We must pay special attention to those most vulnerable, not just physically, but also academically and psychologically, during this time.
We are experiencing a time of crisis, one of the potential shocks long predicted by future thinkers. Soon, we will look back and reflect on what can be learned from this experience and how we can do better in the future. In the short term, we must all work together to keep our communities, schools and children healthy and safe.