At one point in the COVID-19 crisis, UNESCO noted that nearly 9 in 10 elementary and secondary students were out of school. Now, while countries across the world grapple with the return to school, key questions have emerged that present both challenges and opportunities. The first and most central question, of course, is when and how can classrooms re-open safely. Yet another question is how to manage issues of physical proximity using e-learning as an alternative virtual setting for learning. Lastly, there is the emerging question of what curricular, instructional and assessment adaptations might be required in the new school year(s) ahead. Each of these questions present a chance to make reforms that consider equity, socialization, emotion, and meaningful engagement.
First, there is the most pressing question of when and how schools should re-open in order to minimize community transmission while permitting some semblance of return to normal routines. Some provinces—to date Québec and British Columbia—have opened schools but suggested that attendance is not compulsory. One issue with this approach is that it presents a false choice for many. Workers who have the privilege of working from home with limited or no impact on their income, many of whom are upper-middle class, have the choice whether to send their children in to schools and risk potential exposure for the children and the household. Other families, who are tenuously employed or in low wage work, might now be pressured by employers to send their children to school so that they can rejoin the workforce. It would be a better, and more equitable approach, to refrain from opening schools until the fall. Instead, use the time to meet with educators, administrators, and parents to determine what kinds of practices and policies need to be in place before all students are safely welcomed back.
A second prevalent question is how to make use of e-learning as a supplement to or substitute for in-person learning. In the initial and understandable rush to close schools, a great deal of learning migrated online. In the intervening weeks, some governments have advocated for a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning for elementary and secondary students. Meanwhile, school boards have scrambled to provide the basic infrastructure for students to access virtual learning spaces from home. There is a great deal of literature exploring how to design and execute e-learning effectively, but a few factors need to be addressed before further policies are developed and implemented. First, because Wi-Fi access is not available equally to all students, and because devices like laptops and tablets are not accessible in all homes, provincial governments must work with providers and local school boards to address this most elemental requirement for participation. Second, in recognition that K-12 education differs from college and universities in that it largely engages minors, there needs to be some policy in place that protects student and teacher privacy, and that addresses the concerns that many teachers and parents have raised—especially in the context of synchronous learning. Third, teachers need to be engaged in some reciprocal learning to develop effective strategies for online environments. If e-learning is going to become part of the short- and medium-term educational response to COVID-19, then educators should be supported through the transition by learning about how varied instruction and assessment techniques can be differentiated to meet the needs of students. Finally, there needs to be caution about how e-learning is taken up as a permanent fixture in K-12 schooling beyond the pandemic. Even before the school closures took place, Ontario moved toward mandatory e-learning in high school. The pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to put the brakes on the implementation of the “mandatory” element of that particular education policy, so that there is adequate time to attend to the aforementioned three factors (access, privacy, and educator support). In addition, educators and policymakers should be cautious about turning to e-learning as a cost-cutting measure for education in the long-term. Effective e-learning requires small classes, extensive infrastructure, and professional development; it is not a viable pathway for fiscal austerity.
The third question looks toward the fall and the start of the new school year. In Québec, as schools reopened, one social distancing accommodation has been to remove all art, drama, dance, music and gym classes. There has been a return to pencil-and-paper tasks as students sit isolated in rows. While this is once again understandable as a short-term measure, it raises some alarms about what is going to constitute a meaningful curriculum come the new year. The arts and physical education comprise key elements of student learning, as does the collaboration that takes place in more participatory environments. This is especially true as one considers the growth and development of the whole child: cognitive, social, and affective. Diversified and hands-on approaches are also of critical importance to students with different learning strengths and needs. For these reasons, it is crucial that even as schools strive to maintain social distancing in the fall and beyond, curriculum, instruction, and assessment do not thin into simple exercises of rote learning.