Back to school means confronting the education gap

As the COVID-19 lockdown eases in some countries, teachers are unsure what awaits
cchana, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
cchana, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

We spoke with three teachers in Switzerland and South Korea earlier in the lockdown about their experiences. Now that some measures are being relaxed, we asked them about the return to “normality,” which is anything but normal.

Some countries which have seen the number of new COVID-19 infections stabilize are beginning to ease lockdown measures. As with the illness itself, there’s no single solution for the best way to handle the transition. The next phase of this global social experiment also involves re-opening schools and trying to restore some normalcy for children and their families.

We caught up with teachers from different school systems in Zurich (Switzerland) and in Seoul (South Korea) about planning for a return to the classroom.

Zurich, Switzerland

In Switzerland, where schools have been closed since March 16, the federal government has declared that primary and secondary schools are to re-open on May 11. This is much to the relief of many parents, who have lobbied for a release from the “school at home” regime. The eight-week closure – with the degree of official at-home learning support varying since schools have a high degree of local autonomy – has not only served to widen the education gap, but also highlighted the schools’ role in child care.

Aline Lehner, who teaches a mixed-age class of 23 children from kindergarten to sixth grade at a private Montessori school in Zurich, says the teaching team has gotten better over time in portioning the work tasks for students and developing a feedback loop.

“The eight-week closure has not only served to widen the education gap, but also highlighted the schools’ role in child care.”

During the two-week spring break, the school sent a survey to parents with questions to help determine how the teachers can provide educational development as well as some relief for families at home. But feedback received has been so diverse that it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions. Some parents want a package of work sent home, some prefer a daily structure: there’s really no common denominator, Lehner says. This is partly due to the wide range of ages in her class (from 5 to 13).

For a mixed-age class, it’s not viable to have a daily lesson plan with online classes starting at 8:00, Lehner points out. The school has continued its individualized approach with assignments on Google Classroom after spring break, adding more video conferences in small groups since the teachers are including more tasks which lend themselves well to online discussion.

As the teachers have become more familiar and comfortable with working online, the focus is more on how they can use e-learning tools on a pedagogical and didactical level. Lehner freely admits this kind of exploration is not possible in every school environment.

Regarding a return to the classroom, Lehner says her school is considering splitting classes in half and assigning teachers to smaller groups, while continuing to augment in-person schooling with online assignments for the older pupils. But the most important element is just being together again, she stresses.

“First we have to get used to each other again, then we have to figure out where each pupil is in their learning: which topics have been finished, where there are still questions. We can’t guess how much the kids have accomplished on their own, or how much help they got at home,” Lehner says. After taking stock, the teachers will confer to set goals for the last weeks of the school year (which ends July 10) and develop ideas to reach them.

Lehner says she has been in contact with other teachers in the public schools, and all share the same concern: How can I be sure that anything I do is working?

Matthias Lang, a learning coach at a public lower secondary school in the Zurich region, echoes Lehner’s thoughts. “Formative feedback is essential, but the kids are slipping away from me,” he says.

The relationships built up over months or even years of working together with his 12- to 16-year-old students are changing without the face-to-face contact. Lang says he’s looking forward to working in the same room again with his students.

His school already had a good base for remote learning because of its individualized learning model. At the start of lockdown, the teaching team together with school support staff had identified the students who might need extra help coping with the unusual situation. Those students have had a teaching assistant or therapist assigned to accompany them online with their school work.

Despite the efforts to not let anyone slip through the net, Lang says the education gap is widening. He tells of phone calls with parents who are uninterested in their child’s day-to-day activities and students who watch Netflix all night and barely show up online during the day.

“It’s not easy for them to structure their days, and as teachers, it’s hard to find the right measure: how many assignments are enough for three to four hours of concentrated work per day? Next year we’ll definitely have to build a lot of review into the teaching plans,” he predicts.

“As the teachers have become more familiar and comfortable with working online, the focus is more on how they can use e-learning tools on a pedagogical and didactical level.”

For the second- and third-year students in his school, who will go on to vocational training or a challenging apprenticeship, the spring semester can be decisive. Students who have an upcoming entrance exam for their apprenticeships are nervous. Very few second-year students could do a trial apprenticeship since the popular gastronomy and retail sectors are mostly closed, and other businesses are reduced. The learning coaches have been practicing job interviews with their students online to keep them ready and motivated for when the market reopens.

Grading is a huge topic: some regional school administrations decided they will not issue grades for the spring semester. When the pressure to achieve good grades is removed, it’s easy to see which students have an intrinsic motivation to learn, Lang points out. But for students in their last year who already have an apprenticeship contract tied up – why go back to school if the grades don’t count?

Both Swiss teachers, though unsure exactly what to expect when they return for the last eight weeks of the school year, are optimistic that the new school year will start normally in August.

Seoul, South Korea

In South Korea, hopes are also high for a return to in-person teaching in the new school year. But Wendy Grant, who teaches English and writing to high schoolers, and is the school newspaper advisor at the private Seoul International School, says her administration is still on the fence. The school decided to end its current school year two weeks early, on May 29, with no return to classroom teaching.

“In our school, we’ve all gotten used to it and are resigned. The kids seem fine: they’re pretty resilient,” Grant says. In her workspace, she made one wall a collage of student work and uses it as her Zoom background while teaching. And looking at it cheers her up, she says.

“The gap is real, and will continue to occupy teachers and school systems in the coming years.”

Although people are starting to leave their houses again in Seoul, Grant reports that most of her students and their parents seem to still be staying home. The lack of social contact doesn’t seem to bother her students, she says, adding that Korean students are so serious about their studies, they don’t meet up much outside school in the best of times.

The graduating seniors at the competitive school received their university acceptances in the spring – but with most going on to prestigious schools in the US, they see their carefully planned future in question. Grant says many are considering taking a gap year and starting university when classes are not online only. And it’s still up in the air whether the 100 graduates will get to celebrate with a graduation ceremony this summer.

As for the rest of the ambitious students, decisions on grading and exams are also still pending. As an English teacher, Grant says she and her colleagues can at least evaluate student work for plagiarism, but math and science teachers are having a harder time. While it is possible to evaluate a student’s learning conduct and discipline at a distance, it’s harder for teachers to put a grade on any test material.

No one knows what a remark of “Ungraded due to COVID-19” for a semester will look like later in their educational career. While some students are grateful for an easy pass, others feel like they’re missing something. But the gap is real, and will continue to occupy teachers and school systems in the coming years.

Over the weeks to come, BOLD will revisit teachers and schools around the world to find out how they progress with the challenges of teaching and learning under COVID-19 constraints.

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