“No more pencils no more books/ No more teacher’s dirty looks/ Out for summer/ Out till fall/ We might not come back at all/ School’s out forever…/ School’s out with fever”.
It seems these lyrics of Alice Cooper have come back to haunt us.
Since the middle of March, millions of students have been out of school, because of the COVID-19 lockdown. This has also affected more than one lakh students, who could not complete their Class 12 board examinations.
Today, even after a month of announcements and extensions, it is difficult to predict when schools will restart. Schooling is supposed to look after the emotional, social and behavioural health of children, which is diametrically opposite to social distancing.
Presently, teachers are trying to engage with online teaching and learning. The technology may vary across schools and states but as educators, we have to look at the implications of these new learning processes for our learners.
From live TV broadcasting of academic subjects, video interactions, online theatre, to working with special needs learners, it is all about embracing learning “anywhere anytime”. It is apparent that technological evaluation systems, touchscreen paper corrections, digital books and smart boards have become the new reality.
Going forward, in the new post-pandemic environment, what will be required is a huge shift in mindset — both social and emotional. A new approach is needed to teach in this altered online paradigm.
Unfortunately, as far as the education of the rural poor students is concerned, they inhabit the bottom of a digital abyss. Governments will have to think very seriously about allocating more money in the budget for technical education in schools.
However, wherever students have been involved with online learning, their responses have been very good — this has strengthened the resolve of teachers across the country, and has inspired them to work harder.
But the role of the teacher has not been fully understood during this crisis. Teachers are as important as health workers because they are looking after the mental, emotional and social health of children at home. Although it is too early to judge how the learning trajectory will be affected by online teaching, it is very clear that future transformations will ensure that classroom transactions are complemented with novel technological tools. The new challenge is, how to keep thousands of children out of school if their parents are allowed to return to their work spaces — even if in a staggered manner. And, whenever this happens, who assumes responsibility for a child’s safety and learning at home?
Within this new school/learning paradigm, it will have to be seen how best to engage the children not only in education but in socialising with their peers, creating safe zones to play, and, how to also provide meals and support families which are working. In India, home-learning on a large scale will be a challenge, essentially because of non-availability of equipment and network-connectivity issues, and the fact that parents may not be in a position to facilitate home-learning.
We need to ensure that teachers come back to work so that hands-on training can happen — since many of them may not be technologically adept. For many teachers, their entire world has changed: From traditional teaching tools to juggling with gadgets and software, they are relying only on their personal understanding.
If school opens in July or even later, 3,000 children cannot simply come back. A post-pandemic school plan is essential and has to be prepared. With a staggered opening, the government and school leaders will have to think of novel methods by which children can be assimilated back into the school setting. And this has to be looked at bearing in mind the normal school calendar. Perhaps the new education policy needs to be revisited quickly and recalibrated.
Some practical things that can be done are: Cleaning and sanitising the classrooms and areas where children converge regularly; increasing the medical staff and counsellors in schools; planning a new school calendar where any event with large gatherings of students/parents is avoided, that is, sports days, annual days and parent teacher meetings. There can be cancellation of excursions and inter-school events within and outside the city; reworking of school timings and putting in place of student attendance on a rota basis. School walls could have colourful, pictorial depictions and slogans that sensitise students on basic cleanliness and hygiene such as washing hands, and social distancing — although too many displays of pandemic visuals should be avoided as it creates anxiety in the minds of children. We need to ensure the building of a strong parent-school partnership, if social distancing has to be understood and implemented; conduct periodic workshops by psychologists, medical practitioners and counsellors to help sensitise the students, enabling them to understand the situation.
When students return to school, they will be the least prepared for any form of traditional testing — all such testing measures should be put on hold at all levels and there should be more emphasis on instruction and emotional development. Particularly, the students in pre-primary and primary — in the age group of three to 10 — will find it very difficult to get into a routine because they would have been out of school for over six months. At the primary level, when children return, they should be allowed to have their own learning options — creating personalised portfolios and project-based learning is important.
This will enable the children to find a sense of academic freedom, which they would have missed in the restricted confines of their homes. As far as senior students are concerned, we have already lost 2020 and this situation may stretch to 2021, as far as regular school learning is concerned. Hence, it is imperative that when dealing with senior students, we should help them understand the importance of resilience and mental strength in order to face climatic change, disease, natural and man-made disasters and even rapid technological changes.
The pandemic has truly reiterated the much clichéd skills of the 21st century: Decision making, problem solving, ability to innovate and, most importantly, adaptability.
These are extraordinary times, and we need extraordinary measures. The states and boards will have to, perhaps, look beyond traditional board examinations not only for the current year, but also for 2021. There is no doubt that returning to school after this pandemic will truly be a disruptive learning exercise at all levels.
The article first appeared in the print by the title ‘ Going back to a new school’ on April 24. The writer is principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi
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