Teaching helps to ensure essential learning. The closure of schools since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis deprives children and youth of opportunities for development and improvement.
The impacts of this decision are likely to be major, particularly for vulnerable students, especially disadvantaged students, who generally have access to fewer educational opportunities outside the school setting.
Students with learning difficulties may also be particularly affected when there is a prolonged interruption in school. The burden of catching up after a period of prolonged inactivity may precipitate dropping out of school for some.
The current situation in Québec and elsewhere in the world makes it necessary to implement an action plan to maintain learning and minimize the inequalities and negative effects that could result from this prolonged interruption in schooling.
Our group of researchers is examining educational systems in contexts of emergency, reconstruction and development at the University of Québec at Montréal. Our fields of expertise are education in emergency situations, and in learning and teaching.
Research in the field of education in crisis situations allows us to identify three main orientations for educational planning during the pandemic: supporting parents, identifying student needs and managing educational resources in collaboration with teachers.
Parents need help
While schools are closed, parents are asked to teach and facilitate learning at home. Many may have difficulty doing this, which can become a major source of stress.
Parents are already putting a lot of pressure on themselves regarding their children’s education. In a crisis situation, schools must therefore be especially attentive to parents and respond to their concerns. The priority is to ensure that every family has access to resources to maintain and consolidate learning.
Provinces have a responsibility to mobilize and consult with teachers. The idea is to put measures in place that ideally will ensure the consolidation, or at least the maintenance, of learning. This can reduce the negative effects of a prolonged interruption when classes are resumed.
Translating learning expectations
In addition, teachers should set clear and realistic goals, which should come from education ministries, and tailor these for each child. This action by teachers is particularly important for the most vulnerable students and their parents, with whom it is important to communicate regularly and make frequent assessments of their situation.
Let’s also recognize the emotional burden teachers carry if they make these efforts and can’t succeed in making contact with parents of vulnerable children.
Teachers also need to strategically reduce their expectations for all students and identify a few specific areas they want students to focus on, while ensuring that expectations are clear on both sides.
It’s also possible to plan tasks to allow students to work at their own pace, on their own initiative or according to their areas of interest, for example by offering several choices of activities.
By their nature, crises are unpredictable. Moreover, there is no master plan for teaching at a certain grade level. Teachers organize their year in their own way. Only teachers can translate government guidelines into concrete learning measures.
Reducing social inequalities
Inequalities among students must be identified and addressed, both in terms of basic needs, such as food and security, and educational needs. Again, the involvement of teachers is essential to ensure that social inequalities are reduced.
Research in the field of education in emergencies suggests that almost all students, and even more so vulnerable students, experience a drop in school performance or a delay in learning when they are out of school for long periods of time. Therefore, it is crucial that teachers follow up with their students and identify the specific needs of more vulnerable students to maintain appropriate learning.
Since students may suffer from the lack of social interaction provided by school, it is desirable to provide opportunities for them to connect with their colleagues and their teacher by forming virtual discussion groups or offering interactive learning platforms.
School is also an important means of protection for many young people. Many need the free or low-cost meals provided in school to ensure adequate or healthy nutrition. School closures can therefore have a direct impact on the food security of students.
Some youth may also be at greater risk of family violence, as the normal school safety net no longer holds during confinement. That may result in a significant decrease in the number of reports to youth protection services. Teachers need to maintain the special relationship they have with their students to ensure their safety.
Providing varied resources
Digital resources can be an aid to learning, but also a barrier. Not all families necessarily have access to the same technological tools (internet, computer, television, telephone). They also don’t have the same level of knowledge and skills in the use of technology. This can lead to further inequalities among students.
It’s therefore necessary to ensure that all students have access to sufficient resources to maintain their learning. The idea isn’t to set aside all digital learning platforms, but there is a need for various solutions that are stable and less vulnerable to breakdowns and technical difficulties. These might include mailings, talking on the phone and educational radio or TV.
Teacher support is absolutely necessary to make these aims a reality. Government initiatives to maintain student learning cannot be effective without the use of an invaluable educational resource: the expertise of teachers.
Olivier Arvisais, Professeur, Département de didactique, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM); Marion Deslandes Martineau, Researcher, UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and Patrick Charland, Professeur titulaire / Full professor, Département de didactique, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)