Learning To Live With Covid-19 In SchoolsPosted in : Cassidy's Comments on 6 November 2020
Comments by the Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael Mc Bride on Cool FM radio at the weekend have ignited a debate about whether it would be better to close schools or instead keep the hospitality sector closed to reduce coronavirus transmission rates. He is arguing that one or other option will be needed to get the “r number” down to an acceptable level below one.
The National Education Union and The Labour Party called for a national two-week circuit break over the recent half term to include schools, which unlike England, the Northern Ireland assembly actually did do. Now in England more severe measures have been called but schools will remain open. The NEU is now, as a compromise, asking the Government to prepare for school rotas instead and meet its promise to deliver broadband and equipment to those children who do not have them to facilitate effective remote learning.
Given that our circuit breaker is over, should we in Northern Ireland now be considering school rotas and remote learning as a safer option if as seems likely, the pandemic continues and to quote First Minister Arlene Foster; “Northern Ireland must learn to live with this virus”? In the long term therefore will both schools and the hospitality sector have to adapt to allow us to keep the virus under control and have both sectors open?
Perhaps in recognising this new reality the NASUWT, in their recent statement have asked the Executive to accept that schools need to be organised in a safer way;
“The Executive needs to draw up a new plan not based on opening schools no matter what, but one based on keeping schools open in a sustainable and safe manner which controls the spread of the infection.”
“In the event that more children or staff will need to be at home, the Government must also pull out all the stops to ensure that all children have effective access to remote education. So far, the Government has failed to deliver on its promises of laptops for children. An urgent national plan for remote education is needed which must be backed up by substantially additional resources for schools.”
So, if this proposal was implemented, what would part-time attendance and remote learning for pupils look like?
In England, guidance for schools on remote learning was published in May 2020 and offered help in designing activities that are accessible for pupils. The advice recognises that not all pupils’ home environments can effectively support their education and that some might not have access to a device, or have an internet connection at home which would allow them to learn online, or join in at scheduled lesson times.
It was suggested that pupils are more likely to have access to mobile phones than laptops or computers, so using formats (like PDFs) that can be viewed on mobile devices could improve access to resources. Of course, schools have generally already identified teaching resources that can be easily printed and posted or collected.
It was also stressed that with children spending more time online, it would be important that schools and colleges are consider online safety as they plan and design their teaching activities. The advice also focused on using existing technology and effective teaching practice with schools using remote teaching models that pupils are already familiar with. For example, accessing work from their website or platforms such as YouTube that they already use on a regular basis.
In a rota approach with perhaps half a class actually present and half learning remotely, schools will have to adapt to new teaching approaches. Additional planning will be needed to ensure that existing lessons work well remotely. This might include providing pupils with different ways of explaining concepts or identifying any likely misunderstanding in advance.
Steve Smith of HISP Research School at Thornden suggests that the fundamentals of teaching a remote lesson are the same as teaching a classroom lesson, namely revisiting prior learning, highlighting new knowledge, clear teacher explanations or modelling, scaffolding, pupil practice and learning checks. He points out that a normal classroom lesson would have lots of questioning and the teacher getting feedback all of the time, but that feedback isn’t as readily available in an online lesson, therefore teacher explanations need to be planned more thoroughly. Many teachers are finding that they have initially been too ambitious about what can be achieved in a remote lesson compared to a normal classroom lesson.
Steve Rollett, Curriculum and Inspection Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders suggests that;
“The key is to make sure that pupils have the means to do what you’re asking them to do and that this challenge might be met by ensuring that some learning activities can be done without online access.”
Many schools have created hard copies of work for pupils who are unable to access online learning. These packs have then either been dropped off at children’s homes or made available for collection at school.
Pupils using hard copies have sometimes been asked to submit work by taking photos on their phones and texting or emailing them to their teachers. In some primary schools, parents are doing this on behalf of their younger children. Teachers are then able to make phone calls home to provide formative feedback.
The government advice in England quotes the practice of Cooper’s Lane Primary school in Lewisham London,
“Feedback for these unconnected pupils has been predominantly through phone calls,” they said.
“In most cases even those without laptops and broadband have enough mobile data to send occasional emails using a smartphone. So all parents have their teacher’s email address and are being encouraged to send in photos of their children’s work and what they have been doing at home so that teachers can respond.”
Certainly, remote learning could work for older age groups of pupils and it would address the problem of infection risk on school transport and of maintaining social distance in shared spaces in school. If repeated lockdowns are going to be unacceptable for our economy and society then the only alternative is to find new ways to keep everything going, including schools.
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