School closures due to COVID-19 are expected to last longer than a typical summer break (in 2015, the Ebola pandemic closed schools for six to eight months in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea). For some time, however, the stall in learning has been treated as ‘a regrettable sacrifice but small and temporary loss’. Despite drastic changes in circumstances, the adaptation of educational policy has been largely conservative with the primary focus of getting children back between school walls. Here, we list the four, political discourses surrounding reopening:
Governments push for ‘full opening’ and a resumption of the ‘old normal’ ASAP, possibly to the exclusion of considering other options fully.
In his militant desire to reopen schools in the US, Trump used the examples of ‘Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries’ as evidence that schools could forge ahead and reopen, or else lose federal funding, in a tweet on July 8, 2020. 10 days later, Florida was sued for attempting to reopen schools when 10 000 new cases of coronavirus were being reported daily.
In the UK, the Rt Hon. Gavin Williamson, insisted that schools must open ‘come what may’, citing that ‘nothing can replace being in the classroom’, although admittedly postponing the move until September. Some fear that pushing to open schools will eat into the funding previously allotted to distance learning solutions and catch-up initiatives.
Governments view staggered reopenings and distance learning solutions as a short-term fix.
In Israel, for example, phased plans to return to school step-by-step were rushed once begun. 1, 335 students and 691 staff were infected due to a hastened reopening and hot weather, which led the government to drop the requirement to wear masks.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister, is adamant that blended learning does not ‘last a single minute longer than is necessary.’
Not for a while
Governments note the need for adaptable learning communities involving parents, teachers, volunteers, and teaching tools. Plans privilege the protection of marginalised communities and factor continued absences into their long-term approach.
In New Zealand the children of essential workers were the first to return, followed by children who required adult care, while older children were well-equipped to continue learning online. (a country that has, comparatively, suppressed the virus to great effect)
In India, where certain groups have migrated to rural locations, local volunteers may be used to guide small groups through simple tasks that help to build reading and arithmetic. (where the pandemic is rife, with record numbers being recorded)
Governments recognise that school is the safest place for children to be and the only way for learning to continue.
In countries with human capital deficit and an inability to rely on stopgap measures to continue learning, partial reopening is essential, states the Senior Fellow of CSEA.
A widespread lack of access to resources provided the motivation behind ‘unsanctioned reopenings’ in Indonesia from July 11.
For some, such as young girls in Kenya and Pakistan, it is feared that banishment from the classroom will permanently end education and lead to early marriage, child-labour, teenage pregnancy, and domestic abuse. UNESCO agrees that a return to the classroom for vulnerable girls and women is tantamount, particularly in refugee communities where the threat of infection at home is greater than that posed by school reopenings.
The aspiration to reopen schools, though framed with different degrees of urgency, is evident across the board. However, comparing the strength of the stated case for reopening by politicians sometimes reveals an unwillingness to be inventive with options, rather than reflecting true necessity as experienced in disadvantaged contexts.