When Policy meets Pragmatism: How schools *should be* reopening

Our latest global review of school reopenings – and reclosings – points to lessons for the way forward. Policymakers advocating for a return to schools do so in broad brushesSchool reopenings are not the panacea they would have you believe.

The INEE is absolutely clear that, for some children, school is the only safe place to be and the only place where learning can possibly happen. On the other hand, having the option to learn from home is a privilege which should be leveraged, or considered a capacity-building priority.

The spate of reopenings and reclosings shows a high likelihood of unpredictable disruptions to schooling during COVID-19. Investing in alternative measures to prevent, prepare for, and mitigate the effects of gaps in classroom learning is no longer a nice-to-have. Now more than ever, our education systems need to be designed with resilience built in.

Our analysis informs three recommendations for how schools should be opening:

Prioritise the vulnerable

Schools fill the greatest need when the children who have fallen most behind with their learning at crucial stages of their education can access their resources – food, safety, shelter, social stimulation, and teaching – for the greatest proportion of time. Staggered returns to school should focus upon lending the most in-class support to vulnerable students who rely on the place and its properties the most.

Where parental, communal, and technological support is available in other safe places and can be enhanced through funding, a shorter time in school can help to provide the expert feedback, collaborative projects, sense of community, and structure required to lessen the burden currently felt by carers, while still producing learning outcomes. Research by the EEF identifies areas where schools can make the greatest difference with less time.

Make blended learning the norm

Investment in alternative options to bricks-and-mortar teaching must increase to up the resilience of the education sector. Rather than drain funds on class-size stocks of PPE and cleaning supplies, governments should demonstrate educational innovation and channel resources towards developing ICT infrastructure and teacher training as part of a long-term commitment to blended learning. Achieving the capacity for blended learning was identified as a common, key strategic aim during the GOLA video conference we hosted in partnership with Brains Global and senior government officials from 12 African countries.

Recognise the privilege and power of waiting

UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Programme and the World Bank have it right in ‘aspiring’ to reopen schools fully. Their criteria of ‘timely’ and ‘safe’ reopenings counters the trend of favouring speedy returns when infection rates dip and highlights that the relative safety of, and the reasonable moment for, reopening are context-contingent. A focus on implementing and improving home learning solutions to increase the diversity of effective modes of delivery renders slower returns a more thoughtful, laudable, long-term policy in contexts where swift reopenings are not immediately necessitated.

Armed with the knowledge that fewer children in the classroom is the most sustainable and cost-effective approach to reopening, funding should be channelled towards technological and teacher development, while classrooms are preserved for vulnerable children.

Final thought

For some, it is possible to use this opportunity to build a future in which learning is not limited to the classroom. This possibility should be increasingly on government agendas as breaks extend and schools are forced to close repeatedly. Delayed ‘full’ reopening is increasingly wise and has always been a privilege which should be acknowledged and acted upon.