Prioritising quality, equity and resilience in school reopening plans

As schools in many countries begin to reopen, the focus and efforts of governments, system leaders and decision-makers must not be limited to the health and safety implications of reopening. To mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on education, there also needs to be an emphasis on ensuring the quality of the education that pupils receive – especially where a proportion of their schooling continues to be conducted remotely. This also generates urgent and important questions of equity – not least in terms of the ‘digital divide’ – and of the longer-term resilience of education systems around the world.

In the early months of 2020, schools across the globe were closed in response to the Covid-19. In early April, over 90% of students around the world were out of school, with 195 country-wide closures. As they emerge from months of lockdown, some countries – especially high-income and middle-income countries – have begun the process of reopening their schools. By mid-July, although over a billion learners remain out of school, over 80 countries had at least started to reopen their schools to pupils. However, even where schools have reopened, a return to pre-pandemic ‘normality’ appears unlikely, as new safety measures designed to limit the spread of Covid-19 will change the ways in which most schools and wider education systems operate for the foreseeable future. We must therefore consider medium- and long-term responses to mitigate the impact of these challenging times on a generation of learners – in addition to immediate logistics and short-term plans to enable schools to reopen. This was the focus of our most recent report, commissioned by the EdTech hub, which conducted an international review of plans for schools reopening.

Where they have been initiated, the early stages of reopening processes have largely been characterised by strict hygiene and/or social distancing rules, reductions in face-to-face learning, and an expectation that pupils will conduct more schoolwork at home, compared to the pre-crisis period, with a view to minimising the risk of spreading infection in schools.  For instance, class sizes have been reduced in Norway, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Israel and France, among others, while countries such as Japan, Vietnam and Australia have introduced shorter school hours or fewer school days. In the Japanese prefecture of Toyama, for example, primary school students were only permitted to attend school once or twice in the first week of reopening, while students at secondary school were sorted into morning and afternoon attendance shifts to reduce class sizes.

Ensuring quality education in the period of the ‘new normal’

While this emphasis on hygiene and safety is entirely understandable, especially in the initial phase of reopening, it is crucial to ensure that this focus is combined with one on ensuring the quality of educational provision and the engagement of learners. Following a prolonged period of school closures, which will undoubtedly have resulted in significant lost learning for many students, system leaders can ill afford to neglect the quality of education students receive on their return, especially as disruption is likely to continue for a significant period of time.

This is perhaps all the more notable where students are returning only on a part-time basis and will otherwise rely on distance learning. To date, most national-level policies and guidance have tended not to address the practicalities and difficulties of learning through a combination of a shortened school week and technology-enabled home learning. Guidance from the state of California, for example, invited schools to consider provision through blended learning, but provided little detail as to how this could be done.

Where such guidance and expectations are missing, it perhaps follows that in many cases, the accountability of schools and teachers for quality of provision has also received relatively little attention in plans for schools reopening. Of course, many schools and teachers will have worked exceptionally hard and done an excellent job of providing quality teaching throughout the lockdown and reopening periods, but at a system level, the unprecedented nature of the situation and the necessary pace of change may have forced questions of accountability and quality assurance into the background. In future guidance, system leaders should ensure that roles and responsibilities within the system are clearly communicated, and that checks on compliance and quality are used to ensure that safe, coordinated, and efficient reopening occurs, for the benefit of all pupils.

Tackling the digital divide

Moreover,  at present, few country-level responses or national plans emphasise the importance of data collection and analysis. Accurate, up-to-date information – for example, on student attendance, retention, engagement and achievement – can enable decision-makers and system leaders to monitor the situation and, if necessary, adapt their approach to improve student outcomes. This will be especially important in identifying and tracking the engagement of disadvantaged or vulnerable students at risk of falling behind – or leaving education completely – but will require the data to be appropriately disaggregated by relevant markers of vulnerability (such as gender).  

The impact of the pandemic – and of reopening measures and blended learning ‘solutions’ – on disadvantaged children and young people must also be given serious consideration. As technology-enabled blended learning is likely to become a widespread model of education provision in many countries, we must remain cognizant of previously identified challenges related to online learning, which are unlikely to have disappeared. Without considered and targeted interventions, these models may serve to exacerbate existing inequalities. Even in many affluent countries, disadvantaged students may not have reliable access to devices and connectivity, making them less able to participate in online education than their peers. Some education systems have taken steps to address this issue: in Quebec, for example, students who do not have access to the necessary technology will be provided with tablets and internet access (as part of a deal between the provincial government, a telecommunications provider, and Apple), and a similar initiative has been implemented in South Korea. That said, the digital divide remains a pressing issue, which will require significant attention to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, can benefit from emerging models for education provision.

Increasing system resilience and building back better

As a recent OECD report states, disruption is likely to be the new normal, at least for the next 18 months. It is therefore important that plans for reopened school systems envisage various scenarios, including the possibility of repeated closures, on a localised or wide scale. In both Israel and France, for example, localised outbreaks of Covid-19 have required local school closures following initial reopening.

Beyond planning for repeated outbreaks, there have also been calls for countries to invest in building the resilience of their education systems. Of course, this will vary by country, and should addressing pre-existing challenges in a given system, but building resilience may include strengthening technological capacity, or providing additional training and professional development for teachers, centred on technology, online learning, and remote pedagogy.

Such challenges are likely to be greater in low-income and resource-poor contexts, which are also more likely to face challenges in enforcing social distancing and safety and hygiene measures. While there is little evidence of how these countries have implemented school reopenings to date, education systems in low-income countries can also seek to ‘build back better’ in the wake of the pandemic – read more about the meaningful use of a build back better framework in our recent commentary.

There is no doubt that school reopenings present myriad challenges for system leaders and decision-makers around the world. As more countries plan and implement their approaches, we hope that quality and equity of provision and investment in long-term system resilience will be given a greater role. To find out more about the evidence base to date, you can read our full report – ‘An international review of plans for school reopening’ – here.