What are the current challenges facing school re–opening?
In September 2020, children in Northern Ireland will have spent more than five months out of school. Whilst some children may have successfully continued their education under home schooling conditions, the experience and delivery of home school has not been universal.
Recent UK research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Educational Research indicates that lockdown may have further increased educational inequality. The IFS reported that on average, primary school learners experienced a 25% reduction in learning during lockdown, a decrease from 6 hours a day to 4.5 hours. The decrease was reported to be larger for post-primary learners who experienced a 32% reduction, decreasing from 6.6 hours to 4.5 hours during lockdown. The IFS findings are consistent with a range of studies which illustrate that lockdown is more likely to have had a negative impact on those less fortunate in society. This issue was also raised in a recent Stranmillis report on Home Schooling in Northern Ireland.
The re-opening of schools is a central component in addressing educational inequality in addition to increasing economic activity. However, this task is multifaceted and has been attempted by numerous countries, each with varying degrees of success. Here we hope to summarise some key findings experienced by a sample of countries, to share challenges and successes that may influence decision making in Northern Ireland.
In May, the Japanese government lifted their state of emergency and began an incremental approach to school return. Student attendance was accompanied by the widespread use of face masks by students and staff, along with the shortening of overall school hours.
The Israeli government’s experience of reopening their education system may demonstrate some of the challenges of a return to face-to-face education. Israel was one of the first countries to implement a nationwide return to education in May, when C-19 infection rates were perceived as low and declining. The government provided best practice recommendations for schools such as reduced class sizes, PPE and social distancing. However, many schools did not have the infrastructure required to apply the recommendations and social distancing proved challenging. The return to school led to a significant outbreak of C-19 resulting in significant numbers of students and teachers entering quarantine.
The Eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania province will be the first state in Germany to reopen their schools for the upcoming academic year. This state has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. The German government have developed a range of safety plans for school re-opening combined with concurrent contingency planning for possible school closures. Children will be placed into social bubbles and attend school in a staggered manner. Additional hygiene measures will be implemented within schools and teachers can avail of free Covid-19 testing. The government have also invested in online training courses in ‘digital didactics’ for teachers to enhance the quality of online education provided during possible local or national lockdown measures.
Pivotal have previously highlighted the need for a robust educational recovery plan to ‘level-up’ the educational loss that some children will have experienced during lockdown. We are currently updating our recommendations for our briefing report in September. As we prepare our report we would welcome your input.
· How can the Executive support the safe re-opening of schools?
· How will lockdown learning gaps be addressed?
· What contingency plans should the Executive consider if schools are required to temporarily close in response to local or national lockdowns?
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Joshua Coleman, Research Intern
Daniel Doherty, Workplace student