A review of research evidence on school closures and international approaches to education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lisa-Maria Müller and Gemma Goldenberg Charted College of Teaching
Time is required to reestablish relationships, rules and routines, and this time can impact curriculum coverage. This may also be the case when schools reopen following the current crisis.
Families from lower socio-economic backgrounds on the other hand, are more likely to be hit harder by the economic impacts and face food and financial insecurity.
If school closures in the context of COVID-19 were unplanned and occurred at very short notice. While schools are closed, some formal learning continues on and offline, albeit in alternative forms. These are important differences that might impact the ultimate effect of school
closures on students’ learning in the current situation.
Apart from individual differences, schools also differ widely in their preparedness for digital learning, as an analysis of the PISA 2018 data shows. Over half of surveyed headteachers indicated that their students did not have access to an effective online learning platform, which shows that the world is far from prepared for online learning on a large scale (Moreno and Gorzatar, 2020). According to a report by the Education Endowment Foundation (2020), teaching quality is more important than the methods used for delivery. Therefore, if effective elements such as clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback are present, pupils should learn just as effectively through remote teaching as they do during face-to-face
instruction. Peer interaction in distance learning – for example, utilising peer marking, live discussions of lesson content, and sharing models of good work – was found to be effective in motivating pupils and improving outcomes. Strategies that support students to work independently, such as checklists, daily plans and reflecting on their work, were also recommended.
The rapid move to online learning in the current circumstances did not allow for the level of planning that would usually be required to achieve the best possible outcomes. The authors provide an estimate of six to nine
months of preparation time before a high-quality online course can be delivered, which differs vastly from the timeline in which current online delivery was developed.
On average, respondents spend five hours a day on school-related activities,
roughly half spend 3.5 to six hours a day on school work but one quarter indicated that they spend 3.5 hours or less on learning. One % of students replied that they spent less than one-hour per day on school work. 16% of respondents said that they did not have access to a laptop or computer for
online learning, whilst 21 % do not receive any support from parents or carers. Seventy per cent of students agree that they create a plan of tasks
they need to complete but only 38 % follow a strict daily schedule.
Learners find independent learning and the fact that they cannot ask any follow-up questions difficult and struggle with organising their own learning. However, they also note that their IT skills have improved, which can be considered crucial in today’s society. The preliminary results show that successful distance learning depends on students’ ability to access online learning, which in turn is related to receiving clear instructions from teachers and technological aspects, such as the compatibility of students’ laptops and software with software their teachers use.
There seems to be a small yet significant group of students who cope less well with the current situation and those tend to be students who struggle with school work and feel less connected to people who are close to them. It will be important to provide additional support for these students when they return to school.
Teachers support for pupils:
A qualitative study (Cummings et al., 2017) interviewed service providers who work with children and families following trauma about the knowledge and skills early childhood education teachers need to support children who have experienced traumatic events. From questionnaires and interviews, the report identified key strategies that teachers can use to create emotionally supportive environments for young children in particular.
• Being attuned: Understanding and anticipating the needs of children and their families, and being able to respond sensitively. Being attuned involves being open and curious about how a child may be feeling, and showing them that you understand and can relate to that feeling.
• Conveying positive regard: Trauma or stress may lead to disruptive or
uncooperative behaviour, but including the student as part of the class
community, rather than isolating them as the ‘bad child’ is key. Starting
afresh after a challenging day, welcoming the child warmly, and finding and
communicating the child’s strengths are recommended.
• Collaborating with families and other professionals: Building a positive and respectful relationship with parents and being aware of the experiences and mindset their child is bringing to the classroom.
• Supporting positive social-emotional and communicative responses:
Promoting self-regulation through music, play, art and stories. Encouraging
students to express their feelings and learn what helps them to relax.
• Rethinking reactions to behaviour: Remain calm and be aware of why children might be behaving the way that they are. Avoid making children feel ashamed of their emotional reactions and instead allow time for them to practise adaptive behaviours.
As a common reaction to trauma is emotional and social isolation, helping children reestablish social relationships and make connections with others supports their wellbeing by promoting stability and recovery (Kataoka et al., 2012).
A two-year research project looking at the impact of Hurricane Katrina on teaching and learning (Alvarez, 2010) found that allowing students to discuss and write about their experiences and stresses was an important part of returning to school.
Upon reopening, schools may choose to support pupils’ increased social and
emotional needs by spending more time teaching content which explicitly relates to personal, social and emotional development.
Guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (Poortvliet et al., 2019) recommends that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills in primary schools are taught explicitly both in dedicated time and throughout everyday teaching. This involves expanding children’s emotional vocabulary, supporting them to develop self-awareness and self-regulation, and teaching relationship skills and problem-solving strategies. The report suggests:
• modelling the social and emotional behaviours that children should learn in addition to adopting an evidence-based programme which is regularly reviewed and adapted
• establishing school-wide expectations and routines which support social and emotional development and ensure behaviour policies are aligned with these
• engaging with parents to reinforce skills in the home environment.
This guidance was produced on the basis of surveys with 436 primary schools in England, an advisory panel, and an evidence review of international research.
A recent report from The Sutton Trust (Cullinane and Montacute, 2020) recommends that disadvantaged pupils are given additional one-to-one or small group tuition online whilst schools are closed, and face-to-face once they reopen, in order to reduce the impact of school closures on their education. It also suggests that catch-up classes could be run for these pupils during the summer holiday, as they are the students most likely to have fallen behind. Which of these approaches might be practically feasible
and would be most effective in the current context needs to be explored.
On 13 April the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina (2020) published a report which provides helpful suggestions on how to overcome the crisis, restart the economy and reopen schools once infections stabilise, more infected people are identified, and protective measures (e.g. masks) are employed. The report stresses the importance of large-scale testing in the general population to increase our understanding of the virus and its transmissibility. The report suggests that schools should reopen as soon as it is safe to do so, but that the risk for reinfections needs to be minimised before school reopenings can go ahead. It is important to bear in mind, however, that since the publication of this report, new data on the potential role of children in community transmission of the virus has emerged (Jones et al., 2020), which might impact how safe school reopenings are perceived to be. And other scientific advisors, in France and Spain for example, have cautioned against a reopening before September (Delfraissy et al., 2020a; Lucas and Benito, 2020), noting concerns over the practicability of social
distancing, particularly in younger year groups, as one of the reasons. However, they also recognise the wider economic and social impacts of school closures (Delfraissy et al., 2020a) which could be used to argue for an earlier return to schools, and have subsequently published guidance on the minimum hygiene requirements that would need to be met before school reopenings can be envisioned (Delfraissy et al., 2020b).
In order to mitigate risk for the spread of infection, the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina suggests that the return to schools should be staggered according to age groups, and taking into account the specificities of each learning context. They suggest the following approach to a return to schools:
• In general, children at transition points in their education as well as younger students (starting from the last year in nursery, aged five to six years in Germany) should return to school first.
• According to this report, younger children require higher levels of personal care, support and guidance, so primary and lower secondary schools should re-open first. However, it is worth noting that others (Delfraissy et al., 2020a, 2020b) highlight the practical challenges around social distancing measures in younger year groups.
• As social distancing is more difficult to implement in nurseries, their re-opening should be restricted to smaller group sizes, with preference given to children who are in their final year of nursery, so they can be prepared for transition. A maximum of five children should be allowed in one room/group to facilitate the right level of social distancing. For even younger children, nurseries should continue their emergency provision until the summer holidays, as it is difficult to ensure the necessary level of social distancing in younger children.
• In primary schools, students in their final year should be the first to return to school so that they can be prepared for their transition to secondary school. Other year groups should follow gradually, which will allow for emergency provision to be rolled back.
• Students in upper secondary school year groups and universities tend to be more independent in their learning and have higher levels of digital literacy. Therefore, these students should return to schools and universities at a later point. The options for blended learning should also be explored in this context in order to minimise contact between students.
• Universities should continue to use online learning.
The report notes that restricted yet gradually expanding forms of teaching will need to be accepted during a transition period, and that general measures of hygiene and social distance need to be respected within schools to minimise the continuous high risk of infection. According to the authors, the focus should be on core subjects that are to be taught in
small groups of up to 15 students, if classrooms are big enough to accomodate a level of social distance among such a group. In addition to the core subjects in secondary schools, one additional hour per day should allow teachers to share new tasks students can work on independently at home. These additional contact hours do not have to be
limited to core subjects. They suggest that groups should remain consistent and not mix with others during break times, which is why break times should be taken for each group in rotation. Each group should have regular and predictable school times to aid parents’ schedules and create consistency for students. A framework which was recently co-published by UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the World Food Programme (2020) provides further guidance on school reopenings and discusses the complexity of the decision-making process in the current context. Rather than including suggestions on specific approaches to school reopenings, they highlight that decisions about a return to schools should be guided by the best interests of children and overall public health considerations, assess associated risks and benefits, and take into account context-specific evidence across sectors. The report further emphasises the importance of gathering national data on how schools, students and teachers are coping with closures and the pandemic more widely, to aid the decision-making process. They provide a list of questions that stakeholders can use to guide their decision-making process, which aim to assess how learning and wellbeing can best be supported in each context (e.g. early years versus secondary schools) whilst considering the risks and benefits of online learning versus face-to-face instruction. Examples include questions around the necessity of classroom instruction to achieve specific learning goals, the availability of high-quality remote learning or the sustainability of the current approach.