With the traditional September return for all pupils in England now looking increasingly doubtful, plans for the ‘new normal’ in schools are underway and on the minds of teachers and parents alike. While we await details of the government’s catch-up plan and possible reduction in the physical distancing rules from 2m to 1m, it seems likely that some form of hybrid or blended learning will need to be in place for much of the autumn term, if not longer. What does that mean for teachers, children and parents? Can we learn anything from how other countries have approached school reopening?
First of all, just as there has been a wide variety of approaches to remote learning and teaching during the lockdown period, when schools have remained open for the children of key workers and certain other categories, so there is currently no single clear model for how blended learning might operate once schools reopen more widely. With children in 15-strong bubbles, some schools may choose to operate a rota system with, for example, half a class learning at home for half a week at a time or on a one-week on / one-week off, or two days in a bubble/deep clean day/two days the next bubble schedule. Teachers and teaching assistants are likely to be further stretched as they handle greater numbers in school while still maintaining remote learning for those children who are ‘at home’.
What do teachers think?
What we’re hearing very clearly from teachers are concerns around the challenge of planning for different bubbles – children in school, children in school and at home, and a likely proportion of children not coming into school at all. What is feasible and fair?
At a recent community of practice online meeting of some of the schools we work with, teachers set out their worries and questions about blended learning. The Jamboard below gives a snapshot of their concerns, with the number of ticks showing the areas of greatest worry for the teachers.
Questions about equality and equity are at the forefront of teacher concerns, especially around digital provision. We have written elsewhere about the digital divide and the effects of the move to remote learning on the 700,000 children who are unable to complete any schoolwork because of a lack of internet at home. Equal access to resources is critical but equal access to teacher attention and presence is also important. It may be hard for teachers to continue to provide the same level of individual comments and feedback on the work children complete on online platforms when they are also trying to do the same in the face-to-face classroom.
Many teachers are trying to achieve equity by providing the same activities online and in-class. However, our view is that this doesn’t necessarily capitalise on what works best in each situation. Face to face teaching and remote provision offer different opportunities – explaining or modelling key ideas can work best in person while remote sessions might be better for checking knowledge through quizzes and encouraging independent practice such as an extended piece of writing. But again, workload can become an issue if teachers are attempting to provide high-quality teaching both in person and online, as well as maintaining consistency.
What about parents?
A recent Young Minds report provides an insight into the impact on families and in what ways parents would like more support from schools. In particular, parents said they wanted:
- Better communication with the school – such as a weekly call with parents or regular check-ins with their children
- Clarity around expectations in regards to school work, and less pressure from the school in regard to completing work
- Mental health advice from schools
- Access to computers for their children, or better internet connection
- Advice on transitions back into school
- Adding arts and wellbeing to their school curriculum
They were concerned about supporting their child with their education, either because of not having time to help, not feeling qualified to help, or they felt that schools were setting too much work, work that was too hard to complete without a teacher, or too hard to complete outside of a classroom setting.
The move to blended learning, with children in school for some of the time, may offer schools the opportunity to support families better with greater communication but, again, there will be resource constraints.
How have other countries, which have returned to school sooner than the UK, managed the transition?
A recent Edutopia blog post takes a look at the situation in some of the European countries that have returned to the classroom. In Luxembourg, middle school teacher Emily Lewis Agraz says that she uploads virtual lessons on Monday for the week, and then holds virtual and in-person class for all students at the same time. Virtual breakout rooms allow for grouping across the divide, but they’re imperfect – a “far cry from the normally dynamic, interactive lessons many teachers plan”.
Michelle Kaszuba from Frankfurt, Germany, takes a similar tack: some lessons allow for a “hybrid learning situation where you are engaging the entire class in both realms,” she writes, “while for others it might be best to work directly with the kids in the room, while those at home are working independently – and then they will flip tasks the next day.”
Over in the Netherlands, school leader Laura Landers says that assigning a greater proportion of independent work is a key, since “teachers are busy in the classroom and cannot do as much online support.”
One of our partner schools in the Co-Make project, which brings together educators from across Europe to look at computational thinking in early years, is Snijders School in the Netherlands where, even pre-Covid, there was a focus on independence with children planning their own schedules and choosing which workshops they do. Every child has their own digital portfolio using Bordfolio and the focus is on this as a record of progress rather than grades. According to our colleagues at Snijders, the platform has come into its own during lockdown, with a combination of children working alternately in small groups in school and at home using Bordfolio. Teachers have seen benefits in small group working and children and parents are now experienced at working on activities from home set using Bordfolio.
Meanwhile, colleagues in Tampere, Finland described how they moved thousands of students to using MS teams across the region. Even kindergarten children used Teams for catch up calls with their teachers and weekly class socials. Harri Juvela, who has managed the implementation of the technology and CPD for teachers, told us that the municipality is now preparing for a range of scenarios should the virus come back. Schools are now in a good position to teach remotely, blended or in school.
This chimes with recent research from the Microsoft Education community, which found that 61% of educators expect to begin the next school year in a hybrid learning environment and 87% said they expect to use technology more than before once in-classroom teaching resumes.
As Edutopia highlights,
“Perhaps most importantly, a strong technology foundation can provide flexibility and continuity if the virus re-emerges and postpones reopenings or forces another round of school closures – as it has already in France, Israel, and South Korea – or when, as we heard from China, remediation or extended hours are needed to make up for significant learning loss among students.”
Encouragingly, it is something we’ve also heard from teachers. There is a strong intention to continue with the platforms each school community has become familiar with during the remote period, strengthening and using them even more, including for homework, once a greater level of normality returns.