School systems priorities in the days of coronavirus

Four major priorities and putting equity front and center, should be the focus of school systems. 

The shift to remote learning across the world has been uneven. Some systems were able to train teachers, roll out remote learning, and put in place student support services in less than a week. Others are still struggling, constrained by lack of access to technology or expertise. The disparity is obviously true between countries; it is also true within them. Students can live relatively near each other yet face very different prospects.

School systems need to respond to the needs of learners from a variety of backgrounds. Vulnerability comes in many forms; low-income students, immigrant students, ethnic or religious minorities, students with special needs, students in remote rural areas, and those in risky home situations all need tailored strategies.

McKinsey advises on four priorities for school systems: 1) maintaining health and safety of students, staff, and the community; 2) maximising student learning and thriving; 3) supporting teachers and staff; and 4) establishing a sound operational and financial foundation. In each case, issues regarding equity—that is, ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are met—should be front and center, both during the closure and after students return to school.

Maintain health and safety. Low-income students often depend upon schools for basic nutrition. Home may not be a safe place for others. And the combination of concern over the viral threat and social isolation presents a challenge to the mental health of students and staff alike.

Closed schools and community centers could be repurposed to offer lunch to needy students. Some governments are providing vouchers or redeemable credit cards to students. The next step is to work with community organizations to extend nutrition and other services to the whole family. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is working with developing-country governments so that students and their families receive food through take-home rations, home delivery of meals, and vouchers.

To support student mental health, especially for the highest-risk students, there needs to be continuous evaluation and monitoring, and outreach to identify and serve new cases. Community-building activities can also maintain social connections between students. 

Schools should plan to deal with heightened mental and physical health issues long after the pandemic subsides. With many parents out of work or forced into debt, schools may also have to deal with broader economic vulnerabilities, and respond through specific programs for homeless students, clothing closets, and the like.

Maximize student learning and thriving. Technologically-advanced systems have been able to roll out synchronous and asynchronous online learning; less developed ones are using a combination of television, radio, paper packets, and cell phones. Some are struggling to deliver even that, and their students will have considerable catching up to do.

The imperative right now is to get remote learning to as many students as possible, with special attention to the most vulnerable students and schools. In localities where resources, expertise, and leadership are available, it is possible at least to get started in as little as one to two weeks, and then to create processes to foster continuous improvement.

Access to devices and internet connectivity is uneven even in affluent districts in developed systems. Addressing that is a critical first step to ensure equity. Where expanding access to devices and broadband are not an option, then design and setup of remote learning needs to be adapted to the technology that does exist—be that television, radio, cellphones, or paper-packet delivery.

To narrow this equity gap, resources need to be disproportionately directed to those with the greatest needs. Supporting parents is a critical piece of this puzzle. Many parents are balancing their own remote work responsibilities with helping children with schoolwork; others have lost their jobs and are struggling to stay afloat. Schools can help by making things simple for parents: clear communications with what is expected and required, and step-by-step guidelines are most useful. Long lists of online resources, tools, and activities are helpful additions, but only in so far as they don’t cause overburdening or unrealistic expectations.

To provide more direct student support, schools can start internally, planning academic interventions in small groups for those with specific needs.

Support teachers and staff.  Some teachers could benefit from having centrally provided content for their students. Others could use a more cooperative approach, getting tools and resources, but shaping them to meet their students’ needs. Collaborations with other teachers, too, will be critical, both within specific schools and more broadly. 

Ensure a strong operational and financial future. School systems need to start planning for different epidemiological and economic scenarios, and be ready to adapt if their budgets are cut. However, even if funding falls, it will remain important to keep these equity issues front of mind. Creating post-coronavirus budgets needs to be a joint process between schools, which understand the needs on the ground, and governments, which may be able to provide access to resources. Collaboration across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors may become easier to achieve.

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