When the Covid-19 crisis struck suddenly in early 2020, it set a massive test for teachers, administrators and parents and around the world: how to ensure that students carried on learning when classrooms were closed. As measures to contain the pandemic are gradually lifted, educators face another test: how to protect the health and safety of teachers and students as they return to school.
Teachers are at the centre of both challenges. How are countries helping their teachers meet these new demands? To find out, the Teacher Task Force organized meetings with its members from four regions: Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and Sub-Saharan Africa. Each meeting brought together representatives from countries and from international organizations to discuss challenges, share practices, and identify possible solutions to mitigate the worst effects of school closures, the disruption to global education and the planned return to school.
Distance education: Common challenges and regional differences
To maintain learning and safeguard health, countries should not only provide teachers and students with the tools and support they need to carry on teaching and learning remotely. Governments also need to assist teachers directly by offering psychological and socio-emotional support, and by taking into account the perspectives of teachers, teacher educators and their representatives.
In terms of distance teaching, the greatest challenges noted in all regions were a lack of online access, ICT tools, remote learning systems and digital content, and training needed to use these effectively to maintain quality teaching.
To gain access to online learning, students need a computer and Internet access. But in sub-Saharan Africa, 89% of households do not have a computer, 82% have no Internet connection and two-thirds have no electricity at home. While smart phones can be used for mobile learning, about 11% of learners live in locations not served by mobile networks. While existing in all regions, representatives from the Asia-Pacific region drew sharp attention to the even wider problem of educational inequalities, which were significantly exacerbated by the pandemic in some countries such as India.
Across the board, teachers reported a lack of training in the use of distance learning materials and especially in the use of information and communication technology (ICT). In Uganda, for example, only 30% of teachers could use digital learning resources.
In terms of direct support for teachers’ well-being, representatives from LAC and Sub-Saharan Africa highlighted the stress on teachers and the resulting anxiety, and pointed to a lack of adequate psychological and socio-emotional support during the school closures and the shift to distance teaching. Teachers in both regions also felt left out of vital decision-making that affected them directly and emphasized the need for stronger dialogue and communication between teachers, their representatives and decision-makers.
Bridging the digital divide
The sudden switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic shone a spotlight on deep existing inequalities in access to technology. While much attention globally was focused on transforming educational materials into e-learning packages, in many parts of the world the choice of media was limited to radio and television.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, battery-powered radios enable students without electricity to listen to lessons. In Benin, for example, national and community radio ensured continuity of learning for 78% of primary students. In Djibouti, radios were distributed to the most vulnerable families to give access to distance education to as many students as possible.
Television came into its own in many countries, including Barbados, Chile and Morocco, where the education ministry disseminated 59 daily lessons on national television channels. Where students had little or no access to Internet or television, governments collaborated with publishing houses to print educational materials, for example in remote parts of Colombia and in parts of Morocco.
Where Internet or mobile phone connections do exist, the barriers to online learning are often a lack of devices or inability to pay for broadband connections. Many countries have collaborated with the private sector to bring down one or both barriers. Paraguay has provided students with free mobile broadband, while in the Maldives, Internet providers gave 5GB of data to students who had no access, and 10GB to teachers.
In the Arab States region, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry collaborated with the national telecommunications company to provide free Internet to access educational resources for students in underprivileged communities. AndLebanon’s education ministry joined forces with the ministry of national telecommunications to offer free Internet to access educational resources by all students.
Network connectivity is a problem in remote rural areas in many parts of the world. Both China and South Africa are working on this problem, in China’s case by strengthening partnerships with broadband service providers.
Training teachers for the new reality
Across the world, education authorities have scrambled to train teachers to deliver online teaching, supported by global partners. In some cases, as in Gambia, existing e-learning programmes can be used to guide teachers. Elsewhere, new platforms were developed to show teachers how to use the technology. In countries such as Morocco, such efforts were aided by the growth of professional learning communities – both formal and informal – to facilitate peer learning and collaboration.
In some countries, social media networks have emerged as a quick and user-friendly way not only to share teaching materials with students – as in Paraguay – but also to give teachers professional and personal guidance. For example, Cambodia is using the social messaging applications WhatsApp and Telegram to support teachers this way.
In China, teacher training for online learning has focused on selection, development and use of learning resources and identifying and addressing students’ learning gaps once schools reopen. Additionally, teachers are given guidance on building cooperation between home and school.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, training is focusing not only on online learning but also on helping teachers use other media. South Africa is building an electronic platform to disseminate webinars to train teachers on use of radio and television for learning, and on integrating these lessons into the school timetable. Uganda is also developing training in techniques for using radio and television for teaching.
Countries have been quick to take advantage of available online resources and train their teachers to use them. Both the Maldives and Senegal have adopted Google Classroom. The Maldives has developed a three-phase strategy to train and certify 7,000 teachers to use the platform.
Teachers are people too: Psychological, social and emotional support
Teachers are living the COVID-19 crisis and experiencing the same uncertainty as the rest of the population. A survey of teachers in the LAC region showed that 22% are experiencing high levels of anxiety and 36% recognised not having the tools to overcome the current situation. Across the world, teachers need psychological and socio-emotional support to help them cope with the distress of the pandemic.
Colombia has recognized that need by creating an advocacy campaign recognising that teachers, like the rest of the population, are also suffering from anxiety about the pandemic. The campaign sent a message supporting teachers with information on managing stress and anxiety.
Elsewhere in LAC, Paraguay created a collaborative platform where teachers can share their experiences. InBarbados, the government set up a phone line to support teachers during the lockdown.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, Uganda is discussing with teacher unions guidelines for providing psycho-social support to teachers and South Africa is developing a similar support service in coordination with the relevant ministries and departments.
Dialogue and collaboration – keeping the communication channels open
Establishing and maintaining dialogue between teachers, their representatives, education ministries and other interested groups has emerged as a vital part of athe education response to Covid-19.
In Gambia, the teacher union is an active part of the decision-making process and sits on the technical team that developed the education response to the pandemic. In Senegal, the union was involved in government decision-making about using Google Classroom to provide distance training. In Uganda, the teacher union is using its network to distribute planning materials to teachers.
Dialogue is also about helping teachers to help one another. In Chile, the government is promoting the importance of collaborative work and the need to create networks between teachers and colleagues. This is important not only as a way to share information and experiences but also to make sure no child is left behind.
As schools move to reopen, dialogue is essential to take into account the needs and concerns of everyone involved, and to ensure teachers and students are safe. In South Africa, for example, the education ministry has consulted extensively with teacher unions, parent associations, principal associations and student organizations on measures to reopen schools.
By sharing and comparing their approaches to COVID-19, countries can learn more and better ways to empower their teachers, who are the key players in the education response to the pandemic. The four regional meetings organized by the Teacher Task Force and regional partners shed light on a wealth of ingenuity and innovation by governments and their partners. The task force hopes that these shared experiences will trigger further policy innovation and a greater awareness of the need to give teachers the support they need and deserve.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.