It’s Monday morning and recent history tells us that somewhere in the world kids are returning to school for the first time in weeks, or months. As the day gets underway, parents, students and teachers are trying to chart their way through a maelstrom of colliding emotions – excitement, anticipation, uncertainty and anxiety.
This morning, England is testing the waters. There had been some thought that this milestone would be a UK-wide kind of effort but neither Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland were keen to sign on. Numerous local education authorities in England have also decided to disregard the June date and are keeping schools closed. Results of an opinion poll published May 24 in The Guardian show only 50% of parents supported a June 1 resumption of classes.
As of May 25, UNESCO estimates that a staggering 1.2 billion learners worldwide continue to be out of school due to closures that are part of the public health and policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Overarching lock down and shelter-in-place directives of varying severity have contributed to a massive, months long disruption of children’s daily lives on a scale rarely experienced.
The impacts of closures go well beyond the realms of education and teaching time. Immunization programs, hosted by schools in some jurisdictions, are currently being interrupted. In lower and middle income countries this may have devastating consequences. Higher income countries could also find themselves at risk and are preparing for continuity as per Canada’s plan.
Schools also play an important role in alleviating food insecurity. Breakfast and lunch programs promote healthy foods and nutritional meals. In lower and middle income countries these school food programs are critical to students’ well-being. Research indicates that universal programs can result in significant, long term health and economic benefits. In some communities, such as Calgary, programs have been maintained throughout the pandemic and kids continue to benefit from healthy meals. However, this is not the case for many children.
On an education note, online/distance/emergency/home learning is meeting with mixed results for both parents and kids. At the primary level when it’s working reasonably well, internet-based instruction is helping kids to keep sharp in key foundational areas like numeracy and literacy. However, not all children have access to the internet, or a computer. For them, keeping academically fresh is an uphill struggle.
But the school ethos is not exclusively about academics and curriculum, certainly not from the vantage point of the kids themselves. They miss the social setting, a gathering and growing place for peers, and perhaps most tellingly they long for the friendships that help define who they are and engender a sense of belonging. This absence of presence, the seemingly endless being apart, evokes loss and sorrow as represented by our youngest daughter’s stripped down, open-ended refrain.
I just want to know
when will I ever get to play tag with my friends again?
In Sweden, kids have been playing with their friends all the while as schools were never shuttered. There have been some exceptions to this with localized closures for individual schools that experienced outbreaks. A lack of COVID-19 data collection from these schools is being decried by some in the scientific community as a missed window to better understanding how the virus impacts children and what role they may have in transmission. Overall the Swedish government approach to the pandemic has eschewed lock downs and other restrictions counting on citizens to do the right thing.
In mid-April, Danish kids are the first to break out of lock down as school bells signal the resumption of classes. Hygiene and distancing considerations are paramount as are creative solutions to space shortages (video).
Two key documents published by WHO and UNICEF – Considerations for school-related public health measures in the context of COVID-19 and Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools – are assisting administrators, teachers, parents, caregivers and students with the transition back to school.
Full or partial openings in other countries and jurisdictions followed the Danish lead. It’s not the same old, same old as these photos from around the world capture a noticeably different look and feel. Kids in Australia, Austria, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Quebec, Taiwan, Vietnam and other venues are well on the way to developing routines that embrace a new normal. The most significant setback occurred last week in South Korea where more than 250 schools were closed.
As more children return to classrooms, governments need to broadly share best practices developed within their own jurisdictions. First and foremost, there must be an underlying commitment to follow the science. Also critical are key tools to build and maintain trust such as public engagement and outreach to parents. At a minimum, detailed plans – like this one from a British Columbia school district – documenting the return process should be made available to parents in advance of openings.
Consensus is coalescing around three priority areas that have the ability to give returning students a boost. PLAY, OUTDOOR LEARNING and RECESS are relatable for kids as they shift from home isolation to a rediscovery of peers in a school-based community. In the lead up to UK school openings, discussion around these themes has been very much in evidence.
Dr. Helen Dodd is a Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading. She is a charter member with other mental health experts of a newly formed ad hoc group, Play First UK which seeks to give greater voice to the needs and aspirations of children during the pandemic. We had an opportunity to speak last month.
Play First UK recommends that kids should be allowed to play with their peers as soon as possible as lock downs are loosened. These peer relationships are voluntary, equal and require negotiation and compromise. Research and observation show that play with peers allows children to learn to regulate their emotions, develop social skills and form a sense of identity. When this is not possible over extended periods kids can get lonely and feel socially isolated.
We’re anticipating a huge increase for child psychology services
when we come out of this lock down period.
To offer kids a softer landing during school return transitions, Play First UK is advocating for more play. They have sent a series of recommendations to governments in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children.
- The easing of lock down restrictions should be done in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school, and even while social distancing measures remain in place.
- Schools should be appropriately resourced and given clear guidance on how to support children’s emotional wellbeing during the transition period as schools reopen. Play should be a priority during this time, rather than academic progress.
- Public health communications must recognise that many parents and teachers are anxious about their child’s academic progress and the risk posed to children in easing lockdown restrictions. The social and emotional benefits of play and interaction with peers must be clearly communicated, alongside guidance on the objective risks to children.
From Dr. Dodd’s perspective, we could all do with an empathy top up and remember that we’re in uncharted territory.
“The kids will have to settle emotionally before we can really engage in teaching them. We’re not saying to play all the time but to go easy on them – a bit more time with their peers, a bit more outdoor play and some more outdoor learning, a bit more physically active for a while and why not? All of this is good for kids anyway and will be positive experiences for most children.”
Outdoor learning is generating some good conversation in the UK and is being put into practice in Scandinavia and other European countries. The UK, Scotland in particular, is developing some expertise in this area.
Juliet Roberston is a former Head Teacher in three different schools located in northern Scotland. She left the education system about a decade ago to dig more deeply into outdoor learning and play and is in demand by a number of local authorities and schools. You can find her @CreativeStar on Twitter. She is the author of Messy Maths – A Playful Outdoor Approach to Early Years. We spoke in May.
Think of the outdoors as additional rooms and
just like an indoor class develop routines around the space.
Robertson is among a group of practitioners who believe outdoor learning could play an important element in helping to maintain physical distancing. She also notes that just by being outside the probability of transmission is reduced. There are also mental health benefits associated with being outdoors that are present at any time but may prove helpful in a school re-entry transition.
Even though outdoor learning in Scotland has been a part of the curriculum since 2004, Robertson realizes there will still need to be reassurances for teaching staff. Fortunately, there is good infrastructure in place. Numerous resources and organizations focus on preparing teachers and leaders for outdoor learning. Keep your eyes open as good workshops are available like one I attended online a couple of weeks ago – Learning to Return Outdoors – Use of school grounds for curricular learning as schools tackle Covid-19 provided by Learning Through Landscapes.
Then there is recess, the only block of time in the school day to have garnered its own cartoon show. Definitely a favourite in our house no matter what time of year we poll the three kids. Now the Global Recess Alliance, “a newly formed group of scholars, health professionals, and education leaders, argues that attention to recess during school reopening is essential.”
The Alliance’s Statement on Recess has great practical advice that touches on rethinking school recess policies, safe recess practices and supporting a safe and healthy recess.
I particularly liked this safe recess practice –
“Recognize the importance of physically active play and consider a risk-benefit approach; strict rules like ‘no running’ and ‘no ball throwing can undermine the benefits of play and physical activity.”
As schools reopen, we can see it as an opportunity to request more time for play, more time in the outdoors and a don’t mess with recess policy. From the top of this hill, the grass sure is looking greener on the other side
End note – our kids don’t return to school until September. They were disappointed when they got the news. We were not. That’s because we work from home and we’re not adverse to a little more close-knit time together. We are very grateful for this and recognize that not everyone has the same flexibility. With the additional time, we are hoping that our kids’ schools will be able to better prepare for openings and benefit from best practices pioneered in other jurisdictions.
A heartfelt thanks to our kids’ teachers. They pulled the pieces together to enable the online learning experience to work for the students. They were there for the kids, connected with them and encouraged them to do their best.
A couple of weeks ago we ‘bubbled’ with our next door neighbours. They have one young lad. It was a wonderful boost to bring the two households together and see the incredible play impact it had and continues to have on what is now a merry band of four. We are hopefully anticipating the continued easing of restrictions.
There is a lot of great work underway as we live though these extreme times. These are just a few representative samples:
Covid-19 and children: what does the science tell us, and what does this mean as the lock down is eased? – Tim Gill – Rethinking Childhood
Reopening schools – how do we decide what’s best? – Simon Weedy – Child in the City
Academics highlight children’s need for street play during lockdown – Policy for Play
Learning to Return Outdoors – learning outdoors as schools return – Learning Through Landscapes