Has COVID Changed How We Should Evaluate International Schools?
by Stasha Malcolm, Communications Coordinator at Bangkok Patana School (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As we are currently in the third academic year affected by the COVID-pandemic, it is worth reflecting on the immense amount of adaptation that schools, teachers, support staff, and particularly students, have had to handle within such a short period of time. Thinking back to Term 1 of our 2019/2020 Academic Year, most of us had not yet heard of Microsoft Teams, nor were we accustomed to working (or learning) from home. We understood that screen time should be limited in order to look after our well-being, but found ourselves in a situation where increased screen time was necessary to maintain our studies. So, how have schools taken such contradictions and challenges in stride? And how does this impact the field of education, specifically in the international context?
Technology – Benefits and Gaps:
Had the COVID pandemic happened 20+ years ago, it is curious to consider how education could have continued without the technological advances that we have today. The ability to provide real-time classes, lessons, and even extra-curricular activities, proved extremely beneficial to students’ sense of routine and responsibility. At the same time, however, such technology must still be considered in terms of its impact on our well-being, mental health, and overall safety (particularly for young students).
Transitioning lessons to Microsoft Teams proved to be effective in that collaboration and communication beyond video calls are key to both learning and well-being. Conversations could continue through the chat function without needing to formalize discussions in email. Documents could be shared and worked on in real time together, providing a more natural workflow. Online lessons meant that students no longer needed to commute to and from school, adding hours to their days, particularly here in Bangkok, Thailand. For our students, this meant that lesson times were also better aligned with their natural circadian rhythms, improving their ability to focus and often, as a result, their productivity.
However, as Zoom classes began getting hacked, students discovered ways to fake bad connections, and more time was spent ‘wandering’ around online, parents and teachers had to be aware of not only the benefits of specific online platforms, but also of their relative gaps and potential risks. Online lessons started to feel repetitive, students sometimes tuned out, and teachers undoubtedly felt the burnout of trying to ensure every class was engaging, memorable, and effective. In contrast, though, some students found the independence to be liberating. Working at their own pace and in their own preferred style actually benefited their learning. For some, that also meant a reprieve of adolescent anxieties. Without social concerns, some students found it easier to focus or that they could better express themselves through technology as compared to in-person lessons. Others found the return to the classroom to be restrictive, discovering that they learned better when not confined to a desk for forty minutes straight. These take-aways must be acknowledged as we work to improve educational systems worldwide – specifically the importance of understanding each student as an individual with unique needs and preferences.
The limiting of social interactions has certainly impacted our students. For those in transitional years (including Nursery, Kindergarten, Foundation Stage, the first year of Secondary School, or the first year of a new curricular programme such as IGCSE or IB), the lack of peer-support that comes naturally through in-person interactions has had to be intentionally sought after. Teachers who provide pastoral support have had to ensure that students are able to make these transitions as smoothly as possible, still being held to most of the same pre-pandemic expectations, while in a completely new and previously un-navigated situation. As Lorna Conroy, Secondary Assistant Principal at Bangkok Patana School explains, “the IB exams are fast approaching for a Year 13 cohort who didn’t sit formal exams in Year 11; the IGCSE exams are on the horizon for a cohort whose last ‘normal’ year was Year 8, and none of the Key Stage three students have experienced a ‘normal’ year in Secondary.”
While the long-term impacts of these challenges, and the technology-based solutions that are driven by the generation most affected themselves, have yet to be studied or analysed (as more time is necessary to accurately measure the effects), we can be sure that what we consider ‘socialisation’ has indeed changed.
End of an Era:
While the days of ‘walking’ at graduation ceremonies have more oft than not turned to virtual platforms, and more students have begun considering ‘gap years’ than ever before, the experience of leaving high school has changed drastically. Fortunately, universities were quick to adapt accordingly, foregoing test results for some of the previously most stressed-about exams. Students were encouraged instead to demonstrate their capabilities through alternative assessments and portfolios, subtly changing the concept of learning to action-based rather than scores-based. This is a welcome change for many, as it has long been debated the value of curriculum memorisation over integration.
While our graduates may have not had the senior year they imagined, we can be confident that these students have developed resiliency that they will carry through to life after Secondary School. Some may forgo the traditional path to university and instead seek out online trainings that align with their interests. Others will undoubtedly attend university, and may be all the more successful for having to adapt to new methods of learning so late in their academic careers. Whichever they choose, our students have learned the true value of global citizenship, ushering in a new era of inclusivity, and shaping the post-COVID world through their independence, empathy, creativity and critical thinking.
Schools globally have been asked to rearrange seating, enforce mask-wearing, limit activities, and cancel countless events from sports fixtures to concerts to performances to exams. Lunch in the canteens now must be served by staff, rather than permitting self-service and empowering students’ sense of independence. Sporting events were canceled, leaving many students to graduate without having competed at the Varsity level. Children were encouraged to participate in PE ‘bubbles’ to reduce their risk of contracting COVID, limiting the diversity of their interactions with others. However, as the pandemic goes on, our fear has begun to subside and we are returning to our safe and inclusive environments, whilst expanding upon our widely-held values of learning, well-being, and global citizenship. With the current requirements of weekly ATK-testing, group activities have been permitted to return, much to the delight of students and teachers alike.
Although restrictions seem to be easing, the remnants of their stricter counterparts remain ever-visible on our campuses. From signs reminding us not to sit here and there, to automatic hand gel dispensers around every corner, we understand that COVID is becoming part of our futures as well. With this in mind, then, should we reconsider how we evaluate schools?
Reconsidering How to Evaluate Schools:
Some points to guide your search for the right school in 2022 may include:
- Whether the school has an effective method of teaching and learning in the case of a campus closure; how thorough this plan is and whether it takes into consideration student well-being and mental health.
- What forms of communication and collaboration are provided outside of video calls? Does the provided communication encourage natural socialisation with peers and participation in activities outside of the typical curriculum?
- How seriously does the school consider safeguarding, both online and on-campus? Does the school follow their own safeguarding policies; are these policies re-evaluated often to ensure that they are not outdated; and when an incident occurs, is it handled urgently, but discreetly?
- Are students encouraged to be kind and compassionate, ethical and empathetic to one another (particularly in the context of an international school setting)?
- What is the school’s technology mindset? This includes how much technological training and support is provided to teachers in order to maintain the quality of education and to ensure that your students will remain engaged in their lessons.
In fact, becoming familiar with the variety of educational platforms available online yourself will also help you to gauge which types of learning are best for your student, and what forms of communication with your students’ teachers that you value as a parent or guardian.
After all, life is about constant change. The COVID pandemic has forced most of the world to adapt, all while doing so in countless different ways. How we overcome this challenge, transition into ‘new normals’ and learn to value ourselves in our individuality are the prime factors for progress, whether in the field of education, or otherwise. And we can look to our students, our educators and our school environments for best practices, lessons learned, and ultimately, the way forward.