Coronavirus School Closures: What U.S. Schools Can Learn From Other Countries

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 08, 2020 4 min read
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In one global wave, fears of the novel coronavirus have swept more than 1.5 billion children out of school. A new study of nearly 100 countries’ responses to the pandemic suggests the United States can take a lesson, particularly from the early-exposed Asian countries, on how schools can help their students and families weather what may be weeks or months away from their classrooms.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development surveyed 330 education officials and leaders in 98 countries who have been dealing with the virus which causes the deadly respiratory infection COVID-19.

“It was something of a discovery for me that most respondents rated [as of critical concern] not just the importance of academic development of students, but of student well-being and the development of social-emotional skills—because in a way we have seen the opposite,” said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills. “We’ve dramatically reduced curriculum time. People are trying to focus on what is most relevant to exams, you know, math, science, and so on. That’s what’s happening in reality.”

“Many people portray online learning is as something that doesn’t involve a school necessarily. They say it’s an interaction between computers and the learner,” Schleicher said, “but I think when you read this, what comes up very clearly is that learning is a relational experience and not just a transactional experience. ... It’s the social fabric that underpins learning and schooling.”

“The country that was first in this, China, got 50 million learners online within a month, but also took great care to keep the personal relationships between teachers and learners,” Schleicher said. “Teachers just know a lot about how students learn and who they are—and once you lose that information, everything gets a little harder, particularly in primary school.”

Some of the countries that have responded the quickest and most comprehensively, such as Singapore and South Korea, were among the same countries that regularly top international benchmarking tests, OECD found. “I think what makes these countries different is also that they were able to very quickly mobilize the teachers ready to do things differently, not just do what they’ve always done with a computer,” Schleicher said. “So they were very, very quickly able to mobilize a large proportion of the teachers for revamping the instructional system. This didn’t come from government or from industry in China or [South] Korea. That was mainly a product of teacher professional collaboration and collaboration across schools. ... I think we [in Western countries] have had a much harder time to get teachers on board, to get school systems on board.”

In the United States and in Europe, by contrast, the OECD found very few countries so far have reported being able to provide teachers with systemic professional development to provide remote learning for students at home. Finland opened a national library of open educational resources, which includes archives from the country’s libraries and museums, but few others reported having many centralized resources for teachers.

Some countries, like some U.S. states, relied on public television stations to broadcast daily programs focused on some subjects and grades.

Education leaders working to keep students learning during the school closures could take some lessons from other countries. The report recommended, among other things:

  • Get ahead of the curve. Education leaders should plan for how they would deal with six months or a year of closures, not just cope until the next school reopening. For example, Singapore kept one day a week of remote schooling after in-person classes resumed, which has helped ease the transition when some schools had to close again due to a second wave of virus outbreaks.
  • Start interventions early. Countries should expect COVID-19 closures will have similar or worse effects than traditional summer learning loss—equal to losing two months of learning or more, OECD warned. Districts should start focusing educational interventions early on the students most likely to see achievement gaps.
  • Districts should work in partnership with public health agencies and amplify their messages of hygiene, social distancing, and other methods of mitigating virus outbreaks in the community.
  • Support extensive teacher professional development and collaboration time, so that teachers across grades and schools can share ideas and best practices.
  • Remember mental health needs. Education leaders should incorporate supports for students’ and teachers’ mental health and engagement into their formal learning plans, rather than leaving them to informal concerns.

Photos: Top: A student disinfects her hands at the entrance of an elementary school in Osaka, Japan amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. Source: Kyodo via AP Images

Above: A female student uses her digital tablet to study at home in the Netherlands. The Dutch government has ordered all schools to be closed until further notice in attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease associated with the new coronavirus. Students are to laptops, digital tablets, or mobile phones to study at home. SOurce: Robin Utrecht for SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.