KT Special: How schools sailed through the pandemic disruption – AlKhaleej Today

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Unesco estimates that over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries have been affected by Covid-19 related school closures. Simply put, this means that the majority of the world’s school going population is experiencing a major disruption to its learning goals. Overnight, students have had to decamp from their classrooms to their living rooms and bedrooms to try to continue their learning on PCs and iPads, with significantly less contact with their classmates and teachers.

There has been no time or scope for adaptation or evolution. School operators have had to completely change how they function. Teachers have had to rapidly learn new skills in delivering their lesson plans and assessments remotely, through a variety of technology solutions, whilst managing the inevitable parent frustrations associated with ‘home-schooling’.

As governments ease their economies out of lockdown, schools are welcoming back their students. Operators are grappling with a number of issues, such as “How do we make it comfortable and safe for our students and staff so that they can focus on learning? How do we reassure parents that their children are being taken care of? What lessons can we take from the lockdown into the classroom to enhance our students’ learning experience?”

As someone who works extensively with stakeholders in the K12 sector globally, I have been encouraged and relieved by the response of many private operators. What is becoming increasingly clear is that larger school groups are much better resourced and equipped to deal with the operational and commercial complexities arising from the pandemic, and are far better prepared to reopen their schools in the new academic year.

School group leaders across the world are working tirelessly to ensure the safest and most effective ‘back to school’ experience for their students, teachers, parents and administrative staff. Many institutions have invested heavily in the transition by bringing in global experts (to augment their well-resourced head office teams) to advise them on a wide range of issues, including health & safety, online education and the mental health/ wellbeing for their students, teachers and parents.

Detailed plans have been developed to ensure that the ‘new normal’ for students will be as good (if not better) than what they experienced before the lock down. In some cases, governments have consulted these global school groups to better understand their approach to school reopening and leverage their experience for public systems.

There are a number of areas that the large school groups are really focusing on to ensure a safe return to school. The first and most visible will be changes to the physical environment. Almost nothing in the school experience will be like before. Classrooms and common areas like communal lunch spaces will be redesigned to accommodate social distancing requirements with clear signages and staff to help students navigate repurposed spaces. Some schools are even arranging for enhanced medical facilities including appropriate isolation areas. At many schools, start and dispersal times are being staggered to ensure the least risk of cross-age gatherings, such as in-school assemblies.

The past few months have been challenging for all of us, not least our children who have been cooped up at home with limited interaction with friends and extended family. Mental health is another key focus area for many school groups. School leaders are also working hard to ensure that returning students feel adequately supported through the transition from online learning back to the classroom. Some are investing in access to qualified mental health professionals, including those specifically trained to work with young people. Teachers are being encouraged to keep a close eye on the physical and mental health of their class and raise any issues with the school leadership.

Technology will also play a huge part in ensuring schools manage an effective transition. Many large operators have continued to invest in technology. “Just because we are back in the classroom, doesn’t mean that our students should have to disengage from our suite of proprietary technology solutions,” explained one of the senior leaders at a large K12 company.

The larger school companies have also created detailed plans on how to potentially manage through a second wave of the virus which would most likely necessitate another lockdown. Their focus is to minimize disruption to student learning whilst ensuring parents don’t feel overburdened by the challenges associated with distance education.

Some commentators believe that large private school operators have ‘corporatized’ education and have been too focused on generating profits for their investors. Many view the single site, ‘mom & pop’ schools as the kind of institutions that better serve the needs of students and parents.

I think that Covid-19 has shown us all how valuable these larger school groups are. Their ability to generate profits has provided them with the resources to invest in technology, health and safety and student wellbeing at a time of crisis.

These education ‘corporations’ are leveraging their global expertise to help children get back to school safely. By collaborating and sharing best practices with governments and other single site schools, I hope they can play a pivotal role in ensuring all our children have a safe, happy and enriching return to their classrooms. – Ashwin Assomull is a Partner at L.E.K. Consulting’s Global Education Practice

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