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COVID AND LEARNING – Unprepared education systems

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The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact practically in all aspects of our lives. An important part of that impact was over students from every grade, that faced the closure of schools and universities.

That situation led to a stay-at-home period of weeks and months for those students and their teachers, often without clear directives and, in 2020 particularly, with no prior warning.

Synchronous on-line classes had to be prepared, followed and attended, every day, sometimes for several hours a day. The educational institutions had no choice but to adapt and respond immediately to the situation, in the best of their abilities. That response mainly passed by the adoption of existing on-line video conference platforms, such as MsTeams and Zooom, and collaborative platforms like Google Classroom.

That rapid move to distance learning, the reorganisation of assessment processes, as well as the remote support of their students were among the unexpected challenges that schools had to face in a very short period. All of it accompanied by the uncertainty that we have all faced regarding the pandemic: Some thought of the situation as transient on the short run and, therefore, prepared remote emergency resources for students and teachers, while others, eventually already some steps ahead regarding the digitalization of society, made available for the community actual on-line learning facilities.

Either way, teachers and students, were taken by surprise and had to change and adapt to their new learning environment. According to UNESCO, only 20% of countries worldwide were equipped with e-learning devices and programmes before the pandemic situation, and these were not universally adopted but mainly local isolated projects.

Also, the asymmetries across societies, from economic and cultural backgrounds, to, by example, lack of internet access in some rural areas were other challenges to be overcome.

As in the European Union the educational policies remain an exclusive and strong domain of each country, the response to the described challenges differed from one country to another.

Some countries, such as Sweden, seemed better equipped to meet the challenge, as the government had already developed remote and hybrid forms of education before the pandemic. Therefore, many students were already familiar with online learning platforms. Other countries did not have that preparation, which come to deepened already existing inequalities among children and families, that “normal” school tend to attenuate.

Some European governments have taken measures to ensure support for the most disadvantaged families: In Spain, families with children receiving school meals are entitled to financial aid or direct food supply during school; The Dutch government has allocated €2.5 million for the purchase of laptops for students in general and vocational education who do not have adequate equipment at home; In Portugal, a national TV channel broadcasted classes in different subjects for all students of compulsory school age, targeting in particular those who do not have access to the Internet and/or computers; In Ireland, a specific guide from the government provides advice and practical resources for schools and teachers to support primary and post-primary students who are at risk of educational disadvantage. 

These scattered response to the urgent situation lived in the first semester of 2020, provoked the launch by the European Commission of the new Digital Education Action Plan for the years 2021 to 2027. Through this plan, the Commission’s aim is to “learn from the COVID-19 crisis and make education and training systems fit for the digital age”. Ursula Von der Leyen, the Commission President, expressed the aim of the plan to “increase the quality and inclusiveness of education and training systems and the provision of digital skills for all during the digital and green transition”.

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