From one day to the next, teachers around the world have found themselves managing virtual classrooms, communicating with their students over social media platforms and learning by doing as they provide education from a distance to over 1.5 billion students affected by school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
On 27 March, UNESCO dedicated its second Covid-19 education response webinar to those on the frontlines of ensuring learning continuity: some 63 million affected teachers in 165 countries, along with education personnel. Bringing together participants from all regions, the seminar shed light on a wide range of issues, from the provision of training and support for teachers to the challenge of distance teaching in remote or rural areas with weak or no internet connectivity.
Chairing the webinar attended by 159 participants from 33 countries, Ms Yumiko Yokozeki, Director of the UNESCO Institute for Capacity Building in Africa framed the entirely new context in a positive light, while underscoring the importance for governments to support their teachers. “As necessity is the mother of invention, this situation may become an opportunity for teachers and learners to become more empowered, creative and innovative,” she said.
Participants related how the suddenness of school closures took most by surprise. In Uganda, teachers prepared take home packages for students in a day. In the Netherlands, the entire curriculum went digital in 48 hours. In the Philippines, the Department of Education launched its DepEd Commons platform ahead of the planned date.
Delivering quality education despite many challenges
“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is how to keep children on board,” said Ms Anne-Fleur Lurvink, who teaches at a school in Rotterdam (Netherlands) where students come from very diverse backgrounds. “Teaching children at a disadvantage runs the risk of losing many. Home situations don’t always allow them to participate in lessons,” she said. The government has put in place measures to provide laptops and wifi for families without digital access while teachers from her school call parents on a weekly basis to keep in touch.
The experience has been a steep learning curve: “We have accomplished something with digital education that would have taken years,” said Ms Lurvink. “Teachers are being very supportive of each other and creating strong networks, and societies are pitching in to support teachers,” she said, while emphasizing that nothing can replace what schools bring beyond transmitting information, from safety to emotional well-being.
Governments are all stepping up efforts to provide training and resources to support teachers in adapting to this new learning environment.
In France, Réseau Canopé, the national education operator, provides free content for teachers, parents, and learners, including animated films, apps and user friendly tools, as well as tutorials and other resources to support teachers, reported Ms Marie-Caroline Missir, Managing Director of Canopé. Mr Miguel Cruzado Silverii, Director-General for Teacher Development at the Ministry of Education in Peru, indicated that the government released three Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to train teachers to shift to online teaching.
Are teachers ready to move instruction online?
Turning teaching materials into digital format at short notice has been a challenge as few teachers have strong digital and ICT skills. In many countries in South West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa only about 20% or often fewer households have internet connectivity at home, let alone personal computers.
In Peru, Mr Cruzado Silverii reported that just “35% of teachers have access to a computer and internet connectivity.” The ministry therefore chose to use low-tech solutions such as television and radio channels to provide classes and content to students as well as online platforms such as Aprendo en casa.
In Cameroon, Dr Michael Nkwenty Ndonfack, Pedagogical Inspector for Computer Science and ICTs at the Ministry of Basic Education, reported that only 20-25% of teachers have internet access and that the majority of teachers lack ICT skills. A national government Task Force was set up to establish the Protective Learning Routine to enable teachers and learners to access education through platforms they are already familiar with, such as radio and TV.
In Uganda, the government is relying on the UNESCO-Chinese Funds-in-Trust programme which has established a robust teacher training system country-wide. Teacher training institutions have been deployed to deliver capacity-building workshops for teachers without ICT skills via one of the programme’s three ICT hubs.
Teacher wellbeing is key
In such unprecedented and uncertain times, it is normal for people to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety, teachers included. Teachers need socio-emotional support to face the extra pressure being put on them to deliver learning in a time of crisis as well as support their students’ emotional needs. In the Philippines, Ms Jennifer Lopez from the Department of Education reported that salaries for March and April were being released early and that all teacher performance reviews have been suspended while under the emergency state. Teaching staff and education personnel still in schools will receive a bonus hazard pay and clothing allowance.
In Uganda, Dr Jane Egau Okou, Commissioner for Teacher Instructor Education and Training, reported that the ministry ensured timely payment of salaries so that teachers can stock essentials and focus on their mission with no additional worries.
Protect, support and recognize teachers
In her concluding remarks, Ms Gerd-Hanne Fosen, the Co-Chair of the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 emphasized the need for policies to remain focused on the most marginalized, those who do not have access to technology or who do not have a supportive home environment. The Teacher Task Force has launched a “Call for Action” on all governments, education providers and funders – public and private – to protect teachers in this difficult time and to recognise the critical roles they play in the COVID-19 response and recovery. All participants are encouraged to support the six action points highlighted in the call.
UNESCO has also launched a Global Education Coalition to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption.