Brussels, 20 July 2020

7 lessons learned from COVID-19
Even though the pandemic challenged us in many ways, it also helped us to better understand key aspects of quality education

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has seri­ous­ly impact­ed edu­ca­tion sys­tems in Europe. It posed chal­lenges for learn­ers, teach­ers, school lead­ers, par­ents and fam­i­lies, affect­ing the edu­ca­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty as a whole. School clo­sures all over the con­ti­nent and the pro­longed con­fine­ment of fam­i­lies to their homes have changed the way we work, live and learn togeth­er in a pro­found way. Even though the cri­sis chal­lenged us in many ways and caused con­sid­er­able trau­ma for many learn­ers, it also helped us to bet­ter under­stand key aspects of qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion that should be con­sid­ered in the future. In this regard, we have iden­ti­fied 7 lessons for pol­i­cy reform, school gov­er­nance and teach­ing that can be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suc­cess­ful edu­ca­tion helps chil­dren build mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with the world. All chil­dren and ado­les­cents need a safe, healthy and engag­ing learn­ing envi­ron­ment to grow and thrive. Dis­tance learn­ing dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has once again demon­strat­ed that the phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al and men­tal well-being of pupils are key pre­req­ui­sites for per­son­al devel­op­ment and qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion. While oppor­tu­ni­ties of for­mal learn­ing can pro­vide a sense of nor­mal­i­ty in dif­fi­cult times, it is cru­cial to avoid too much aca­d­e­m­ic pres­sure. Stress relief may be achieved by stick­ing to a dai­ly rou­tine and by encour­ag­ing phys­i­cal and artis­tic activ­i­ty. It is also cru­cial to pro­vide a safe space for learn­ers to speak about and deal with trau­mat­ic and life-chang­ing events.

We call on pol­i­cy-mak­ers to shift the focus of edu­ca­tion poli­cies towards pri­or­i­tiz­ing the well-being of all learn­ers and the devel­op­ment of holis­tic cur­ric­u­la at school lev­el. Schools should also be enabled to address the trau­ma caused by the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic by offer­ing cura­tive edu­ca­tion to all learn­ers in need.

School clos­ings have helped dig­i­tal learn­ing make an unex­pect­ed break­through. Its pro­po­nents are loud­ly com­plain­ing about a lack of dig­i­tal readi­ness in schools and call for invest­ments in dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture. This one-sided per­spec­tive com­plete­ly ignores the dev­as­tat­ing health impacts of screen-time, espe­cial­ly on young chil­dren. The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has proven that exten­sive screen-based teach­ing can­not ensure sus­tain­able learn­ing in the long run. Stein­er Wal­dorf schools have always insist­ed on the impor­tance of an age-appro­pri­ate and devel­op­ment-ori­ent­ed media edu­ca­tion. While dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy is undoubt­ed­ly help­ful for the for some aspects of learn­ing, it can­not replace the most impor­tant ele­ment of learn­ing: the encounter from per­son to per­son and the direct expe­ri­ence of the teach­ers’ enthu­si­asm for their work.

We call on pol­i­cy mak­ers to insist on pres­ence teach­ing as the reg­u­lar form of school­ing. Dis­tance learn­ing should only be used in excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances and as a com­ple­men­tary tool and should take into account the age and indi­vid­ual capac­i­ty of the learn­er as well as the tech­nol­o­gy avail­able at home. To main­tain a mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ship with the world and oth­ers, the meth­ods used in such a sce­nario should lim­it screen time by alter­nat­ing aca­d­e­m­ic learn­ing with peri­ods of phys­i­cal and artis­tic activ­i­ty and encour­age a vivid exchange between learners.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has forced a fast and sud­den tran­si­tion from pres­ence to dis­tance learn­ing. In many ways the cri­sis has shown that teach­ing is a high­ly cre­ative and artis­tic pro­fes­sion. Many teach­ers showed a great deal of per­son­al ini­tia­tive and have devel­oped inno­v­a­tive solu­tions tai­lored to the needs of their pupils. This requires a great deal of pro­fes­sion­al­ism that can only be achieved through care­ful self-reflec­tion and the con­scious­ness for the needs of every child, devel­oped through reg­u­lar authen­tic con­tact with pupils and col­leagues. They are best devel­oped in an atmos­phere of trust, where teach­ers expe­ri­ence true own­er­ship of their work and feel sup­port­ed and empow­ered by their colleagues.

We there­fore call on pol­i­cy mak­ers to give sub­stan­tial ped­a­gog­i­cal free­dom to teach­ers while encour­ag­ing schools to devel­op ade­quate sup­port struc­tures such as men­tor­ing schemes, job-shad­ow­ing, peer-exchanges and tools of self-reflec­tion. Trust­ed teach­ers work­ing togeth­er are the basis for schools suc­cess­ful­ly adapt­ing to change.

Dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, schools sud­den­ly had to rely much more on par­ents in their key role as pri­ma­ry care­tak­ers of chil­dren and ado­les­cents. Sud­den­ly, many par­ents had to take con­sid­er­able respon­si­bil­i­ty in sup­port­ing their chil­dren’s learn­ing process at home. This has shown again how much both the edu­ca­tion­al suc­cess and healthy devel­op­ment of chil­dren and ado­les­cents depend on sup­port­ive par­ents. To ensure that the voice of par­ents is heard in every school, reli­able com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels between schools and par­ents must be estab­lished. Of course, schools must still offer direct and tai­lored sup­port to chil­dren in need, when­ev­er par­ents are not respon­sive or engaged.

In order to be pre­pared for excep­tion­al sit­u­a­tions, to main­tain a healthy school cli­mate and to ensure the phys­i­cal, men­tal and social-emo­tion­al well­be­ing of each learn­er, pol­i­cy mak­ers should acknowl­edge the impor­tant role of par­ents in the school com­mu­ni­ty. Edu­ca­tion poli­cies should high­light the need for clear and reli­able com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels and facil­i­tate reg­u­lar and active exchange between schools and par­ents. Fur­ther­more, schools may con­sid­er appoint­ing an ombudsper­son for parents.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has shown that parental school choice all too often depends on a sta­ble and suf­fi­cient income. As the cri­sis result­ed in a sig­nif­i­cant loss of jobs and income, many fam­i­lies will not be able to pay school fees. This may force them to take their chil­dren out of their cho­sen and famil­iar school envi­ron­ment. In an already chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion, such a pro­found change puts chil­dren under addi­tion­al stress and their well-being fur­ther at risk. Where inde­pen­dent schools receive zero or par­tial state fund­ing, this puts the exis­tence of inde­pen­dent schools at risk. If they were to close as a result, this would ren­der the sys­tem less inclu­sive and diverse, and par­ents would be deprived of their fun­da­men­tal right to choose their pre­ferred ped­a­gog­i­cal approach.

We there­fore call on pol­i­cy mak­ers to make a sus­tain­able com­mit­ment to pre­serve edu­ca­tion­al choice at all times and ensure that all inter­est­ed fam­i­lies have access to inde­pen­dent edu­ca­tion, regard­less of their finan­cial means. Under the cur­rent con­di­tions, all fam­i­lies in need should also be pro­vid­ed with emer­gency fund­ing to cov­er their school fees.

No school should be forced to close its doors as a result of an eco­nom­ic cri­sis. Finan­cial sup­port to inde­pen­dent schools should there­fore be sub­stan­tial­ly increased in order to sus­tain­ably ensure diver­si­ty and inclu­sive­ness of edu­ca­tion­al choice. Already ahead of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment has adopt­ed a res­o­lu­tion (Arti­cle 76) that encour­ages mem­ber states “with regard to increas­ing inclu­sive­ness and ensur­ing free­dom of edu­ca­tion­al choice” to pro­vide “ade­quate finan­cial sup­port for schools of all cat­e­gories and lev­els, both state schools and not-for-prof­it pri­vate schools”. And yet, inde­pen­dent schools in many coun­tries still ful­ly or par­tial­ly rely on parental fees.

We there­fore call on gov­ern­ments to pro­vide inde­pen­dent schools with imme­di­ate and easy access to emer­gency fund­ing cov­er­ing their cur­rent loss­es. More impor­tant­ly, full pub­lic fund­ing should be pro­vid­ed to inde­pen­dent schools at all times to sus­tain­ably ensure equal­i­ty, parental school choice and diver­si­ty in education.

The COVID-19 cri­sis has revealed the immense inno­va­tion poten­tial lay­ing bare in many schools. Where schools had the flex­i­bil­i­ty to act inde­pen­dent­ly, many were able to suc­cess­ful­ly adapt to the sud­den change and pro­vide tai­lored solu­tions for the local con­text. This worked par­tic­u­lar­ly well where gov­ern­ments lim­it­ed them­selves to pro­vid­ing essen­tial infra­struc­ture, train­ing and guid­ance, as well as net­work­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and emer­gency finan­cial sup­port. Com­pe­tent school lead­ers and teach­ers, on the oth­er hand, were best posi­tioned to local­ly address ped­a­gog­i­cal and organ­i­sa­tion­al chal­lenges and make adjust­ments to the cur­ricu­lum. In con­trast, a high­ly pre­scrip­tive and cen­tralised gov­ern­men­tal approach towards cri­sis man­age­ment, with lit­tle school auton­o­my, would have been less fruit­ful (see: OECD 2020).

In order to ben­e­fit from the immense inno­va­tion poten­tial in schools, we call on pol­i­cy mak­ers to give sub­stan­tial auton­o­my to schools. They should be allowed to devel­op forms of dis­trib­uted school lead­er­ship, define school based cur­ric­u­la, and give sub­stan­tial ped­a­gog­i­cal free­dom to teach­ers. Author­i­ties should focus on the devel­op­ment of a qual­i­ty cul­ture in schools by offer­ing schools and teach­ers sup­port struc­tures and oppor­tu­ni­ties of organ­i­sa­tion­al and pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment. With more ped­a­gog­i­cal free­dom and trust in schools comes more oppor­tu­ni­ty, more diver­si­ty and more authen­tic­i­ty — for the ben­e­fit of all learners.

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Georg Jürgens