In the past, schools were paralyzed and learning ceased in extenuating circumstances. In cases of extreme weather, epidemics and fires, learning in an organized face-to-face setting was no longer possible.
For example, in March 2003 during the SARS crisis, schools in Hong Kong and Singapore closed for 2-4 weeks. In many parts of North America, schools are often closed during inclement weather or when massive forest fires are burning in the area.
In January 2020, in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday, the coronavirus COVID-19 reached a critical point in China, and many schools were forced to close without notice. Having learned from the SARS outbreak and H1N1, schools responded immediately and put into motion plans that would allow learning to continue despite schools being closed.
Online learning plans were either dusted off and brought into daylight for the first time or materialized within days to respond to the situation. Edtech and digital coaches scrambled to create resources, training videos and infographics to support teachers and students for what would soon become a longer-term experiment than expected. Administrators tried to make sense of the uncertainties, communicating with parents, teachers and students their best-laid plans.
Although everyone was operating in survival mode, what became evident from this event is that schools are more equipped than ever to allow business to run as usual even when school facilities are closed. In the past, it made perfect sense to cancel school in a winter storm with no consideration to continue school, but with the technology and digital resources available to us, are we doing our best when we give up on learning altogether because we physically cannot meet in buildings anymore? How can we as schools learn from the COVID-19 experience, and prepare ourselves for future similar events? What principles can guide the challenging decisions that we might have to make to support a strong learning environment in times of uncertainty?
When Keystone Academy in Beijing first began classes online, our purpose was simple: continue to provide learning opportunities for our students through a remote and digital environment. We were in survival mode, and this purpose helped us to quickly make decisions about technology distribution, plan for training and communicate our next steps to our learning community.
As time progressed and our online learning days extended to weeks – and then weeks into months – we found our purpose calibrating back to our school mission, values and definition of learning. We began making priorities based on the core principles of our school. This meant that our learning embraced inquiry and real-life connections, we emphasized character development through online interactions, designed assessments with process and feedback in mind, and celebrated and encouraged service-learning.
Remembering your purpose as a school gives you focus and guidance when your team needs to make tough decisions. In crisis situations, it’s easy to make decisions based on our emotions, but this can result in poor learning experiences for our students. As a community, it’s important that we always steer each other toward our students and their learning. That is our calling as educators, and we can’t lose sight of that in any learning environment.
Practice the art of simplicity
It’s easy to over-complicate plans, lessons and assessments. You’re already in a highly stressful situation; resist making things more complex. Stick with tools and resources everyone is already familiar with and use them well. More tools do not equal more – or better – learning. In fact, sometimes less really is more.
Try to choose one tool that will be your anchor and method of communication (e.g. email, LMS, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Seesaw). Build in flexibility for your adventurous and pioneering educators, but the majority of your staff and students will be thankful that they will only need to focus and develop their skills in one tool. This will also make it easier for your coaches, librarians and edtech teachers who might be developing training resources for the school community.
Simplicity also comes into play with scheduling and workload. Students won’t have the supports that they normally have in a regular classroom scenario, and everything that they do may take double or triple the time. In a normal classroom setting, teachers adjust their lessons as they observe their students’ progress and reactions; this is more challenging in an online environment. Planning shorter scaffolded lessons that allow for feedback will give students a way to feel successful without becoming overwhelmed.
Above all, remember that a little bit of kindness goes a long way.
First, learn to be kind to yourself. You might feel like time is against you, and everything needs to be polished and completed yesterday, but if you let go of perfection, you’ll find that you do not need to cross all the “T’s” Waiting another day will not be the end of the world.
You’ll also find yourself experimenting with new applications, learning new skills, and exploring new methodologies of teaching. Sometimes the technology will cooperate and the activity or plan will be successful, other times you will learn from the failures and adjust accordingly. Either way, celebrate your growth.
Exercise compassion, patience and grace. Everyone is in a stressful situation during a crisis, use words of affirmation and appreciation abundantly. Leaders, teachers, students and parents need to hear success stories and positive feedback to keep their spirits high.
Remember that communication can be misconstrued, especially in an online environment. An email can be read with the wrong tone, an 😬 emoji could be misinterpreted and feelings could be hurt. If we operate with the assumption of good intentions, communication and collaboration will be easier and more successful. Share resources and ideas generously, both locally and globally. The education community is much larger than your own school. Use social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to reach the broader community.
Each crisis situation is going to be very different, and the minutiae of the planning will also vary depending on your school community. Some schools might only be closed for a week or two, others for much longer. We have the tools, resources and now, the experiences, to continue learning beyond our school walls in extenuating circumstances. Let’s be proactive, plan for it and embrace the possibilities.
Sandra Chow is edtech director at Keystone Academy in Beijing, China. She has over 18 years of experience as an educator in Canada and internationally, and has won two national awards for technology in education. Her experience as a professional accountant, a cross-cultural educator, and a global trainer/consultant provides her with a unique perspective as a leader. She strives to prepare students and train educators to learn, teach, collaborate, and create in a globally rich society.