September looms on the horizon, laced with concerns around the lingering health risks of fully opening schools while there continues to be uncertainty regarding Covid variants, and even more urgent is the realization that it is time to tackle the damage done to our students over the past 16 months.
During the summer I have been sharing new approaches based on recent experiences with colleagues across our ORT global education network – in Israel, the United States, Britain and many other countries. We have learnt so much about what happened in our schools during the pandemic, the impact on our students and ourselves, and how – with resilience and adaptability – we have overcome so much.
Observe students’ behavior
We have heard so much about ‘learning loss’ and the need for students to physically get back into school to ‘catch-up’. There is going to be great pressure this coming year to make up for lost time and to claw back some of the academic ground lost.
But the lack of social interaction during lockdown was hugely damaging, especially to teenagers. This demographic has been among the very hardest hit. Colleagues across our ORT network, from Rome to Rio and Madrid to Mexico City, have experienced the same. Teenagers’ academic progress has been halted at a crucial time, with major exams and life decisions on the horizon.
They are going to need significant emotional support, now and for years to come.
Settle into new structures
Structure will play a significant part. Academically it will be important, but pastorally it will be vital. We must encourage children back to the school environment. But what will be the most effective way to reintegrate them into formal educational settings? We know that for office workers who have spent the past 15 months or more working from home instead of commuting into bustling city centers, there is a split opinion on going back to what was previously considered normal.
It is the same for our children: some are desperate to be back at their school desks, off the webcams and alongside their friends. For others, nothing could feel worse right now than re-engaging with their peers and facing their social fears. Ensuring the right framework and balance is found could make a huge difference to the success of the coming months.
Invest in students as individuals
It is something teachers have always known to be crucial, but treating each child as an individual is more relevant now than ever before.
What we saw during the pandemic was how the changed learning environment affected everyone differently – the shy child who shrank into their seat when called upon in front of their peers was transformed on Zoom into a commanding presence, ready and willing to answer any question. But what happens when they return to the classroom? Will the experience of the past year have helped them grow and overcome their previous shyness? Or will returning to the scene of previous unhappiness set them back again?
As time consuming and emotionally demanding as it will be for teachers, approaching the new year one student at a time and investing in them as individuals will reap rewards for all.
Grades are not everything
In the same mindset I would advise students, teachers and parents alike not to focus on exam projections, results, and grade assessments. Each child will take time to settle back into a routine. Some will bounce back faster and return quickly to their predicted grades, others clearly will not.
A decade from now these young people are unlikely to remember their ninth grade English result, but they will remember the emotional toll of this time: how it felt to be learning in a room alone for months on end; what it means when you cannot see your friends for so long.
Fixating now on ‘catching up’ will only increase the pressure. Give children time and be honest and open. Tell them it really does not matter whether they score a B or a C right now.
Embrace the technological advances
Given the sheer amount of screen time we have all endured, it would be tempting to put the machines back in their boxes and invest only in people and face-to-face interaction.
But it would also be a huge mistake. The pandemic has forced us to adapt and embrace technological changes that would otherwise have taken decades, possibly another generation, to breakthrough. Let us not lose sight of the successes – for some students it has been a life-changing catalyst towards improved performance and better future prospects.
We have learnt the power of connection across our global network. Our greater use of technology has opened virtual doors to fellow students and teachers internationally. Pre-pandemic would we have flown in specialists from ORT schools on other continents? It would have been prohibitively expensive and inefficient use of their time. Now, doing it on Zoom is second nature.
Some people will see September as ‘the end’ – but why not consider it the beginning of a new age of education?
As we prepare for another year of great challenges, I believe we are presented with opportunities, not burdens. However seriously being out of school has impacted children, we know they are resilient and are eager to make the most of their futures, to look forward not back and to seize every chance life throws at them.
Dr. Moshe Leiba is Chief Pedagogy and R&D Officer at World ORT Kadima Mada in Israel