The arrival of mid-term break is a welcome respite from remote learning for pupils, parents and teachers alike. It is clear from testimonies across media that learning at distance, although improved on the experience of last year, has far from been a smooth experience for many, particularly those juggling care and work commitments, working on the frontline and in situations where there is a lack of access to technology and and literacy to ensure meaningful engagement.
The uncertainty of what is to come in education has evoked much stress and anxiety, most especially for children with additional needs and for young people engaging in the Leaving Certificate.
Less acknowledged is the impact of remote learning on a blurring of boundaries between educational institutions and our own private and professional lives. It has created the perfect storm, a pressure cooker, where, as we try to make sense of juggling it all, we struggle to find the solution to release that valve and catch our collective breaths.
But like so much of what has happened during this pandemic, it has also raised fundamental and existential questions about our education system, providing a significant challenge that the Department of Education and others must address once the immediate crisis has passed.
While the physical closure of schools and educational institutions across the country in Spring 2020 was initially planned for a short duration, the ensuing prolonged closures bore witness to a monumental and historic pivot across the education system. Remote and distance learning became the modus operandi, with reports of variations in success across the country.
Our experiences of juggling it all were initially represented in jovial memes and comical sketches. However, the mood distinctly changed once we realized this was to be our educational journey whether as student, teacher, or in supporting the learning of those in our homes and families.
Our collective experience with remote learning during 2020 still preys deep on our psyche. The physical closure of schools for a second time in January and February has evoked a range of profound emotions ranging from relief, frustration, anxiety and anger.
The questions for many are “how are we going to continue to do this?” and “when are our children going to return to school?”. Parents of children with additional needs have had to fight especially hard. As a society we are fatigued. We have been trying to keep the show on the road, juggling it all, putting our shoulder to the wheel to try our best to protect ourselves and those we love from Covid-19. We are continuously absorbing the stark and important messaging about how we should behave, emphasising the need to “protect yourselves by staying apart” while being asked to “hold firm”. The mood now is distinctly divisive and the most recent school closures have brought this clearly to the fore.
The Department of Education has extended its long arm into the private spaces of our homes, where schools have been tasked to progress the curriculum during physical school closures. Teachers’ classrooms have been displaced from spaces full of appropriate resources and structures to support student-focused learning, to those that are virtual, broadcasting from their private homes with limited resourcing.
Parents/guardians supporting learners in their homes now provide the required equipment, grappling with accessing the digital resources and appropriate platforms to bridge the communication between home and school.
It is important to acknowledge that some children and young people don’t have that privilege. Homes are where we care and are cared for. Ideally they provide safe spaces for children to retreat, restore and play - a fundamental right articulated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
However, the clear boundaries between school and home have now been eroded, with children and young people’s home time regulated by school work. For some children and their families this is too much, for others there is not enough.
Perhaps, most notable, has been the absence of children and young people’s voices from the discussion around plans for remote learning and any planned return to school. We cannot overstate the importance of including their perspectives in any decisions we make in education and by not doing so we deny children and young people the right to freely express their views in matters affecting them (Article 12, UNCRC).
There has been a distinct intensification of time. While, on the face of it, the pandemic has afforded families more time together with less commuting, fewer structured after-school activities and the necessity to avoid social contact with others, the reality is very different.
Working from home means juggling the demands of a work schedule and access to devices while also managing children’s learning. Frontline and other essential workers are struggling to find care for their children on top of meeting remote learning expectations. Children and young people with care responsibilities are expected to look after their families while also balancing schoolwork without the protected space and time afforded by school. Schools and teachers are now expected to always be available.
The accessibility afforded by online learning platforms also serve to demand more of everyone’s time from negotiating how to use them, uploading assignments, giving and receiving feedback while meeting teacher/student/parental expectations. This is an impossible task, fraught with frustration and a sense that we are doing too much or not doing enough.
Time has simultaneously sped up and slowed down within the education system. While the days may be long, the demands on time have intensified. What has ensued is the lack of time to just “be”.
While schools, teachers and SNAs are going to extraordinary lengths to support children and provide them with enriching, interactive and engaging content, the deeply relational spaces of school are extremely challenging to replicate using virtual platforms.
What is patently clear is that the role of schools within society has extended well beyond teaching and learning, and curriculum and assessment. Schools are vital sites of social care, providing critical supports to families and their children, particularly in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.
Perhaps we need to interrogate the responsibility attributed to schools in this regard, whether they have been adequately resourced to meet the needs of those most vulnerable in our communities, and whether it should really be their responsibility? In an advanced society, why have schools become so central to providing such care?
As the pandemic has shown, education is the cornerstone of our society. If our education system is thriving, our society flourishes. Ireland has one of the highest ranked education systems across the OECD, with the high calibre of teachers working in our schools significantly contributing to its overall effectiveness.
The current divisiveness and public commentary towards the education sector during this crisis only serves to fracture, undermine and devalue the critical work and care provided by schools and teachers. The implications are potentially profound in terms of teacher retention and the recruitment of high quality educators into the system in the future.
The safe physical reopening of schools is so critical to our society, particularly to ensure equity of access to education for all children and young people. However, it will be important we come together in community to reflect on what Covid-19 has exposed about the place, understanding and value of education and schooling within our society post pandemic.
Dr Deirdre McGillicuddy is a mother of three primary school children, a primary school teacher and assistant professor in education in UCD.
Associate Prof Niamh Moore-Cherry is mother to two primary school children and vice-principal teaching and learning in UCD’s College of Social Sciences and Law.