Helping kids face new normal

Education | Natasha Tai 21 Sep 2021

As the new school year begins, schools are moving toward normality again. But don't expect things to go back to where they used to be pre-Covid - the new normal is here to stay, said Prachi Srivastava, a tenured associate professor of Western University in London, Ontario.

Covid-19 is already affecting the future development of 1.7 billion children. There is no straightforward solution but Srivastava, who specializes in education and global development, suggested that there are areas within society that can be targeted.

"Education disruption is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional," she said.

Having led global emergency briefs on education policy and equity for the Think 20 (T20), feeding into the official global engagement group of the G20, as well as creating the open-access school-level demographic data visualization portal Covid-19 School Dashboard, Srivastava urged crisis-sensitive action to protect education as one of the more fundamental sectors of society.

"Family and school are two main institutions in their life and development, and the disease is affecting both of these in very different ways."

Schools play an important role in the development of children, in terms of reading and writing, as well as a host of other crucial services - meals, therapeutic and diagnostic services, special needs, and much more. Not only are children who require these services affected due to school closures, schools in lower income neighborhoods also tend to be worse affected than schools in better socioeconomic districts.

With data collected from Covid-19 School Dashboard, Srivastava urged educational resources to be prioritized to these communities, such as extra one-on-one support and tutoring.

As schooling has moved indoors, families affected by Covid-19 also severely impact children. With death rates as high as three to 15 million, orphans have become one of the main concerns.

By understanding that schools provide food, nutrition, immunization and social-protection programs, as well as playing a fundamental role in child protection services, Srivastava highlighted how education should be treated as an essential service.

She suggested three forms of reform that must be instituted to further support children during Covid-19.

First is installing a broad curricular reform to the education system. In most countries, the vast majority of education systems in elementary and secondary schooling function on a progressive model. This means the education system is a continuous and linked process that goes from primary to secondary school.

And if there is a lengthy disruption at any point in that system, such as up to 20 weeks and more of school closure, advancing is going to be a problem at every point said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In fact, given the nature of the education system, Srivastava argued that we might even need to rethink and restructure the traditional model. "It's like a house," she said. "If we don't have a solid foundation, the whole building is going to crumble."

All modelling studies also indicate an income, learning and GDP loss for the children being disrupted globally. "Even when remote learning is taken into consideration, roughly five million children receive no form of remote or distance learning," she said.

More than one billion children are at risk of falling behind due to school closures as a health and safety measure. This protracted level of disruption cannot continue.

Srivastava also emphasized a necessary initiative toward strong programming to boost the core competency of literacy, as well as instituting psycho-social programming to limit adverse social effects, for every grade. For students in elementary and secondary schooling, especially the younger ones, this disruption would lead to a substantial learning loss in the core subjects, as well as literacy and critical thinking skills.

Targeted support should be instituted, she said. Even if schools were able to reopen their doors, they must be prepared to help students adjust, taking into consideration their needs, such as language, gender, region, health and more.

With initiatives for the most disadvantaged schools and the most disadvantaged children within schools, students can get support on an individual level.

By integrating socioeconomic provisions with a strong public health response, Srivastava proposed a twin-track approach toward institutional and systemic levels of inequity. Due to the importance of the social aspect in the young and the developmental years of children, through examining different groups at an individual level, the approach has to have a system wide aspect, and include targeted responses for groups that are disproportionately disadvantaged.

"We can't just look at public healthcare measures when it comes to education," she said.

"We also need to consider the curricular measures and the family social dynamics, and what is happening in the economic and social circumstances."

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