Four states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have closed all schools across their respective areas of jurisdiction in a bid to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns for the safety of students, teachers, and school staff have brought government and school officials to the hard decision of shutting down campuses indefinitely until perhaps a safe vaccine is developed and the contagion is controlled.
Studies show that school closures need to last for several months for it to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus at the community level. Academic institutions that are still allowed to open classes onsite have stepped up their anti-COVID-19 protocols such as requiring everyone in the campus to wear face masks, observance of physical distancing, and even allocating a budget for commercial sanitation services to ensure that classrooms, faculty rooms, and other facilities are clean and safe. In a typical classroom alone, the chairs, tables, and board in addition to the classroom doorknobs are high-risk objects and surfaces where bacteria and viruses can thrive for hours if not days. Sanitation of these areas is needed regularly to make them safe for use during a regular class day.
COVID-19 and Its Impact on the Education System
According to a report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), more than 50% of the world’s student population has stopped going to school because of the pandemic. Students in economically advanced nations have more access to internet-based learning resources which makes them less vulnerable to disruptions caused by COVID-19. The situation is very critical in poor and developing countries whose student population does not have the resources to shift to online education while schools are shuttered.
Last March, more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the U.S. closed their campuses. This fall, many are reopening but the impact of the pandemic has already affected these institutions. One major area that has been affected is the financial viability of these colleges and universities. For example, the University of Wisconsin disclosed that it had to refund at least $78 million to students from its 13 campuses who had earlier paid for board and lodging inside the campus.
The amount of income to be lost from discontinued enrollments is a separate amount that will be hard to recover in the next few years. If one university can lose that amount of income, multiply that by the number of other campuses across the United States including the so-called Ivy League universities that are expected to lose many of its foreign students. Travel restrictions related to COVID-19 prevent many foreign students from coming back to the U.S. to continue their studies. Some foreign students have also lost tuition support from their families back home that are experiencing a business slowdown as an effect of the pandemic.
Strategic Intervention: Online Education
Given the need to continue providing for the educational needs of thousands of students from across all levels, schools and universities have invested additional funds to enhance their online distance education programs. Some colleges have adopted new and more advanced learning management systems (LMS) to accommodate more students online, all of whom rely on multimedia resources and live audio-video conferencing tools as an alternative to the onsite classroom experience.
For many students, the new situation may give them a sigh of relief since there is now less pressure to prepare before going to a classroom. The apprehensions of sitting in class before a teacher or professor is much less compared with interactions online, some of which might actually involve pre-recorded lessons from teachers and professors. The adeptness of most young people of school age in the use of computers, smartphones, and other gadgets is a plus for online education, no doubt.
However, it must be understood that these online technologies for education may be more accessible in the U.S., Europe, and other more advanced economies. The case is not the same in many countries in South America, Africa, and Asia. In fact, among countries in the Asian region, only Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia have reached 80% internet penetration. Other countries are lagging behind in both internet access and speed, which translates to serious limitations in shifting to an online education modality.
Evolution of the School and Teacher
When it comes to the teachers and professors, many in the private school sector have been forced to file for unemployment assistance due to redundancies. Since the closures, many have been forced to shift to new careers or wait for them to be recalled by the school. A career reboot is needed especially now that online education is the default for many schools that have computer-enabled systems.
The positive side is that there has been an increase in demand for online teachers and tutors, a vacuum that can be filled by educators who lost their job during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. Educators have also been challenged to adapt to the new norms and embrace the latest technologies in instructional delivery. When the day comes that the pandemic is no longer a threat, more schools will gradually open and teachers will troop back to their classrooms. At the same time, there will be wider acceptance for online education, and we might see both the traditional classrooms and virtual classrooms co-exist. If these two modalities are allowed to operate at the same time in the mainstream, it would allow teachers to choose where they will exercise their profession and, at the same time, give students the freedom to choose how and where they will study and learn.