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Considerations for schools amid COVID-19

Education leaders, teachers, and parents are faced with myriad decisions about students’ futures, and the stakes are high. Their choices must be informed by facts—reliable data and lessons learned from experience.

In a McKinsey Live webinar, partners Fiyinfolu Oladiran and Jimmy Sarakatsannis explained how, in the midst of the pandemic, school systems, teachers, and parents can approach the return of students this fall. The accelerated spread of the virus in the spring forced teachers and school systems worldwide to scramble to cobble together a way to educate students online. They have had more time to plan for the fall term, and, as school now begins, they must also prepare for the inevitable twists and turns ahead.

Experience, alongside current research, has provided some data that can aid in decision making this fall. However, there is still much to be learned, from child-to-adult transmission rates and the long-term health implications of COVID-19 to identifying the most effective models and pedagogies by age group. As the school year progresses, additional, and better, data could help school systems to find out what is really working and what is worth giving a try to have the best outcome for the students.

Conflicting priorities

Making decisions and setting policies are complicated by four conflicting priorities that decision makers are bearing in mind simultaneously:

  1. The pandemic has not disappeared, and no vaccines or therapeutics are available.
  2. Childcare enables economic activity. Although the exact economic impact is not known, the portion of adults who depend on childcare is about 16 percent in the United States and 20 to 35 percent in Europe.
  3. Learning loss is real, and it compounds over time, affecting younger students and those of color disproportionally.
  4. Safeguarding schools is challenging, and there is incomplete data on what really works.

Globally, plans for the school year range from full-time remote learning to full-time in-person class, with a variety of hybrid models in between. Many systems plan to move between remote and in-person models throughout the year, some phasing in additional in-person learning over time. Some are letting parents decide what’s right for their children.

Schools must be ready to adapt their current model in response to changing circumstances and emerging research. For instance, some schools and regions began this fall with 100 percent of the students in the school building and fairly quickly moved back to remote learning in response to rising COVID-19 transmission rates.

High-stakes decision making

As plans develop for the remote-learning model, it is essential to think about what a student’s day will be like: How much learning will be synchronous? In what proportion will the whole class participate? How much time will be spent in small groups? How will students receive one-on-one attention from the teacher? Answers to these questions will likely vary by student subsets—students with differing needs as well as those of different ages.

The stakes are high. Learning losses are likely to remain an issue for years to come, and over time the losses will translate to lower lifetime earnings for students as well as losses for the economy. Moreover, unless remote and hybrid learning improve, the opportunity gaps that existed before the pandemic will only widen. Current estimates are that the average US student will lose 6.8 months of learning by January 2021, but the learning losses are not equal: six months for white students, 9.2 for Hispanic students, 10.3 for Black students, and 12.4 for low-income students.

Meeting the minimum requirements—putting in place health and safety modifications, setting daily hours of instruction by subject, and addressing special needs—won’t be enough. Getting students back to where they were in the spring requires improved access and participation rates, curriculum alignment across learning models, professional training, consistent academic standards, and regular student assessments. The eventual aspiration, however, is to do more than just “return-to-normal.” Closing long-standing opportunity gaps that existed prior to COVID-19 will require innovation across curriculums, nonacademic well-being, parent engagement, the role of the teacher, and more.

All of this is hard. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Yet this is not a reason to give up or lose hope. It’s important to make this year count. 

For more on this topic, please watch the webinar recording and read the articles “How do school shutdowns affect student achievement gaps?,” “Back to school: Lessons for effective remote and hybrid learning,” and UNESCO’s COVID-19 Response Toolkit.

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