Argentina reported its first case of COVID-19 on 3 March 2020; by 19 March, the country declared a complete lockdown when the number of confirmed infections reached 128. In response to the crisis, the government adopted a series of health, social and economic measures to slow down the spread of the virus as much as possible: border closures; social distancing; time off from work for people over 60, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions; supplementary allowances for pensioners and those eligible for Universal Child Allowance; and suspension of school classes.
Within the education field, additional steps are being taken to offset the impact of school closures by continuing to run school canteens and/or distributing food packages as needed. In addition, a programme has been launched to provide teachers, students and families with educational support so that the teaching and learning process can continue at home. The project has been developed using materials and resources that will be made available both through the government's official site (the “Seguimos Educando” web platform) and other media such as public television, national radio, community radio stations and through the distribution of printed booklets, especially for the most vulnerable sectors of the population with greater social and communication difficulties.
Following the rapid initial responses of the national government and of all teachers to ensure the right to education with appropriate learning support, there have also been reflections regarding how this support is being provided, under what conditions and with which resources.
The current conflict between the need for academic support and the requisite working conditions to provide it has both highlighted a number of shared opinions and points of consensus, while at the same time raising new questions and concerns:
- “Schools and teachers are irreplaceable”
- “Do we need to cover the same amount of educational materials?”
- “How can we ensure that we are not exacerbating social inequality in the case of students who have less access to social and communication channels?”
- “If we’re teaching remotely, why are we still talking about having to make up for classes?”
- “How will such-and-such be evaluated...?”, and so on.
In times of crisis like the one we are currently experiencing, teachers make invaluable contributions to education through teleworking and the use of digital resources. However, this teleworking should not be reduced to a formality that merely replicates in a different way a list of materials and subjects that had already been planned to be covered under normal conditions. Instead, these unusual circumstances of having to work from home ought to serve as an excellent opportunity for us to become even more aware of the importance of ensuring adequate conditions in any given context, as well as giving us a chance to rethink traditional methods of teaching and learning.
Among other changes, the current situation has led to a drastic shift in school and work hours due to the suspension of classes and restrictions imposed by the current health quarantine. And this dizzying shift towards virtual means of educational accompaniment, when compounded by widespread anxiety and concern about the pandemic, is leading to stressful conditions for teachers, administrators, students and families alike.
Under these new conditions, it has become clear that developing virtual content requires more time than is usually spent preparing for face-to-face classes. What has also become clear is the importance of having at the very least one computer with a decent internet connection; distance learning requires students to have access to connected devices, a luxury that cannot be taken for granted. In many cases, students lack the space and time to be able to focus on their studies at home. In addition, there are the health concerns associated with excessive screen time, which society as a whole has long been experiencing and which are now only becoming more apparent. Furthermore, there has been considerable disruption to customary working hours, which are regulated and established by teaching statutes. Teaching has quietly become a constant commitment due to the different scheduling constraints faced by teachers under the current conditions: meetings with students and parents around the clock, numerous directives and a flood of messages and demands coming in through different channels.
It is also worth mentioning that many school administrators, support staff and thousands of teachers are currently going to schools to help run canteens and/or manage the distribution of food packages. Sixty-two per cent (62%) of teachers now have two jobs, and over half of them work in two to three schools or even more, which entails interacting with multiple groups of students, diverse learning communities and various authorities. (Encuesta de Salud, CTERA, 2019).
And all this has come at a time when the education budget had already been dramatically slashed over the last four years under the Macri administration. As a result of these cutbacks, the Instituto Nacional de Formación Docente (National Institute for Teacher Training) ended up with 65% fewer resources and was forced to discontinue various online postgraduate degree programmes, which would have been very useful today. The “Conectar Igualdad” Plan was also scrapped, leaving a large amount of equipment undelivered or not updated due to technicians having been made redundant under the previous government.
Technology is valuable when understood as a tool that provides access to information and enables the development of certain kinds of knowledge. But by no means can it replace the role of the school and the government beyond leading us to recognise the importance of re-evaluating our teaching and learning processes, both now and in the future.
Such considerations cannot be properly made without questioning whether what we are building ultimately shifts the scales towards the side of public education as a social right or towards privatisation and commercialisation; whether the scales shift towards improving the working conditions of teachers and quality of school facilities or towards increased job precarity and overexploitation; whether the scales shift in favour of those who have fewer possibilities or only serve to exacerbate existing inequalities.
The time is now. Let’s make sure we do all we can to use it to our benefit.
Note: This article is based on an article previously published in El Cohete A La Luna (available here).