A day after the largest online gathering of teachers in history, a split-screen picture emerges of a global crisis for our students and a profession determined to build back better.
We saw teachers and other educators from pre-K to post-grad exhausted but on fire, sharing tips, ideas, technologies and learning management strategies from their kitchens, internet hotspots or socially-distanced classrooms. As schools open in various configurations and schedules, education professionals are sorting through the chatter to find what works best now; what do we know, what matters and doesn’t, how we protect our kids and families and ensure our communities are whole and adapting together.
Beside this indelible image of imagination, persistence and leadership is a matching screen filled with the relentless reality of COVID-19 — more than 1.6 billion students kept out of schools by closures, half of them without access to a household computer and most of them without household internet. UNESCO tells us “56 million learners live in locations that are not served by mobile networks, so cannot use mobile phones to access information or to connect with their teachers or with peers.” Perhaps worse, 24 million students in 180 countries are at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic’s effects on the economy, falling back into the grip of child labor or the low-priority status too often afforded to girls.
In one 24-hour day of webcasting streamed live from six continents, teachers, students, government leaders and a variety of education advocates on World Teachers’ Day shared what they’ve learned and how we might collaboratively push back to turn around the terrifying numbers.
Teachers feel this crisis deeply. They reinvented their professional practice overnight and are still at it. For years, online or distance teaching and learning was a gamble for entrepreneurs and hedge funds in an evidence-free marketplace of promises. Teachers were guinea pigs as education technology experiments cycled through schools. Rarely were educators asked for input or given the time or training to bring professional practice to scale. Today, they’re scaling emergency learning as they go, in effect, building a plane in flight.
Rampant politicization of the coronavirus only makes things worse. Teachers and families and even our students are wondering if our societies and our democracies can get through this intact at a time when prominent voices and leaders actively peddle misinformation, work to marginalize health, science and education professionals and sow distrust of the news media.
What do we really know? We know schools are irreplaceable. They are the heart of our communities, centers of learning and health, central to our economies and our sense of nationhood and identity. They need to safely open. No one says, “okay, now we have these virtual platforms, let’s just figure out how to stay home and improve our screen experiences.” That’s why Education International’s guidance for reopening schools led with a call for transparent communications from governments, with decisions closely tied to the advice of health experts and continuous dialogue with educators and their unions.
We know that among the countries most deeply affected by the pandemic, denial is the regular order, not dialogue. Many of these hard-hit nations including my own, are led at the national level by anti-science authoritarians who have encouraged their followers to embrace nonsensical medical treatments, failed to properly resource the public sector in health or education and pitted their political movements against both medical facts and the media that report them. By contrast, countries that have experienced less severe outbreaks of the pandemic and are transitioning more smoothly back to school and work focus sharply on science, have robust public sectors and media.
We also know that public demands for accountability make a difference. Families and communities can join with teachers and others to insist that decisions about national priorities and resources be made in a democratic fashion. In some places it’s called social dialogue, in others, negotiation. Where I come from in western Pennsylvania, it might be called being at the table instead of on the menu.
The tools to make governments work are built around the lessons most of us reading this learned in school. Set policy based on fact, not the opinion of the people in charge. Pandemics deserve vaccines from scientists, not quack medicines from politicians and their cronies. Don’t let bullies go unchallenged. Call out falsehoods. Support aggressive independent media. Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power. Understand that dividing us by race, ethnicity, religion, geography or political label is rooted in history as a tool of authoritarians who can always get worse.
Tens of thousands of educators and their allies from around the world used World Teachers’ Day to demand this dialogue. COVID-19 must become a lesson; yes in science, but in government, history, technology, media and in regaining our sense of common purpose. We intend the day to be a dramatic start of a new social compact between teachers, families, communities and everyone with a stake in a vital public sector that features quality healthcare and quality education for all.