When schools closed temporarily in mid-March 2020, the exceptional health situation forced us to make unilateral decisions. Almost six months later, although the situation has not resolved, there are some unavoidable issues with the return to school, which is coming very quickly. Here are some of those considerations.
Education, an essential service
I firmly believe that education is an essential service, in Quebec as elsewhere. To tell you a little secret, my professional pride was struck when grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores and certain retail businesses were identified as "essential" services. Misplaced pride? Probably! At the grocery store, the pain was acute when I stood in the checkout line in front of a hand painted sign: “Thank you to our heroes”. Without wishing to diminish the scope of their noble work, which is to feed Quebec and to see to the maintenance of the integrity of the supply chain, education is an essential service. Point.
Except that the schools were closed and we could no longer carry out our functions in an area that was nevertheless sensitive to society. There is no shortage of heroes in schools! Education professionals must play an equally essential role. This role boils down to continuing to provide school services in a different context and in an equally different way.
In my opinion, there is a difference between education and school. While it is clear that education is an essential activity for society, its activities can nevertheless be carried out outside the school establishment. The school does not have a monopoly on education. If COVID-19 forces schools to close again, it is imperative that student education continue.
School attendance has been compulsory in Quebec for almost 80 years. Thanks to the multitude of tools available to us in 2020, it is now possible to attend school other than on a chair in a classroom. It is obvious that the education of students, whether virtual or face-to-face, must be compulsory rather than optional. The pandemic has shown that the education network was not prepared for such an event. The temporary closure of schools also had an impact on day-to-day family organization, hence the need for flexibility in school attendance. Except that in September, we will be in the sixth month of the pandemic. If the school were to close again, it would be necessary to maintain the compulsory presence of pupils in the educational activities offered by the schools.
Yes, there are special cases, exceptions. There will be students who will not be able to participate in distance learning activities. However, these exceptions should not be made the norm for everyone. It is up to school authorities to ensure that students can benefit from the tools necessary for distance learning. They must also ensure parental collaboration for the supervision of the children. Those who receive an exemption from school attendance will require ministerial approval, as applied in cases of certification of studies. Parents whose students are unable to virtually attend school should prove that inability rather than benefit from a universal minority rule.
Work environments and pedagogical approaches
If school is now considered an essential service and school attendance always remains the norm (regardless of the form of attendance), the working environments of teachers and learners will have to be reviewed. The model of school planning and organization, even if it has been abused by COVID-19, takes us back a few centuries behind us.
The gap between school and the workplace is notorious, we have noticed it for several years. The organization and layout of the school stands out from the world of work, especially in terms of the use of technology and the ability to collaborate. What if we applied this operation to schools? What if we set up flexible, collaborative and open-plan workspaces, in which partnerships with the community are possible, or even desired?
With a return to school in hybrid mode, with students on site and others at home, optimizing technologies and educational spaces involves not only physical changes to current institutions, but also the change in educational approaches that will allow to supervise the learning of the pupils remotely as in the field.
The management of the emergency is over and, in a certain sense, that of the unknown and the unforeseeable! While this period of uncertainty is unprecedented, we are investigating whether the school, as we knew it before March 2020, will be back. Our need to obtain answers while awaiting the decisions of our leaders reflects our difficulty in mourning an outdated school model, for which we continue to fuel hopes of return.
But it's over. Let's stop waiting and now work to rethink our schools, our approaches and the services to be offered to our community. The opportunity is there! Let us change our education system by questioning the dogmas and professional reflexes that have dictated our practices for too long without regard to the current needs of our students.