Distance learning during a pandemic
“There are lots of kids who have been sent home with nothing”, Anissa Thabet tells Holyrood. “Those who have been given tablets still face problems if their parents do not have the internet, and the vast majority will not. A few have it, but the vast majority do not, so even those with a tablet cannot do the work.”
Thabet, a family keywork adviser at the Scottish Refugee Council, has found her role transformed by the coronavirus lockdown, with the organisation left trying to support dozens of child asylum seekers who have been left unable to access school resources due to a lack of equipment, or ability to access the internet.
Technology has become a lifeline during lockdown, providing a link to information on vital services and updates on the spread of COVID-19, as well as allowing children and young people to access educational materials while schools are closed. Yet the approaches of local authorities vary, and while some schools have provided children with devices such as tablets to work from while schools are closed, Holyrood understands that at least 60 families awaiting asylum applications across Scotland are unable to access the internet, leaving vulnerable children unable to engage with resources.
With people seeking asylum forced to live on around £35 per week each, or £5 per day, many families are unable to afford either wifi or mobile data. In one case a single mother of five children, who are too young to be left alone, is stuck in lockdown with no access to internet.
In another household supported by SRC, a single mother of three is living in cramped accommodation, with sparse furniture, and one smart phone between four people.
The children should all be at high school - two were due to sit exams in May - yet with one phone and very limited amounts of data, they have been left shut off from the outside world, as they become increasingly anxious about falling behind on the curriculum.
Thabet said: “Children are expected to continue learning in their homes at the moment, but if the family cannot access the devices or the internet required to do that, it is impossible.
“All the kids are at home with their parent, but these are people on the edge of destitution. They don’t have [extended] family or support networks, so their whole universe is in the house.
“If they can’t connect with the schools because of a lack of internet, they lose not just a basic right to education, but also become completely disconnected from the outside world. They have been left completely isolated.”
This, clearly, is an extreme case of the sorts of challenges facing children attempting to access educational resources from home, and with Unesco estimating that, globally, around 90 per cent of the world’s children were out of school in April due to restrictions imposed by the virus, Scotland will not be alone in struggling with the various obstacles in maintaining education in the age of COVID-19.
Google Classroom has been popular with schools for years, attracting teachers because it offers an easy way to set tasks, check homework, create tests and stay in touch with pupils. Set out in a similar format to Facebook, teachers can set tasks and pupils can comment to ask questions or seek clarification.
But while the use of Google, or other platforms such as Microsoft Teams, is nothing new, with lockdown these approaches have taken on a new importance. Yet not all pupils can access these tools, and even if they can, with some in home environments where learning is impossible, it is clear that teaching from a distance is not easy.
For parents, concern is natural. In fact, according to a study, conducted in April by BT, nearly a third of UK parents are worried that their children will fall behind in certain subjects as no one in their household is confident enough to teach them.
The report, based in a survey of 2,006 UK parents of children aged 5-11 years, found that although 66 per cent of parents said their children’s education takes priority over their job, they could only dedicate around three hours a day to home learning.
Computer sciences, alongside areas such as coding, were the most likely to be dropped, with parents worried they do not understand them or were not taught them, and just 24 per cent were comfortable teaching IT and computer science.
And while Boris Johnson has begun to hint at a return for schools in England, possibly beginning at the start of June, in Scotland that timetable still looks unlikely.
A recent Scottish Government paper on easing lockdown suggests a “phased” approach could be taken to reopening schools, with children potentially attending “in blocks of a few days or even a week at a time”.
As Education Secretary John Swinney explained: “The idea that schools will be reconvening and all pupils will be back at the same time on the same day is not a circumstance I can envisage any time soon.
“There is clearly disruption to the learning of young people right now and we need to find the most effective way to bring school communities back together again and to make sure that formal learning can be revived.
“What we have to look at is how we might bring schools back on a phased basis with different groups of pupils coming back at different times, or changes to the school day to accommodate different groupings of individual pupils.”
Nicola Sturgeon meanwhile has been explicit in her concern that re-opening schools before the summer holidays could lead to a spike in cases of COVID-19, with officials instead examining the possibility of certain pupils, such as the most vulnerable or those in transition from primary school to high school, being prioritised.
As she put it: “It is possible different groups could attend school part-time, in blocks of a few days, or a week at a time, to enable physical distancing and deep cleaning of schools between sessions.”
And so, for now at least, pupils must do their best to learn from home. In fact, the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee is currently investigating the impact of coronavirus on children and young people, in an attempt to chart how the lockdown has affected their learning.
MSPs are taking evidence from young people and teachers about the impact the cancellation of the 2020 exams will have on them, as well as seeking their views on the planned assessment process, while also examining wider questions surrounding the wellbeing of vulnerable children, such as those living in poverty, with additional support needs and those monitored for child protection reasons.
Committee convener Clare Adamson said: “We have seen the people of Scotland respond as never before to the challenges we all currently face.
“We have seen communities come together in support of each other and friends and families connect in new ways.
“But we cannot ignore the impact that the current measures will be having on some of the most vulnerable children.
“Those living in poverty and deprivation as well as those with additional support needs may not be getting the support and services they most desperately need.
“Our committee wants to find out what more needs to be done to ensure that none of these children’s needs are missed as a result of this crisis.
“We also cannot forget for some young people, it feels like their futures have changed beyond imagination.
“There is uncertainty and fear about what the cancellation of the 2020 exams means for them.”
But in the meantime, calls for greater support continue, with Adoption UK urging administrations across the UK to provide additional funding and resources to help schools support children struggling the most.
In a new report on home learning during the COVID-19 lockdown, the charity warned that 85 per cent of care experienced children who are home-based in lockdown do not receive any additional support, while half of the parents who responded to its survey said their child is experiencing emotional distress and anxiety as a result of lockdown.
Rebecca Brooks, author of the report, said: “These children have traumatic life experiences that can make learning and mental health a herculean struggle during normal times, let alone during a global pandemic.
“School closures and lockdown are exacerbating learning and emotional problems, including an increase in violent behaviour. Schools are struggling to support their pupils with highest needs.”
She said: “This is why we’re urging the governments across the UK to provide schools with the funding they will desperately need to help these children with their return to school – supporting not only their learning, but also their wellbeing.”
Yet with a general sense of anxiety pervading communities across Scotland, even without the obstacles posed by issues such as digital exclusion it is hard to escape the sense that a pandemic is not an ideal learning environment.
In Edinburgh, for example, concern over the mental health impact of lockdown has driven the council to put on extra advice and support from its team of educational psychologists, to help young people and their families struggling at home during the pandemic.
The resource, run by Edinburgh City Council’s Psychological Services, provides support to parents, carers and school staff, as well as older children and young people who want advice on managing home learning and wellbeing.
The department provides advice on how families can talk to each other about the stresses they face, as well as the importance of routines and keeping active.
Council Leader Adam McVey said: “These are very unusual and uncertain times for everyone especially for our young people whose regular daily routines that they are so familiar with have changed dramatically.
“There might be times when they are feeling safe and happy, or other times when they feel overwhelmed, anxious or low. For many of us feelings can change from day to day, hour to hour, or minute to minute. So it’s important we do all we can to support young people and their families when they are staying safe at home so they can cope with this unprecedented situation.”
Depute Leader Cammy Day added: “There’s lots of information out there just now so it can all feel a bit overwhelming knowing what’s the best advice for you to follow. The most important thing is to look after yourself, and those around you, and support each other through these uncertain times.”