By Melissa Heckers
It may be too early to assess the impact of the pandemic on education, but anyone who has witnessed a child learning online since the closure of schools can see how it has affected their rounded learning.
“On one level it [the pandemic] has not affected us very much as we have managed to provide continuity of education online, even providing music, art and PE lessons. Some of the practical sessions, in the sciences for example, have been challenging, but we have found ways to work around the obstacles,” explains principal of The Junior & Senior School in Nicosia Paulo Duran.
“Like every school, we’ve tried to minimise the loss of learning by having remote teaching right from day one… we’ve had a big drive on remote teaching, online learning and we’ve done a lot of innovative kinds of practices to make sure that that works in terms of sharing resources, even having blended learning at times (simultaneous online and in class participation)… we’ve really gone as far as we can to adapt to the ever changing needs,” adds headmaster of The English School in Nicosia David Lambon.
Adapting to new circumstances has required schools to be supportive of groups that potentially face additional challenges. “We’ve had to become more flexible, particularly with exam classes and their preparation… we’re trying to make sure that we support students fully through this stage of uncertainty by adapting the programme and being very clear with them about what will be expected in order for them to achieve a given level but also maybe give them a number of opportunities to reach that level,” says Lambon. With some year groups not sitting exams, other year groups returning to school and others continuing online schooling, teachers have had to adapt their assessments. “Teachers have to be flexible and innovative in their thinking so as to give students ample opportunity to show how good they are but at the same time balance that with pressure of performance,” adds Lambon.
But the stress has not been felt by the teachers alone. “Studying in your room, in front of a screen for hours can be tiring, and it can often be difficult to find the motivation to excel academically without the usual school routine,” says 18-year-old student Sebastian Nikita. “I’m challenged by the loneliness and isolation of the space I’m learning in,” adds his peer Georgia Economidou.
Adjusting the curriculum for younger children who aren’t in a position to follow back-to-back lessons online, giving comfort breaks from the screen, making sure material isn’t delivered too quickly leaving some students behind, have all had to be taken on board by the teachers.
On their end, parents too have taken on new responsibilities and worry about insufficient support. “Both my children are quite strong academically,” says Alexia Panayiotou, mother of two. “That said, I worry for children who are less so – I really think that online education will leave them further behind and increase existing inequalities down the line.”
“As parents we need to really commit to our own resilience, our own self-care habits, so that we can be fully present and respond sensitively to our children’s emerging needs as the situation unfolds: both the needs we might have predicted, as well as those needs that catch us by surprise,” adds Iole Damaskinos, a mother of three at junior, senior and university level.
Yet aside from managing the current challenges of online education, the long-term impact of children not physically attending school seems to be more alarming. The lasting effects can be divided into two main aspects: the curricular, education, academic and learning side of things, and most importantly perhaps the entire cultural and social front. Lambon estimates that “the effects of not having normal schooling and the activities that students have missed out on probably account for a year’s worth of development whether its extra curricular activities, skills or football, music, school concerts… if you don’t nurture those sorts of interests at the onset it’s more difficult to try and get that interest at a later date. Education nowadays isn’t just imparting knowledge, it’s about experiments and learning from practice, it’s about designing, exchanging views, being creative together, whether that’s in music, art, indeed sports and being part of a team. These aspects are sadly very difficult to substitute online.”
“Without the buzz of the classroom setting and the company of my friends in class, it is extremely difficult to remain positive and motivated while learning. Many of my subjects at A Level, such as Drama, involve a lot of group work, class discussions and collaborative activities, which are challenging to approach with online learning, as there is no direct contact or communication with others,” says Economidou.
At the Senior school in Nicosia, PSHE sessions, online assemblies, interviews with students to decide on subject choices for GCSE, or simply reaching out and seeing how students are have been undertaken to address both the wellbeing of students and to sustain the community spirit. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges pupils have faced is the lack of community and togetherness. “It’s unlikely that they’ll remember Pythagoras’ theorem that they learned in class but they will certainly remember the musical that they did with their friends in year 5 or the cross country event or the ski trip,” says Lambon, “there’s so much more than imparting knowledge, we can do that online, that’s one of the things that the pandemic has shown us. But I don’t think we do it as efficiently because learning is not just about reading an encyclopaedia and learning facts, it’s about appreciating other people’s point of view, being able to behave, being able to discuss, learn from your teachers and your peers, not being fixed in your ideas and being able to appreciate and respect the view of others and integrate them into your own thought process; you have to give them opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, grow, and that’s missing,” he adds.
“My older teen should be going out at this stage in life, meeting friends, even forming romantic relationships – all part of growing up. None of this is happening. She will most likely be off to university next year, in a bigger city somewhere else in the world without really having learned how to navigate being on her own or relating to people she doesn’t know. These skills cannot be taught while being isolated at home,” says Panayiotou.
Without the community spirit and interaction between students themselves and teachers, “the magic of schools”, as Lambon puts it, online learning is often isolating for both students and teachers. The mental health of both has also come more into focus over the course of the pandemic. “A number of students have felt the impact and this has been exhibited through anxiety and stress regarding schoolwork and examinations as well as the physical isolation they may be experiencing,” says senior assistant head at The English School responsible for pastoral care Yiannis Georgiou. “IGCSE/GCSE and GCE A Levels have been cancelled by the UK government; you’ll appreciate the angst this will have generated among students but also members of staff who are working hard to support and guide students and deliver the curriculum to those they teach,” he adds.
As far as mental wellbeing is concerned, Georgiou puts forward that even though children at different ages have different problems, the stress this can cause is the same across the board. “The graduating class will be most concerned about their A Levels that have now been cancelled as well as the social aspect of school life. Younger students will be more concerned with the uncertainties caused by lockdowns and the disruption to their school lives but also life in general,” he says.
Panayiotou adds that the impact differs depending on children’s personality and age. “My more introverted son is actually doing fine with online education; my older teen who is also more extroverted is having a hard time getting motivated and concentrating. I have no way of knowing what they are actually learning; I worry that being in bed in their pajamas while in class is not really ‘engaging’ with the material.”
Damaskinos says her “youngest begs me for imaginative play with her toys… I’m anxiously aware that I’m a poor substitute for friends her age. My teenagers are missing out on all the important bantering, socialisation, high-energy escapades, even the flirting, that goes with the territory of adolescence. My university student is stressed about the lowered quality of her Masters, and being short-changed. She’s stressed about her job prospects next year in a tanked economy. All of the kids are missing out on the cumulative daily, essential, formative give-and-take that comes from normal three-dimensional interaction with their peer groups.”
The physical aspects of online schooling are an additional challenge. Spending schooltime online “can naturally cause headaches and eye strain,” says Georgiou. “My daughter had to miss school because her eyes were so dry, they hurt and both children have felt dizzy repeatedly,” says Panayiotou. “About a month ago we had to take my son for an MRI and a migraine injection because he had non-stop debilitating migraines. I’m sure this is related to being in front of a screen for hours; it’s not just classes from 8-2:30, it’s also the additional homework, plus having all their social lives online – from texting friends to zoom calls with grandparents,” she adds. Routine tasks are equally hard to address. “Teeth brushing that is tied to getting up at a certain time and getting ready has fallen by the wayside. The same with snack times. Even our dentist has told us that she has seen a lot more cavities in children in the last few months than ever in her career,” she concludes.
Yet the entire experience of living through a pandemic is a lesson in itself. “I think they’re getting an ‘education’ in different things. They’re getting a crash course in what happens in society when a crisis strikes. We speak a lot about the inequalities of the world, they’ve asked a lot of questions about health, chronic illness, what is fair… Only time will tell how significant the purely ‘academic’ learning loss is,” says Damaskinos.
“Perseverance is perhaps one of the most prominent skills that we have to develop with online teaching; with such a sudden change in the way we’re being taught, we have to learn how to make the most out of situations like these, and find ways with which we can stay positive and work harder,” explains Nikita.
And now with the return of students to school campuses “we will need to be sensitive to the possible emotional effects of a lockdown and any gaps in learning that will need to be addressed,” says Georgiou, something which Lambon estimates will be of prime importance, particularly for the young students who haven’t had the opportunity to practice social skills.
From a positive perspective, resilience is perhaps one of the only benefits for this generation. “If you come through this strong, you’ve had to cope with a lot of uncertainty and things that are beyond your control and that’s a very important life lesson,” says Lambon. “We’re probably all a little bit more resilient and for students to learn that is a good thing. I would never choose it for them, I’d much rather their normality and the ability to interact with their peers and teachers every day,” he adds. “But to be fair to this generation, I think they’ve done an incredible job in terms of sustaining the online learning, and despite of all the challenges, keeping up their spirits and humour. They’re doing their best to do their best in the circumstances.”
“This particular situation will of course pass, but what will be the aftermath? I think the greatest challenge is realising that I need to somehow do my best to raise my children to be adaptable human beings, able to find happiness and purpose in a world very different to the one in which I grew up,” says Damaskinos.
“In a few years’ time, once our students graduate from university or similar, we will start to see the impact of the resilience, need for problem solving, creativity and adaptability,” adds Duran. “The last generation has seen the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg stories of individuals or small teams that have created business empires almost from scratch thanks to technological advances and opportunities and I think the ‘Covid years’ will accelerate this trend. I also think we will see a more compassionate and community minded generation”.
“Although home schooling has its benefits, such as having more time to focus during class time because of the absence of a full classroom full of people, I cannot wait to go back to school so that I can once again feel surrounded by a community of support, creativity, interaction and communication,” concludes Economidou.
What is for certain is that online teaching and learning will be an integral part of the educational landscape from now on. “Ideas and approaches that were seen as revolutionary and daunting even a year ago are now part and parcel of what we offer,” says Duran. “Much more will change, I’m sure, but it has also reminded us of how much a school depends upon human contact and the need to be part of a community”.