We are nearing the one-year mark since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and, once again, students have started to return to their classrooms. One of the many ways the pandemic has affected daily life, and perhaps that with the longest-term effects, is in jolting the very foundations of the education system. Israeli children have been away from their classrooms more during the past year than at any point in the history of the State.
As was experienced in countries around the world, school closures and the transition to remote learning greatly disrupted the learning experience for students and deepened existing gaps between them. While students from strong socioeconomic backgrounds can adjust to remote learning because they have the benefit of a sufficient number of computers at home, a fast Internet connection, and quiet surroundings in which to study, weaker populations have less access to the necessary infrastructure, and the ability of parents with a lower socioeconomic status to help their children is also more limited.
Access to key resources for remote learning also differs across Israel’s population groups. While only 2% of non-Haredi Jewish students have no access to a computer or the Internet, 23% of students in the Arab sector lack these as do 41% of Haredi students.
The number of children in a family also has an effect on students’ ability to engage in remote learning, and families from low socioeconomic backgrounds have more children on average. Even with adequate resources, it is more difficult to meet the needs of certain types of students, such as preschoolers, students with special needs and youth-at-risk, by using remote teaching.
This last point is a reminder that schools are institutions that provide much more to students than imparting knowledge. This also means that the damage from school closures goes beyond academic achievement and includes, among other things, risk of violence, reduced support services, diminished social interactions, and the cancellation of school lunches. For most students, from all backgrounds, school is a place to develop social skills and foster relationships with peers, and for many it can also be a safe place that provides them with extra support or a place that helps them meet their daily nutritional needs.
Not only have the disruptions been challenging for students (and, by extension, for their parents), but they have also presented challenges and required big adjustments on the part of teachers. In a survey of teachers carried out by the Taub Center and the Israel Teacher’s Union after the first lockdown, 60% of the respondents stated that their students found it difficult to maintain a high level of motivation and interest during remote lessons. Teachers also had to learn how to use remote teaching technologies, adapt their lessons to be taught remotely, and navigate dealing with disciplinary issues when not in the classroom setting.
However, in the survey teachers also reported a number of positive developments that emerged from the experience of remote learning. First of all, the survey results indicate that remote teaching can lead to empowerment and autonomy. About 65% of teacher respondents felt that remote teaching strengthened their professional abilities, 43% felt that it reinforced their independence, and over 80% agreed that they had learned to solve unexpected problems.
Secondly, teachers reported feeling more familiar with their students and their families. An additional benefit has been the ability of teachers to view lessons given by other teachers in the same school and even to the same class, to get new ideas for presenting material, and to share lesson plans and teaching aids. This makes it possible to learn from colleagues to a much greater extent.
Indeed, teachers were able to find opportunities for personal development in the midst of these difficult circumstances. Education experts, on their part, are asking critical questions about how the Israeli school system could and should make long-term structural changes informed by the experience of learning during the coronavirus crisis.
As Taub Center Education Policy Program Chair Nachum Blass explores in his recent research, fundamental changes that need to be made to the system include the Ministry of Education improving its preparedness for times of crisis, redefining the roles between central and local government authorities when it comes to education, maintaining reduced class sizes created in the wake of the crisis, and redoubling efforts to reduce scholastic gaps that existed even before the crisis and have most certainly widened since its outset.
In addition, according to Blass, the system needs to prepare for a future education model that combines learning in and outside of school, with remote learning focusing more on providing academic knowledge and skills, and in-person learning focusing more on interpersonal encounter and the acquisition of social and emotional skills. The balance between remote and traditional learning will have to vary across students of different ages, given the differences in learning at each stage of the education system from preschool to high school. It will also be necessary to train teachers accordingly, improving both their ability to use new technologies and their ability to foster personal growth.
In addition, incorporating remote learning will probably also require changes in how both students’ academic achievements and teachers’ work are evaluated. As Blass has noted, “The post-coronavirus educational reality is a kind of unplanned, though important, socio-pedagogical experiment that will affect the extent to which remote teaching will continue to be part of the education system even in normal times, and measures should be taken to intensify its advantages and minimize its disadvantages.”