As we head into the second month of school closures, with the initial novelty of home schooling alongside working from home rapidly wearing off, parents are asking themselves what should they be expecting from their schools as we head into May/June?
Given the wide variety of experiences that families of school-going children are experiencing in relation to their interactions and communications with their children’s teachers, the Department of Education and Skills (DES ) last Friday published guidelines for schools and for parents to guide their actions.
In addressing the issue of how schools should continue to engage with students while they remain out of school, the guidelines recommended that schools should maintain a sense of normality for students to ensure that they continue to progress in their learning, despite being outside the classroom.
It was suggested that a daily routine for students, supported by schools using new ways of working with them, is particularly important.
It was also emphasised that while maintaining a daily routine may pose a real challenge for teachers, principals, parents, guardians and students, it is critical to ensure that the momentum of learning is not lost.
The guidelines also advised it is important for all schools to make every effort to ensure:
(1 ) Regular engagement of students in lessons, tasks and learning experiences across the range of curriculum areas or subjects.
(2 ) Provision of specific and regular supports for students with special educational needs.
(3 ) Provision of specific and customised supports for students at risk of educational disadvantage.
(4 ) Provision of regular assignments to students that are purposeful, manageable and can be carried out independently.
(5 ) Provision of regular, practical, supportive and customised feedback to students on the work submitted.
(6 ) Adoption of a whole school approach to engagement with students to ensure consistency of approach so as not to overburden students or their parents and guardians.
The Guidelines further state that engagement by students in learning opportunities and tasks will bring a sense of routine in their daily activities and contribute to their well-being at this difficult time while aiming for them to make progress in their learning.
That all schools and teachers, including teachers of students with special educational needs, should therefore be regularly communicating and engaging with students to ensure that there is continuity in their learning.
Where possible, primary teachers should make every effort to engage with their students on a daily basis and post-primary teachers should do so on the days that they are normally timetabled for lessons with their students.
In engaging with students, there should be a balance between the assignment of independent work, whether written or practical, online learning and other tasks, in accordance with the learning needs of students and the resources available.
The guidelines outlined some options for engaging with students currently used by schools, as follows:
(1 ) Engaging with parents and guardians and students by phone and email or by any means that the school sees as appropriate.
(2 ) Assignment of independent work using email, school websites, online tools such as Padlet, Flipgrid, TED-Ed, apps such as Seesaw, Aladdin Connect and the school app.
(3 ) Devising specific tasks based on televised learning opportunities such as the RTÉ Home School Hub, Cúla 4 on TG4 and various documentaries on television players such as RTÉ player.
(4 ) Hosting school assemblies on local community radio and other meeting platforms.
(5 ) Virtual lessons where students can attend remotely, using platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Google Classroom.
Special education teachers may send packages of supports to parents and guardians and engage with their students through e-mail, online video communication apps such as Skype and Seesaw and also through virtual learning environments.
The importance of Schools providing feedback to students and parents
Keeping in touch with students – the importance of providing feedback and advice
The guidelines state that teacher feedback to students is very important to ensure continuity and progression in learning, to affirm students’ work and to ensure that students stay motivated and focused while working at home.
In this regard, it states that teachers should ensure that
(1 ) They respond regularly to students with helpful feedback on the work that the students submit to them.
(2 ) They are flexible and agree timelines for return of work with parents and students.
(3 ) Their feedback is relevant and easily understood.
(4 ) Their feedback informs the next stage of learning.
(5 ) Their feedback is manageable for both teachers and students.
(6 ) Their feedback is specific – there should not be an over-reliance on self-correcting tools or generic feedback.
The Guidelines identified some options for giving feedback to students currently used by schools, as follows:
(1 ) Correction of students’ work that has been created on word documents and pictures of work submitted via e-mail or other communication tools such as Seesaw.
(2 ) Use of automated programmes or self-correcting tools such as TED-Ed, Kahoot and IXL which should complement and support direct teacher feedback on students’ work.
(3 ) Use of Microsoft Teams, Flipgrid or other tools to record video and audio feedback by the teacher which addresses strengths and areas for improvement, along with guidance to support this improvement.
(4 ) Use of online learning platforms that have video conferencing functions such as Google Classrooms and Microsoft Teams for sharing of completed tasks for feedback from teachers and peers.
Helping students and teachers stay well
The guidelines emphasise that maintaining the wellbeing of students, supported by their families, is of the utmost importance at this exceptional time. Some students may be coping well with staying at home, social/physical distancing and completing schoolwork at home whereas others may be struggling with these changes.
There will be continuing challenges in the weeks ahead as students miss their friends, school and their extra-curricular and social activities. Schools and teachers will play an important role in supporting normality and routine for the students and in encouraging healthy behaviours.
The National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS ) has developed guidance and advice for schools, students and parents in relation to managing and staying well when schools are closed. This guidance, and further guidance that will follow, can be accessed at the following link: NEPS – Advice and resources for keeping children and young people well during Covid-19.
Keeping in touch with parents and guardians
Recognising that this is a particularly challenging time for parents and guardians, with many families worried for older or vulnerable family members and concerned about the fact that their children are missing so much school, the Guidelines recommend that it is good for schools to:
(1 ) Be judicious about the amount of work sent home for students – too much can be as much a problem as too little.
(2 ) Encourage parents and guardians to engage in non-formal learning activities where appropriate to the child such as reading with and to children and taking part in daily exercise.
(3 ) Establish good channels of communication with parents and guardians and support them through agreed activities so as to avoid placing an excessive burden on them.
(4 ) Advise parents and guardians of the online engagement scheduled between teachers and students and of the importance of supervising the use of online platforms by their children.
(5 ) Work with parents and guardians to agree solutions in the face of challenges such as access to the necessary software or digital devices and adequate broadband. Here are some options for communicating with parents and guardians currently used by schools; Regular updating of the school website; Sending messages by text, email or any means that the school sees as appropriate; Asking parents and guardians to download various online applications such as Class DoJo, Aladdin Connect, Studyladder or the school app to enable ease of communication between school and home and making phone or e-mail contact with parents and guardians just to check that students are engaged and to answer queries.