Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the Government is planning a phased return of some school years in England, after what would’ve been half-term, has met with a significant level of disquiet from commentators.
There is a great level of debate over the timing and how this can be implemented safely, but clearly the ‘new normal’ will require careful thought and planning to ensure students and staff can balance education needs with safety.
Best laid plans
When schools, colleges, and universities were planning for 2020/21 its fair to say no one could have envisaged a global pandemic. When it came to ordering and investing in technology and equipment, remote communications platforms, plastic barriers, and technology to monitor the temperature of people entering buildings were not a consideration – yet these have now become priority items.
The closing of schools to all from the end of March (barring children of essential workers or those at risk) has presented educators with the considerable challenge of communicating with students remotely wherever possible. Remote learning has largely replaced classroom sessions but has also spotlighted the technology needs in terms of online learning applications, secure file sharing (to set and submit work) and the availability of hardware (and a suitable online connection) for pupils, students and staff.
Whilst there is a consensus that students are suffering from the disruption to planned education, teaching professionals and their unions were quick to question the Government’s timetable for the phased return following the Prime Minister’s announcement. A joint statement from nine unions (including the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers) questioned the safety of returning students and staff to schools in June, calling for a delay until enhanced safety measures could be put in place.
One of the suggestions is to wait for a national test and trace scheme to be in place to monitor and help tackle the spread of the virus. A complementary technology to this approach, which schools can source right now, is Intelligent Video Solutions using thermal imaging. These cameras are low cost and easy to install at prime entry points, quickly detecting anyone running a high temperature – one of the key indicators of COVID-19.
Many schools, colleges and universities already use Intelligent Video Solutions for security, but they have now taken on a distinct safety aspect as well. The technology is already proving its value at other high footfall locations, such as use at Manchester Airport for example.
With many technology projects having already been delayed during the Spring Term, and the Summer break traditionally being a key time for schools, colleges and universities to plan and invest in order to prepare for the new academic year, there is a great pressure on these establishments to spend their budgets wisely.
The rise (and in many cases great success) in home learning will undoubtedly persuade many schools, colleges and universities that there needs to be further investment in online technology and the IT infrastructure to be able to quickly adapt as well as support new ways of teaching. This is particularly the case in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which are taking a more cautious approach to reopening education sites.
With the potential for a second peak of COVID-19 cases later this year, this takes on even greater importance, ensuring educators and students can continue the learning process as unhindered as possible. What may have been temporary distance learning solutions will need to be strengthened as will the IT infrastructure that underpins them, with greater stability, reliable backup and rapid deployment all critical. At the same time, all institutions need an effective means of issuing critical communications to staff, parents and students should there be any last-minute changes to term dates or timetables for example. Those without a system to support this type of communication need to ensure they have one in place and may need to consider options such as SMS solutions if they’re not already deployed.
Even when schools, colleges, and universities are ready to physically reopen their campuses there will need to be strict measures in place to minimise the potential spread of COVID-19. Extending remote working systems, which involve less physical contact, will be a sensible consideration even on the campus. ICT managers may well find that budgets for purely classroom-based technology may be better spent on mobile solutions to empower students and staff.
We have all had to embrace online alternatives and adapt to social distancing measures during the COVID-19 restrictions, but the many benefits in terms of practicality, as well as health and safety, have become clear. In the case of education, the increased adoption of flexible technology systems is just an acceleration of already changing teaching practices.
It is vital that the education sector plans its technology investments around the hard lessons already learned in 2020. Technology already provides greater flexibility in terms of teaching and is proving it can help to ensure safety as well. There is a ‘new normal’ in the world, but the tools and expertise are already available to ensure everyone is better prepared for the unexpected in the future.
For further insights into how technology can help schools, colleges and universities prepare for the ‘New Normal’, please visit our Education Business Area.