“The virus doesn’t discriminate.”
The familiar phrase is a reminder of the need for universal caution against COVID-19, which attacks vulnerable populations without regard to political affiliation or status. But the unfolding story of the virus as it moves across the globe is actually one of deep and pervasive discrimination. Pending further science, the biology of the pandemic is somewhat opaque. Its ecology is already stark.
New Zealand is proceeding to reopen schools gradually after one of the world’s strictest and apparently most successful regimens of lockdown and contact tracing. The nation of 4.8 million has approximately 600 ventilator-equipped hospital beds. Half a world away in Uganda, a nation of 42 million with an estimated 35 intensive care beds, the numbers of infections are low but growing and schools are closed indefinitely.
As they reopen, New Zealand schools will maintain some elements of distance learning while focusing on in-school hygiene, especially hand washing. Meanwhile, even in pre-coronavirus days, hygiene in many Ugandan schools was a challenge. At the Amucu Primary School in northeast Uganda, teachers harvest rainwater from a corrugated iron roof for students to rinse their hands after using latrines. There is no soap for handwashing or cleaning solution for their daily chore of cleaning the classrooms. And a typical classroom at Amucu has 50 pupils, with four students sitting at each two-meter-long desk.
Like millions of essential workers around the world, educators have stayed on the job wherever possible – teaching lessons over internet video apps in Belgium, recording radio broadcasts in the Republic of Congo, driving school buses with mobile Wi-Fi to provide hotspots in remote locations of the US.
But underneath these scenes of emergency education, there is a growing sense of apprehension. No, the virus does not discriminate, but it is a deadly amplifier of inequality. The distances between good and bad and bad and worse will become more obvious each day as school systems face a range of challenges from reopening to rebuilding.
The right place to start is to acknowledge that teachers and education support personnel are – or will soon be – critical in the fight against the pandemic and must be treated as essential frontline workers, with priority access to health care, including virus testing and vaccinations when they are available.
Education International (EI) recently surveyed a sampling of our 385 member organisations in 178 countries. The survey revealed that teachers and education support personnel are worried that governments will return them and their students back to school without consultations or resources for safe teaching and learning.
A step-by-step answer to those concerns is embodied in EI’s Guidance on Reopening Schools and Education Institutions, which calls for teachers, education support personnel and students to be protected by evidence-based public health measures in the transition back to school.
It is imperative that governments communicate transparently and continuously about the plans for reopening onsite education and the extent to which the openings are tied to the advice of health experts. Continuous social and policy dialogue with educators and their unions is the cornerstone of any successful education strategy to both assess and agree on health and safety measures for students and staff. There must be agreement and clarity on the hygiene measures necessary for keeping children, students and staff safe and healthy as well as preventative measures for containing the spread of the virus.
The collaboration and agreements must be universal, with equity front and centre of all planning for the transition, recognising that already vulnerable students and education workers may continue to be the most affected. A support structure must be put in place for all vulnerable students and staff, including systems to aid the well-being and mental health of children, students and education staff.
Finally, it is critical for governments and education systems to trust teachers. Any framework for transitioning back to onsite education must be built on trust in the professionalism and pedagogical practice of the education workforce.
Today, teachers and support personnel have shown a strong commitment, working to meet the needs of their students, helping them and their families deal with the impact of this pandemic on their learning, their health and overall wellbeing. When educators and students are back together in schools and classrooms the world over, the commitment by governments and school systems to keep them safe must be equally strong.
David Edwards, PhD is General Secretary of Education International (EI), a federation of 32 million teachers and other educators affiliated with unions and associations in 173 countries globally. Dr. Edwards leads the organization since 2018.