“School’s out!” — As Europe restarts, opening schools should be among the main priorities

Julian Petrat, ALDE Individual Member, wrote about the impact of school closures caused by COVID-19 as well as the future of education

In response to the spread of COVID-19, schools have been closed in most European countries. Students across the continent have been denied access to adequate education for months. The impact on my generation will be destructive. Opening schools should therefore be a priority when easing restrictions.

When schools were shut throughout Europe in March, the arguments in favour of such measures were mostly based on the assumption that children would be rapid spreaders of the virus. While the science still is unclear, research suggests that children are at a lower risk of getting infected and spreading the virus. This indicates that the benefits of school closures in slowing the spread of COVID-19 could be minor.

What cannot be neglected, however, are the effects on development of children. Neither digital classes nor motivated parents can replace real-life lessons given by teachers. Children also cannot acquire important social skills by interacting with their peers. The long-term effect on my generation could be devastating. It is estimated that younger children could lose as much as one year of progress in some subjects.

To make matters worse, the poorest children are those who suffer the most. Many do not have the necessary equipment to participate in digital classes. While parents in richer families tend to be well-educated more often, poorer families might not be able to offer the same level of academic support for their children.

If schools remain closed, it will continue to pose a challenge to parents. They will continue to have to find someone to take care of their children and therefore likely to be less productive. At the same time, it is often mothers who are responsible for childcare. School closures are a serious concern for their professional lives.

It is by no means certain that the virus poses only a minor threat to young people. Nevertheless, the consequences of school closures are too severe to justify them in the long-term. The only reasonable conclusion is that schools must be one of the main priorities when reopening.

With the correct planning, this should be no problem. Young children who are not old enough to coordinate their own learning process should be allowed to return first. Older students could return later because they might be an increased risk but are more disciplined and can follow the hygiene rules.

Such plans are never free of risk. Policymakers might feel like exposing young people to the virus. The process of reopening schools should therefore be supervised by scientists. Schools need sufficient financial and material support to successfully manage this but we must keep in mind that education is the driving force of innovation and progress in our society. It is a risk we must take.

Meanwhile, some schools are beginning to carefully reopen in many European countries. This gives me hope for a quick recovery. If we get this right, we can avoid the worst consequences. My generation is full of bright minds who cannot wait to realize their potential. Do not abandon them.

The future of education

The pandemic also provides an opportunity for sustainable change towards better education, the foundation of a progressive society. In the 21st century, it is crucial that students acquire key digital skills to face a rapidly developing labour market.

This is an opportunity for schools to permanently adapt digital solutions to adjust to modern standards that have lacked attention in the past. We should not simply transfer real-life classes to the digital world. Instead, there is the need for dynamic solutions that work for all students. This situation has unforeseen potential for technological progress in education. Our schools deserve the resources to explore it.

During these times, it has also become obvious how important personalized learning is. School closures show how much a student’s academic success relies on their personal situation. When schools reopen, we should learn from these experiences and find ways for a more inclusive, self-paced learning environment.

It relies on the cooperation of all parties involved if we succeed in achieving sustainable improvements in education. Governments, teachers, parents, and students alike should work towards learning from this situation. The pandemic poses an incredible challenge to all of us. If we draw the right conclusions, it is an opportunity for a brighter future for coming generations.

Julian Petrat

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