The impacts of COVID-19 on student learning are something that will emerge in the coming months and years, but much of this analysis is already underway.
However, as UK researchers Harmey & Moss (2021) note, much research so far has used what we know about loss of learning through normal school closures, such as the summer break. Pandemic-related closures, however, are a very different type of closure – unplanned, swift and often for undetermined periods of time.
Throughout 2021, Harmey & Moss did a rapid analysis of the impacts of sudden school closures from similar events, like the SARs pandemic or extreme weather events – here is what they found.
School leaders’ local knowledge is pivotal in leading the return
Harmey & Moss note that tumuaki are almost uniquely well-placed to manage the return to school – not just for the students, but for the whole community. Citing research on schools reopening after sudden natural diasater-related closures in Japan and Aotearoa (including Carol Mutch’s excellent work on crisis leadership which you can learn more about here), they highlight how local knowledge is key to helping everyone move forward.
Principals’ key role here stems from several factors – their understanding of the whole community, its vulnerabilities and needs, as well as their ability to drive social cohesion during recovery.
Learn from your crisis communications
Looking at school responses to Hurricane Katrina, the researchers identified a theme of applying disaster lessons to future contingency planning.
This largely focused on communication, and tensions that arise from either unclear responsibilities or messaging with the community. Mutch (2015) had three recommendations for communicating during a recovery – be timely, be accurate and keep the messages coming.
Applying lessons learned from communications during the COVID-19 lockdown may be less of a priority for Aotearoa principals, however. As our Connecting With Principals report indicated, leaders felt they were successful in maintaining clear communications with their team and wider network of stakeholders, keeping everyone in the school community on the same page (which they deemed to have positive impacts on at-home learning).
In fact, the primary communication challenge cited in our research was an external one – receiving word of school closures with little-to-no notice, or receiving too much information (particularly that could be open to interpretation).