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Emerging analysis on COVID-19 and learning loss

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).  

Related learning: Leading Through A Crisis, with Carol Mutch

Incorporate the disruption into the learning environment 

Around a third of the research that Harmey & Moss analysed spoke to the idea that in recovery from a disruptive event, curriculum should teach students about it and encourage reflection on it.  

Specific examples from existing research are straightforward, but useful, including professional learning and development to support staff. From there, examples of disruption-as-curriculum include students writing personal responses or reflections and developing storytelling skills through this. 

Given the extra space afforded to schools with regards to the New Zealand Curriculum refresh, it may be something to consider in the coming months.  

School leaders are essential in supporting mental health  

For many tumuaki reading this, the above point will come as no surprise. Having spent much of the last two years supporting the taha hinengaro of their staff, students and communities, Aotearoa principals are certainly well-versed in the emotional labour of whole-school recovery.  

However, Harmey & Moss’ analysis suggests that this work will continue for some time yet. Research from both Aotearoa and Japan shows that tamariki responses to disruption or trauma may take months of “normalcy” to emerge, as they grow more confident in speaking about their experiences.  

School routine can be critical here, re-establishing the sense of camaraderie and support that may have been missing during lockdowns. Mutch (2017) believes school leaders should hold off on significant changes during recovery, while Direen (2016) suggests leadership support for teaching staff should remain a priority.  

This tracks with our Connecting With Principals report, in which tumuaki noted they had to provide significant support after the first lockdown – in some cases having to coerce teaching staff into returning to school. In establishing a network of mental health support at the staff level, schools create a safety-first environment that helps students reacclimatise to in-person schooling.  

Of course, this does not address the more severe trauma that many tamariki have experienced during the pandemic to date, from food and financial poverty to an increasing prevalence of depression in some of our youth. Additionally, given the large overseas focus of Harmey & Moss’ analysis, there is little insight into how recovery and mental health support may need to be more focused on Māori, Pasifika and vulnerable students and whānau in Aotearoa.  

Related learning: The Principals Panel, with Ian Narev (September 2021 - Mental Health and Wellbeing)

The recommendations, in brief  

Having analysed relevant literature across many crisis events that forced sudden school closure, Harmey & Ross settled on the following recommendations for schools in an “emerging” phase from the pandemic. 

  1. Give school leaders greater financial autonomy, given their important local knowledge and capacity to lead the community.

  2. School leaders should develop contingency plans, notably around emergency communications, key responsibilities and supporting the community.  

  3. Give school leaders additional resources to prioritise the mental health of their team, students and themselves. 

  4. Give students opportunities to reflect on their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of their learning. 

  5. Provide materials to educate students about COVID-19.  

  6. Expand research around “learning loss” to encompass community reflections, particularly around their experience of educating during the pandemic.

These recommendations are based on a UK system, and as such may not be directly transferable to an Aotearoa context. But, given what we have seen and heard from the tumuaki working with Springboard Trust in the last two years, the key themes and focal points of school leadership are similar in any crisis response. With the Omicron variant now in the community and further disruption for schools likely, sharing strategies for keeping learning going may be key to mitigating negative impacts in 2022.  

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