The impacts of the pandemic on a generation of isolated pupils

If I was looking forward to a change of scene, I certainly got one. Coming from rural Scotland to take over the headship of a school here in São Paulo, it was no surprise that the temperatures, topography and tempo of life of the sparsely populated open spaces in the northern extremities of Britain contrasted sharply to those of the teeming metropolis of South America’s biggest city. The colours, noise, smells and warmth of São Paulo hit uninitiated visitors as soon as they leave the airport terminal. 

And yet, as an educationalist I am always struck by the similarities of schools around the world; however different they may appear at first sight, scratch the surface and familiar patterns soon emerge. Schools are schools, teachers are teachers and – most fundamentally of all – children are children. Young people share many similar aspirations and anxieties; they display similar tendencies towards excitement, laughter, engagement and boredom. 

One parallel I had not expected to find when I was first appointed to the job of Headmaster in October 2019 was that schools in Britain and Brazil would be closed to pupils. As with my final term in Britain, my first term in Brazil is a lonely existence amid empty classrooms and corridors, playing fields and dining rooms. 

Teachers in both countries rose to the challenge of online teaching with extraordinary energy and inventiveness, parents adapted their lives as bedrooms become teaching spaces, and pupils had to adjust their learning habits to suit the virtual world.  At first it was all somewhat unreal. Some hailed online schooling as the bright new future for education. To others, it was an expedient of the moment and the imperfections of the online curriculum were accepted as an inevitable but temporary limitation as we fought the virus. 

Seven months on and no-one now pretends that children can learn as fast or effectively online as they can in the classroom; no-one can deny the emotional and physical toll that school closures risk inflicting on our youngsters. Spending hour after hour on a screen, taking only limited amounts of physical exercise, isolating themselves from the realities of physical and social interaction – all this will leave its scars on a generation already pummeled by a pervasive social media culture. For that reason, as the world stumbles its way out of the lockdown, in São Paulo schools remain closed and the provisional date for even a partial reopening has now been pushed back yet again, this time until November. As the country faces an extreme challenge in tackling the pandemic, there is no doubt that local authorities face a difficult choice. As a guest in this country, it is not my place to tell the elected representatives of the city how to do their job or presume to sit in judgement of those who have to make tough decisions on which lives and livelihoods depend. I am also very aware that no plan to reopen schools is without risk and the appalling ravages that this disease can inflict on individuals and communities are not to be underestimated. 

Nevertheless, I would ask that, in plotting a way out of the lockdown, the ultimate cost of maintaining the current ban on the reopening of schools is considered. By keeping children away from their classrooms, we are not just stunting their academic progress but are denying them the opportunity to socialise, develop and grow together within a physical community of learning. The sedentary realities of life online do nothing to develop our young people to be healthy and active as they go about their lives. The toll on the mental health on a generation who have not had the opportunity to come together and absorb the full breadth of childhood experiences has to be weighed carefully against the threat posed by the pandemic. 

Most of the available evidence suggests that children of school age are at least risk of contracting or transmitting Covid19.  

No school reopening strategy is without risk – and our children must not be brought up to believe that the world can be made risk-free. They need to understand that risks need to be managed and that there is a difference between taking careful steps to achieve a positive outcome on the one hand and being reckless on the other. Such steps should include regular temperature checks, hand-sanitising stations, one-way systems, ventilated classrooms, maintaining social distancing whenever possible. Those most at risk – staff and pupils – may need to carry on online for now but the societal cost of not socialising our children as safely and as soon as possible must not be underestimated. 

A school reopening programme can be cautious and gradual and might need to make the occasional adjustment along the way. In trying to defeat a health emergency in the short term, we should be mindful of the cost to the educational, physical, social, emotional and mental development of our young people in the long term. 

  • This article was published by O Estado de S. Paulo’s online version – you can read it here

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