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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #040 – Liu

By CEID Blogger, on 2 October 2020

Classes Suspended but Learning Continues: Experiences and Challenges of a Rural School in China

By Jing Liu

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought about an unprecedented global public health crisis at the beginning of 2020. According to the United Nations, there were 1.58 billion children and youth, from pre-school to universities, who were affected by the pandemic by mid-April 2020. Moreover, the school closures have badly affected the schooling and wellbeing of students, particularly those from socially disadvantaged groups. This blog post aims to show how a rural school, which I’ll call Jiayuan, and the community took action to respond to the impact of the COVID-19 on children. The details of their experiences and practices were collected through information exchange and online interviews with the school leader and teachers whom the author has been working with on research project since 2018.

As the first country that experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese government released a series of policies to tackle the unprecedented education crisis. In late January 2020, it announced the slogan of “Classes Suspended But Learning Continues” as a key principle to keep the continuity of schooling nationwide. Besides delaying the start of the Spring Semester, the Ministry of Education provided various national platforms, including abundant education resources for online learning and teaching, such as the Free MOOC2U Platform by National Open University, National Public Service Platform for Education Resources, and China Education Network Television. The government also encouraged collaboration between universities, local education administrations, and local high-performing schools to share educational resources.  More importantly, the government emphasized support for children from disadvantaged families whose learning environment was fragile because of the pandemic and the subsequent school closures.

Jiayuan is a school located in a mountainous area of Hubei Province of China. Officially it is recognized as a small scale rural primary school. The village where the school belongs is a designated poverty area in Hubei Province. With an increasing number of internal labor migration to the nearby urban areas, around one-third of the population works outside the village. Currently, there are 41 students between grades 1 and 4. Moreover, there is a pre-school class that has 12 students. According to the school principal, 78% of students at Jiayuan are so-called left-behind children. That means children who remain in rural areas of China while one or both of their parents leave to work in urban areas. In general left behind children live with their grandparents or other relatives in the rural areas. At Jiayuan, there are five left-behind students living with their mother or father while the remaining 38 students live with their grandparents because both their mother and father work outside the village. There are five teachers, including one male teacher and four females. They are all in their 20s. Teachers at this school started their careers in the past five years through the government initiatives of hiring young teachers to teach in rural schools. Unlike the older generation of rural school teachers, these young rural school teachers have university degrees and are familiar with how to use computers and the internet.

When the outbreak of the COVID-19 happened in Wuhan, students at Jiayuan were still in the winter break. The new semester was suspended to the end of the Spring Festival in February 2020. And then, by following the principle of “keeping learning forward,” teachers at Jiayuan started shifting their teaching online. Although internet service has been expanding in rural China, access to it in the underdeveloped areas is still limited. This problem became serious once migrant parents left home with their smart phones for work in urban areas after the reopening of Wuhan on 8 April 2020. According to the School Principal, 51% of students did not have access to the internet in early April 2020.

Teachers at Jiayuan looked for every possible way to leave no child behind during the school closure. Firstly, they prepared teaching materials and taught online.  Moreover, teachers made a new timetable of online learning and activities to maintain learning and daily life in a good balance for students. These included not only basic knowledge of each subject, but also knowledge of prevention of the COVID-19, safety education, psychological guidance, and activities for students and their guardians. Besides knowledge learning, teachers also reminded students to massage their eyes during the break between online classes. Moreover, they told guardians to encourage their children to increase the amount of daily exercise. Secondly, they used WeChat (a Chinese social media platform) to collect homework from students. Feedback was sent to students over WeChat every day. Thirdly, teachers paid home visits to every student once a week to check their status and exchange information with their guardians.

For those without access to the internet or TV, teachers delivered learning materials to their homes when necessary. Moreover, teachers coordinated neighbors to collaborate with each other by sharing internet with children from families without it.  Through home visits, teachers could disseminate knowledge on how to prevent COVID-19, reminding families of the safety issues. They could also teach guardians how to use WeChat for homework submission and other virtual communication and exchanges.

Efforts paid by the teachers at Jiayuan could not adequately accommodate every student’s needs. It was necessary to adopt a whole community approach. Firstly, there were safety risks of students at home, especially when their guardians went to farm during the day. The village as a whole could shoulder a collective responsibility to monitor students’ safety. Secondly, it was not easy to guarantee universal free access to the internet for all. Although teachers took initiatives to coordinate the neighborhood-based internet sharing, it was necessary to establish a sustainable approach that could provide accessible and stable quality education resources for all kids in the village. Thirdly, it was necessary to provide professional training and support for teachers at rural schools to get knowledge and know-how of psychological counseling and mental care.  Professional support and instruction from universities and other stakeholders have the potential to meet this demand. It was also crucial to establish a resilient and supportive mechanism to continuously ensure access to quality education for poor households after controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Accordingly, Jiayuan‘s experience shows an example of hybrid initiatives of ensuring learning continuity for left-behind children in China. The initiatives include a top-down policy direction and bottom-up collective responses taken by teachers. Challenges show it is necessary to adopt a more comprehensive and collective response based approach for keeping learning continuity for the socially disadvantaged in and after the global pandemic.

Jing Liu is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education, Tohoku University in Japan.

Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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