Education is perhaps the sector that has had the hardest time coming to terms with the new normal.
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Sending children back to school: Post-COVID classrooms may look very different – education

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the shape of our existence. The various blockades imposed around the world to combat its spread have stopped our lives. What we consider normality has been disrupted by the ‘new normal’. It has changed the way we work, the way we shop, the way we eat, and even the way our children study.

Yes, study. Education is perhaps the sector that has had the most difficulty adapting to the new normal. Yes, everyone has had their challenges: workplaces have had to quickly adopt a work from home culture, restaurants have had to evolve their businesses towards exclusive delivery and take-out models, everyone has had big changes to make.

But perhaps nowhere have the obstacles to change been more difficult to overcome than in education. Corporate employees, for example, were already working on computers, many of them laptops, in the office. All they had to do was fall into a work-from-home routine. Meanwhile, their employers had to set up a secure IT infrastructure to enable them to do so. While it was a big change to adapt to, the nature of his work did not fundamentally change.

But arguably the education sector has had to make the biggest leap, moving from its traditional chalk and blackboard normalcy to a new normal of a fully digitized virtual classroom experience.

Unlike offices and office workers who are already familiar with the practice of video conferencing, schools and universities were not initially equipped to teach virtually due to several factors, including a lack of IT infrastructure and a lack of training to teachers.

However, despite some initial complaints and problems, a survey conducted by our company revealed that the industry has adapted well to its new virtual normal.

For example, 78 percent of the children surveyed in the survey said they enjoyed the online learning environment and were actually happy to attend their virtual classrooms as they could learn at home.

Similarly, 75 percent of the children surveyed said they were communicating better with their teachers in a virtual environment compared to a real classroom, as even shy children, too fearful of speaking in class, were now able to communicate with their teachers through messages.

Meanwhile, eighty-five percent said they could understand concepts well in an online environment.

Parents have also welcomed the move to a virtual classroom. Now they can be part of your child’s teaching process, even if they are not directly involved in the lesson. They can monitor how their child is taught, they can observe when their child is paying attention, if they have understood the concept that is being taught, etc.

Plus, your kids no longer have to be exposed to pollution, heat, dust, a traffic-filled commute to and from school. They even have more time now for extracurricular activities and hobbies.

The benefits of a virtual classroom are many, so much so that it sounds too good to be true.

That’s because it is.

It’s quite possible that COVID-19 has permanently altered the way business is done, particularly in the corporate sector. In the midst of the pandemic, it has become clear that work can be done remotely, meetings can be done virtually.

The cost savings that this has generated, the savings in terms of office rental, administrative expenses, travel expenses, etc., can force companies to examine the permanent switch to a remote work model.

But that won’t work for education. Students must return to school.

Despite all the benefits of a virtual classroom, there are several negative consequences that outweigh the positive ones.

About 50 percent of the parents surveyed in a study conducted by our company said that their children are much more easily distracted in the home environment. Technical problems also affected 62 percent of the children surveyed, while 22 percent and 14 percent respectively attended classes, either lying in their beds or sitting on the floor.

Another point to consider is that while virtual classrooms have ensured continuity in learning amidst the lockdown, they are limited in what they can teach students.

Yes, they are perfectly adequate to cover the prescribed curriculum, but sadly they fall short when it comes to teaching students softer skills. Manners, morals, social norms and skills, etiquette, the ability to interact, these can only be acquired in a real physical environment.

The absence of these can have a detrimental effect on a child’s overall development, especially in younger children.

Still, getting students back to brick and mortar classrooms is easier said than done. COVID-19 is here to stay and for parents to send their children back to school is going to take a tremendous leap of faith.

Make no mistake, even with students returning to schools, the post-COVID classroom will look very different than it did before the pandemic upsets the established order.

Schools cannot return to pre-pandemic normalcy if they want to keep students safe and gain the trust of parents enough to convince them to send their children back to physical classrooms.

But there is a way to combine technology, ergonomics and space management to achieve an ideal balance between the virtual and the real world.

Social distancing will have to be maintained in any classroom in the future. But Indian classrooms typically have as many as 50-60 students, making it difficult to follow social distancing. The obvious solution would be to reduce the number of students, but you cannot just suspend children from school. Fortunately, technology means that there are several innovative ways that 50-60 students can be taught while still having a low number of classrooms.

One of these methods is split programming and blended learning. Students can be divided into groups. These different groups can alternate between the physical and virtual classroom. For example, on Mondays you can have Group I in the physical classroom while Groups 2 and 3 attend virtually. On Tuesday Group 2 goes to school while Groups 1 and 3 attend virtually. This way no one gets lost, everyone spends the same amount of time in a classroom while you also ensure social distancing.

Another way to ensure distancing is to reconfigure the classroom. Schools can make them more modular by using mobile furniture on wheels that can be arranged in different configurations to ensure proper spacing. Other measures can also be taken, such as sitting a student at a desk, etc., to ensure distance.

Schools can also reuse larger areas such as hallways, auditoriums, and dining rooms and use them as classrooms. This will allow them to accommodate more students while maintaining an adequate distance.

To ensure greater security, schools can also install partitions between desks, especially in libraries and computer labs, as well as in staff rooms and administration offices. They can also use removable seat covers that are thrown away after use.

COVID-19 is here to stay and we simply have to learn to live with it. We cannot keep our children out of school forever. Yes, sending them back will require a great leap of faith. But by taking the proper measures and precautions, schools can make classrooms safe and keep them COVID-free.

(Author Sameer Joshi is Associate Vice President of Marketing (B2B) for Godrej Interio. Opinions expressed here are personal.)

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