The New Normal: Education
Andy Murray

The COVID-19 pandemic means education may never be the same again.

Whether it's parents home-schooling their children while working from home, teachers' attempts to keep 30 kids engaged on a Zoom call or pupils sat at new socially distanced desks, education's 'New Normal' has arrived at a blistering pace. 

To understand more about how we got to this point and what the future holds, CGTN Europe has spoken to a teacher, parent and student to discuss how different the classroom has become with countries at different stages of reopening schools.

Audrey Desmet is a kindergarten teacher, living in Brussels, Belgium. Though nurseries remain closed, she has returned to work to help with the return of elementary school students. Classes for final-year pupils began again on Monday, under social distancing measures.

Matthew Sankary is a financial consultant who lives in Madrid with his wife and two daughters, aged six and 11. Some schools in Spain's less affected areas, like the Basque Country, have started reopening on a voluntary basis. All education powers in Spain are devolved to its 17 autonomous regions.

Jacob Page is a first-year student at Cambridge University, one of the first institutions to announce all classes would go online until the start of the new academic year in the fall. He is reading geography. All education institutions in the UK are currently closed until the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.


We have spoken to three people - (L-R) Jacob Page, Matthew Sankary and Audrey Desmet - directly affected by school closures across Europe.

We have spoken to three people - (L-R) Jacob Page, Matthew Sankary and Audrey Desmet - directly affected by school closures across Europe.


What impact has lockdown had on your role in education?

Audrey Desmet (the teacher): Communicating with my kindergarten students, who are four and five years old, was particularly complicated because they cannot read or write. The solution we found for the youngest students was to send challenges by email to the parents and they can then send photos or documents back to me via WhatsApp.

Matthew Sankary (the parent): It was horrible. The 49-day lockdown was just an amazing disregard for families in Spain. Dog owners had more rights. My wife and I both work full-time, so it's been 24/7, teaching kindergarten and trying to supervise a sixth-grader. It really impacted our younger daughter. She's gone from a bolt of sunshine to constantly crying and (having) tantrums. It's given me a completely different appreciation for kindergarten teachers and their patience.

Jacob Page (the student): It's pretty hard to motivate myself, doing the whole summer term online from my bedroom. Going from face-to-face teaching in small groups, Cambridge University's most prized attribute, to Zoom classes has been an odd change. I'm missing what is dubbed one of your best terms at university. All the socializing has gone, but the academic stuff has stayed.


Would you support a return to school and why?

AD: Elementary schools have now returned in Belgium. For my kindergarten classes, I have a hard time imagining how younger pupils are going to respect social distancing and the other measures because we need to handle them, we need to help them and I need to be with them.

MS: We need to start going back to life. Based on what the whole message was at the beginning to support the health care sector, we've done that. We locked our kids up for 49 days. We've worn masks. We've tried to protect ourselves. Now let's go back and start to normalize. 

JP: It's safer to continue with the lockdown until we have a better handle on the situation. Sending back thousands of students to small cities like Cambridge could have a really damaging effect to allow the virus to spread more and have a second wave.


It really impacted our younger daughter. She's gone from a bolt of sunshine to constantly crying and tantrums
 -  Matthew Sankary, a father-of-two living in Madrid


What measures do you want put in place to guarantee pupil and teacher safety?

AD: We already wear masks and have social distancing measures. An enormous effort has been made to upgrade hygiene measures in sanitary facilities and toilets. That is one positive side of this crisis. We have separated classes into two or three groups, which is difficult to manage because not all classes can return at the same time at the moment.

MS: The better solution is to make the age of the teachers younger, because they're not getting as sick, and maybe move older teachers into more of a mentor relationship until we can create a vaccine or there's herd immunity.

JP: You have to take numbers down in classes, but there is a point where you either run out of space or teaching staff. When education resumes fully, people have to take more care because there's a limit to how socially distant you can be.


What should be done for pupils who were unable to sit exams?

AD: It's important to find out where the child is at. In Belgium, sixth graders have the CEB, the Certificat d'Études de Base, which goes over all skills since starting school. It's good for both pupil and teacher, particularly the teacher, to see where they are at the moment in their studies.

MS: There's been such a discrepancy with the Spanish education system, even within the same school. We have teachers who have had a Zoom class with the kids but others haven't because they're not familiar with technology. It's been haphazard, a disaster. 

JP: I feel worst for the year 10s and year 12s, who are in the middle of their GCSE and A-level exams. They're not getting the same safety net that the A-level students this year have had, which is to cancel the exams completely. In next year's exams, they could all be damaged by this lost term. Doing your A-levels provides you with valuable experience on how to work and cope with the pressures of exams.

READ MORE: The French pupils forced to take classes in the woods


I can see that I am going to be living in constant stress and saying 'you can't do that' and that's not l how I see teaching.
 -  Audrey Desmet, a teacher from Brussels


How will this change the classroom?

AD: It will be hard to teach with a facemask because you need facial expressions. Kindergarten involves a bit of theatre. I don't know how we are going to help children develop if we cannot console them, touch them or show them how to hold their pencil. I can see that I am going to be living in constant stress and saying 'you can't do that' and that's not l how I see teaching.

MS: I don't know where they get these ideas that they can put five-year-olds into a classroom and there's not going to be touching. The first thing they'll want to do is to give their friends a hug. It's not the same for older kids. They've gone online and they've changed their behavior.

JP: There will be attempts to space out desks or leave every other one free, but I don't see how that would make a difference. You all use the same doors. Some of our lecturers are older and at high risk. You shouldn't be put in a room with 100 students of questionable hygiene and risk your life just to teach them for an hour.



If you were talking to your country's president/prime minister now, what would you ask them to do to improve education after this crisis?

AD: In Belgium it's complicated because the Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès now decides on coronavirus matters, with several education ministers in Flanders and Wallonia who teachers also depend on. We need unity and agreements on supplies and implementing health safety measures. If everybody had been roughly in the same boat, we wouldn't have had to put as much energy into changing things now.

MS: It seems like parents are being ignored. The government needs to talk to parents at different socio-economic levels, different housing levels, different situations, different age groups and start putting together surveys so that they can come up with a plan that is forward-looking and not reactionary, so we're not all melting in our houses when July comes.

JP: More funding, which was already a problem. This crisis can be a catalyst for more staff in schools and universities to provide a more intimate learning experience. That's the best way you can ensure people get a better quality of education.


Additional reporting: Simon Ormiston & Catherine Newman. 

Video editing: Pedro Duarte. 

Video animation: Ben Wildi.

Check out The Pandemic Playbook, CGTN Europe's major investigation into the lessons learned from COVID-19