Back to School Again

How did schools continue teaching during the long recent school closure and what will be the next move? Director JAMES PILTON of the International School of Zanzibar (ISZ) reflects on lessons learnt.

Are there alternatives to old-school schooling? Educational TV, zoom lectures or just photocopied lessons came to the test in Zanzibar during months of corona-related school closure

For us, the last school year had started full of promise. Our enrolment was up, and we were making big plans for a campus expansion. But already at the end of January our administration had to inform the community that we were following a strange health threat emerging from China and were taking measures to curb it. A great resource for our small school with almost 150 students from two to 18 years old and 18 teachers was the Association of International Schools in Africa (AISA). If we were to successfully continue our learning program online, we needed to make sure that all members of our community were sufficiently prepared. So even before the government of Zanzibar closed schools on March 18, we were able to transition to a full online learning program in a matter of days. We opted for a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning, meaning a mix of “regular lesson” live via zoom and independent learning at home where the students would check in with the teacher later. This is similar to the “flipped classroom”, where instead of the teacher standing in front of the class and giving a lecture, the teacher records a video of his lesson, the students look at it and return to class to ask questions and do exercises.

Some students thrived during home schooling

We concluded the school year on 11 June, the regular holiday ended on 20 August. We were confident to reopen the school, maybe with some restrictions in place. The past weeks and months have been a challenging time for all of us. Free of the structures of a traditional classroom setting, some students actually thrived in the new digital learning environment. Other families struggled a great deal. 

Overall, we are optimistic and some very positive lessons emerged during this crisis. Most importantly, nothing can replace the direct relationship between a teacher and students. Another lesson is that we will continue to emphasise ‘blended learning’, using technology to enhance students’ independence. Schools have to evolve with the changing situation. Support will need to be tailored to prevent children, especially vulnerable children, falling behind. I used to teach mathematics and English, French and history and am very much aware of the challenges. I saw a documentary about Kenya where some mothers would invite kids into their households who have no TV at home. In France teachers prepared a hand-written notebook for every child where she/he would have to fill the pages with given tasks and return it once per week. A simple but effective way! As far as I know we were the only school in Zanzibar doing a comprehensive online learning program but we have repeatedly offered to the ministry of education to let our teachers and administrators train local staff. Whether private or public school, digital learning is on the rise and no child or parent should go unsupported in these times. 

WHAT PUBLIC SCHOOL PARENTS SAY:

"Revisions and Busy Moms"

Mohamed Iddi Aslan, child in grade 3:

For three months, the teachers would send revision questions through Whatsapp. We o print them out and let our children learn at least two hours a day. Since the reopening of schools I'm not sure is the pan is to overdose the children with work, or just to pace it out. To prepare for the next situation such as this, schools should teach kids how to use digital platforms.

Omar Top, child in grade 5:

We had to pick up assignments each week from the school. They would send us a text message when it was ready. Now school is open on Saturdays too, to catch up. My advice would be for teachers to be much closer to the children; some schools even asked for school fees during the four months closure.

Fundi Musa Suleiman, one child in kindergarten, one in grade 4:

The school was not really of help during this time. Luckily my sibling's son, who is in form 1, was learning with my son through his text books. A lot of mothers had to make actively sure their children caught up with studies.

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