Coronavirus is closing schools and hinting at a digital future for education

In between seesawing stories about coronavirus taking hold in 14 countries and one cruise ship, schools in several countries have announced closures: Hong Kong closed all schools in January and recently announced they would remain closed until the middle of March. Japan in February said its schools would also close for a month. Italy, which has seen more than 2,500 cases according to AP, announced on Wednesday it would also close all schools for 10 days.

With any luck, these school systems will reopen and life will continue as normal, with the affected students simply enjoying a bit of a random school holiday. But if we are, as a New York Times opinion columnist said a the end of February, living in the “age of pandemics” — wherein it’s hyperbolically possible that disease after disease will sweep around the globe, and quarantines and societal shutdowns will become commonplace — it may be that school systems in certain parts of the world can never truly return to normal programming.

Empty Chinese Classroom
A teacher at Guangzhou Foreign Language School holds an online class meeting with students on February 24, 2020, in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. Due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus, some schools in Guangzhou have postponed opening and classes have been moved online. China News Service / Getty

Enter companies like New Oriental Education & Technology Group, a Beijing-based online education company that partnered with the live interactive streaming platform Agora.io last month. The two companies jumped in and, after working together 24/7 for about a week straight, were able to get platforms for digital classrooms up and running around China. According to Agora.io, they’ve now got around a million Chinese students online and back “in school.”

“That was the biggest trigger; we knew we had to act fast,” said Reggie Yativ, chief revenue and operating officer at Agora.io. “I think both parties were interested in making sure the educational system doesn’t suffer from the crisis, and students can continue like nothing happened.”

The new digital classrooms aim to bring some semblance of normal life and education into the lives of students currently living under quarantine because of coronavirus. It’s not the same as going to school, but at least it’s something. Yativ told DT that engagement has been “great.” “Students and teachers are fully capable of conferencing with one another and their classmates just as they had before,” he said. He also said they would continue to ramp up their services, even after the virus clears up.

“This could become a go-to,” Yativ said. “Actually, it’s always been a go-to, but the crisis has made a huge impact. These kinds of services and business will further grow during a time of crisis.”

Homeschooling 2.0

Remote and digital education is certainly not new. Programs like Khan Academy or Degreed have been around and increased in popularity for adult and corporate education for more than a decade now.

But there’s a possibility — if a disaster situation of constant rolling pandemics becomes reality — that there could be a generation that grows up constantly switching between digital and physical classrooms.

And in that case, said James Kim, a senior associate at Reach Capital, which invests in education-focused startups, there needs to be some consistency for the students. “This is disruptive in two ways,” Kim told DT. One, schools need to make sure kids have a consistency of content, and two, they need to make sure there’s a consistency of environment, e.g., making sure they get instruction from their teachers and their textbooks, not just a teacher and a textbook that they happened to find online that day.

school via tablet
A teacher gives a lesson using a multimedia network education system because of the novel coronavirus pneumonia on February 9, 2020, in Yuncheng, Shanxi, China. TPG / Getty

“Yes, you can take a kid out of school and have them use third-party content like Khan Academy,” said Kim. “But kids only get credit toward graduation from accredited teachers.”

In a country like China, which has a much more centralized school system and curriculum, the switch from analog to digital might be easier when the government makes a big push. But U.S. infrastructure doesn’t work like that, and, as Kim said, in the wake of coronavirus, school closures are all but inevitable across the country. Not to mention, he added, there’s the issue of low-income students who might not have access to broadband or laptops.

Two things schools can do to make the inevitable transition easier, Kim said, is to have a digital system of record or learning management system that teachers can access from anywhere, and to maintain clear lines of communication between teachers, student, and parents. “Those are the table stakes,” he said.

“It will be disruptive, it will be a shock to the system,” said Burton Paul, a health care specialist and author of the book “Is It Serious,” about what medical advice on the Internet to trust. “But I think there is a potential of us heading in this direction, and people will get used to it eventually.”

Paul pointed to the increasing popularity of the work-from-home culture, which many companies have temporarily instituted as mandatory policies during the coronavirus outbreak. “If it’s happening in the adult workforce, there’s a natural progression to education,” he said.

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