Starting the school year 2020/21 in the midst of a pandemic poses a host of new challenges for schools, teachers and training providers.
The coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 meant that vocational education and training (VET) schools in Europe had to resort to extended closures and convert physical classrooms and work-based learning spaces into digital learning environments overnight. With the start of the new school year, most European countries are reopening their VET schools under specific protective guidelines for practising social distancing, reinforcing hygiene measures, and ensuring school premises are disinfected and well-ventilated.
Cedefop’s network of ambassadors tackling early leaving from VET shared their insights into the measures taken by 16 European countries (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom) for the reopening of VET schools and the challenges that VET providers and practitioners are facing in implementing them.
Most countries have opted for a hybrid system with a blend of physical and virtual learning. This gives schools the freedom to choose the best combination, such as alternating between morning and afternoon classes (in Hungary and Belgium); allocating certain days of the week to online learning (in Finland and Italy); or teaching certain subjects online (in Portugal and Spain). Most countries allow distance learning for teachers, students and their families if they are at higher risk due to serious pre-existing health problems.
VET providers and principals are establishing and testing out a ‘new normal’ for schools. They have faced challenges in the past – the 2008 economic recession, the H1N1 pandemic – but nothing to the extent of the coronavirus fallout. Teachers are faced with a Herculean task. The lost learning time students suffered from the abrupt move to distance learning needs to be addressed, particularly for student populations with special needs or of low income. Instruction must be flexible as schools face the prospect of applying an unfamiliar hybrid learning system, or should a spike in Covid-19 cases force schools to return to remote learning.
VET providers and practitioners must be supported with all the necessary tools and resources to overcome these challenges, and to be able to keep motivating students in their learning journey in a context marked by uncertainty, dire labour market projections and other economic and social consequences of the pandemic.
A renewed emphasis on effective professional development for teachers and trainers will be crucial in helping students make up for lost instruction time. The professional development they need now should focus on building a growth mindset of resilience, and increasing their comfort with uncertainty and their flexibility to deal with rapid changes.
Being able to apply inclusive teaching practices for all students, supporting learners at risk, and tackling early leaving, are all areas of particular interest to policy-makers and practitioners who fear a dramatic increase of the early leaving rates from education worldwide.