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COVID-19 and School Education

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COVID-19, Symbol of the VUCA World

The Future of Education and Skills 2030 ("Education 2030") project led by the OECD's Department of Education and Skills has numerous member countries. The participants from Japan include the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Tokyo Gakugei University, and the University of Tokyo. I have also been participating in this joint project since its inception, as a member of Tokyo Gakugei University. The Education 2030 project aims to conduct research studies on "What education today's children will need, in order to thrive and to shape their world in 2030." When the OECD launched the project in 2015, it envisaged that our world would become more unpredictable by around 2030, calling it a world of "VUCA." The term "VUCA" is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. More precisely, the VUCA world will have more unprecedented changes and serious issues concerned with various aspects of our lives. These include scientific technologies, natural disasters, wars, terrorism, immigration, harmful organisms, diseases, and economic crises. The Education 2030 project seeks to provide children with an education that can help them survive and thrive more effectively in such a future world.

The issue of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) reflects a typical characteristic of the VUCA world. First, the sudden outbreak and uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 across the world indicated a higher degree of volatility. Second, the unknown features of the virus increased the degree of uncertainty, such as the probability of infection and the effectiveness of preventive measures. Third, the complexity of COVID-19 is much greater than other common viruses, as several thousands of mutations have been generated within COVID-19, all of which are capable of ingeniously evading the immune system with a complex mechanism. Finally, the death toll due to COVID-19 differs depending on countries and regions: some countries experienced an extremely high number of fatalities, while others were affected to a lesser extent. In addition, the onset of symptoms also differs: some people became critically ill within a short period of time, while others displayed no symptoms. These differences in the speed and scale of infection, symptoms, and scientific opinions tend to increase the degree of ambiguity.

Education That Enhances the Ability to Survive in the VUCA World

Under such circumstances, people are more likely to be frightened or panicked, or influenced by the mass media style of reporting. As a result, more and more people experience difficulty in maintaining psychological balance and good judgement. At a group level, there is a social phenomenon called the "Citizens Safety Patrol," a group of citizens serving as a watchdog for offenses such as ignoring self-quarantine guidelines. However, there are also opinions which insist that organizational initiatives focusing solely on the avoidance of risk could increase harassment. Therefore, to survive in the VUCA world, it is necessary to maintain good flexibility, resilience, and mental durability at an organizational level, as well as to maintain a sense of humor, courage, and optimism at both organizational and personal levels. To achieve these aims, we need to appropriately understand the risks we are facing and exercise appropriate caution, neither overreacting to them nor underestimating them. To exercise appropriate caution, we need to acquire a well-balanced, objective perception towards these risks, based on proven scientific information and comparative analysis with other risks.

I believe that education to enhance such risk literacy is essential for children who need to survive and thrive in the future VUCA world.

Schools' Reaction and COVID-19

Currently, I serve as Principal of Tokyo Gakugei University Oizumi Elementary School, which marked its 80th anniversary in 2018. The school has consistently upheld the educational philosophy of "School events are important for the development of children" since its foundation. Nevertheless, it was necessary to cancel or alter most of our school events in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this report, I will explain what was considered important when adjusting to such changes. I hope this will help you think about how schools should respond to crisis situations.

Last year, when the government requested the closure of all Japanese schools from March 2 due to COVID-19, it was necessary to adjust a substantial proportion of our school activities, such as the cancellation of the April entrance ceremony and rescheduling it later in June. In April, schools reopened with staggered attendance, as it was unsafe, from the standpoint of social distancing, to allow all students to attend class as normal. Therefore, 50% of the students were allowed to attend school in turn, each class occupying two classrooms. By June, almost all students at public schools had resumed regular attendance. In Tokyo, there are about 1,200 public elementary schools with more than 20,000 classes, but not one COVID-19 cluster case was identified among them. This indicates that the cluster incidence rate for elementary school children may be extremely low. Now consider the case of influenza. In 2018, eight elementary schools in a certain city of Tokyo temporarily closed 30 classes due to influenza. Had that been 1,000 elementary schools, about 4,000 classes would have been closed. In contrast, in the case of COVID-19, there was no cluster detected from among 1,200 elementary schools. When compared to the case of influenza, this outcome is quite notable. Of course, we will never know whether there was any cluster of infections with no symptoms.

However, schools seem to ignore such a low cluster incidence rate and forbid children to use balls or playground equipment and do not permit free play with peers. This is because school administrators are wary of criticism by parents and other stakeholders once a coronavirus cluster occurs, and try hard to ensure their performance of accountability in order to be able to say, "We have done our best." It is true that such efforts have successfully prevented outbreaks of group infection, but playing freely is also essential for the development of children. Nevertheless, school administrators are taking an overly cautious stance regarding infection risks despite the extremely low incidence rate. It may be unavoidable to receive criticism that school administrators are pursuing a policy of protecting their reputation, at the expense of education necessary for children. It is important for schools to accurately evaluate the outbreak risk from the standpoint of probability theory and maintain educational activities truly necessary for children, instead of merely protecting their reputation.

Without involving detailed explanation here, it was decided to allow children to play freely when needed, while vigorously implementing disinfection and other measures. For school events, we let children consider how to prevent coronavirus infection. We also made decisions on the parts that children could not determine by themselves. Nearly 200 trainee teachers were accepted as in every year, by ensuring infection prevention measures. For example, we allowed only 50% of them to enter the classroom and asked the rest to stand in the hallway outside the classroom to observe lessons. For a school athletic meet, parents were asked to follow our rule that only one adult per family could attend the event and the remaining family members should watch an online streaming video. For example, parents attended the event in turn (as each child participated in multiple races), others standing at the school gate ready to take their turn, meanwhile watching the live video on a smartphone. Other family members such as grandparents stayed at home and watched the live video.

When facing a tremendous risk such as COVID-19, we tend to be overwhelmed by how to prevent infection rather than to take rational action. The most important thing is to maintain balanced judgment by accurate understanding and exercising caution against the risk. Generally speaking, it is rare that all of our desires are satisfied. Our life is a constant challenge of choosing what we will trade-off. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a stay-at-home option was taken, we saw economic downturns such as the closure of restaurant businesses (or problems working from home with more back-pains due to remote meetings, more obesity-related health problems, or more family quarrels due to constricted living space). In contrast, when a "Go-To" campaign was implemented to stimulate the economy, the number of infections rapidly increased.

Well, let me come back to our school events. When preparing a big school event, children in the sixth grade were asked to think what we should do to prevent coronavirus infection. At the end of the event, a student serving as the president of the event management committee said in his closing speech that "We were very happy that we could organize this event and think what we could do by ourselves. This event takes place every year, but this year, we had valuable experiences otherwise denied to other students in another year." I felt that his comment represented children's ability to survive and thrive in the VUCA world.

COVID-19 and Work-Style Reform

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a momentum for change in various aspects of our society. For schools, the reform of teachers' work style has been one of priority issues. Teachers always have a lot of work which never finishes, because schools introduce educational activities deemed necessary and beneficial every year. The problem is, all activities appear to be important for the development of children. It is difficult for them to create an optimized effective school curriculum by using the so-called "scrap-and-build" method. As a result, the burden of teachers becomes endless.

This year, however, schools were obliged to suspend various activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This gave good opportunities for them to determine which should be maintained and which could be omitted. In other words, the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has suggested critical insights into the work-style reform of schools. I hope that this experience will continue contributing to teachers' new work-style even after the pandemic ends.

As I mentioned above, teachers are always busy with lots of work. However, considering the future VUCA world, what they are required to do is not perform educational activities in a traditional way but in a more flexible and progressive way. More precisely, they need to enhance their risk information literacy and become more sensitive to various up-to-date items of information. In this way, they will become able to determine what children will need in order to survive in the current society with its high volatility and risk factor.

Finally, I would like to mention one more important thing I realized during the COVID-19 pandemic. To make various important decisions in this turbulent time, it is important for all the school communities, including groups of children, parents, and teachers, to work together to solve problems. In fact, I honestly feel that this teamwork has supported us when making difficult decisions and overcoming various problems. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to all the people who have been supporting us.



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report_sugimori_shinkichi.jpg Dr. Shinkichi Sugimori
Dr. Sugimori is Professor of Social Psychology at Tokyo Gakugei University and Principal of Tokyo Gakugei University-affiliated Oizumi Elementary School. He conducts research studies on group psychology (evaluation of team working, psychology in the citizen judge system, and effects of experiential activities) as well as risk psychology, from the standpoint of cultural social psychology focusing on social relations between individuals and groups. He also serves as Executive Board Member of the Society for Field-Culture Education; Board Member of the Youth Friendship Association; Councilor of the Outward Bound Japan; Board Member of the Children Institute for the Future, Tokyo Gakugei University; and Chairman of the Accreditation Committee, Japan Association for Certifying and Training Educational Specialists.

(Titles and affiliations are as of the time of posting.)

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