Reflections on COVID-19 and Education

Changed situations for learning

The epidemic, and the lockdown responses to it, have shifted the ground for great numbers of students. School closures meant a vast number of families suddenly had to do home-schooling and distance education. University closures have driven students online, even more than they were before. With social distancing, peer groups have been disbanded and many of the opportunities for informal learning have gone.

But there’s also more intimate disturbance. Kids have reason to fear. There’s a very dangerous virus loose in the world; old people have the highest death rates, but some young people die too. Grandparents may have gone into self-isolation; hugs may have stopped. In lockdown there seems to be more domestic violence, more strained relationships.

Some troubling issues of justice arise. Online learning needs equipment and technical skills, but not everyone has computers, good Internet access or technical skills. The ‘digital divides’ between rich and poor, white and black, urban and rural, suddenly have more importance. With schools and libraries closed, the inequality of resources becomes more important. Many students do not have a home rich in books, study spaces, or educational know-how.

Some old educational questions are raised again, forcefully. Who has a right to education? What counts as a classroom? What is a teacher’s role? – indeed, who is a teacher in these circumstances? And what makes a relevant curriculum?

The world around us

Response to the epidemic has mostly been managed by governments. Indeed, there is a startling surge in intervention and control by governments that have previously tried to shrink the public sector and leave everything to the market. Not much space has been found for community-based responses. (Despite the lessons of previous epidemics, including HIV/AIDS and Ebola, that community responses can be very effective.)

But in much of the world, including many of the large and powerful states, governments have been in the hands of right-wing populist regimes who have little respect for education or organized knowledge. And some of them are actively hostile. Powerful regimes are appeasing climate science deniers, peddlers of nationalist myths, and racists. Their approach to government draws on the business model of managerial prerogative and the military model of top-down command, far more than consensus-building and democracy.

We can say somethings stronger. The response to the COVID-19 epidemic by many holders of state power has been a shocking display of incompetence, ignorance, malevolence and self-interest. Hundreds of thousands of people have already died as a result, and more are dying all the time. We are living through a real social catastrophe. This is an incredibly difficult time for educators. But if we are to ‘recover’ into a humane and cooperative world, rather than a fearful, authoritarian and selfish world, the work of educators will be crucial.


Teachers’ work has changed even without major change in curricula. Where teaching has moved suddenly online, a whole raft of skills and practices have to be learnt, new preparation done, new forms of assessment developed. New administrative demands are an important part of the load. Workloads leapt up in the early stages and it’s unlikely they have settled yet. As schools re-open a lot of work has to be done to get things running again, and where some pupils don’t promptly return, both in-person and distance education have to be maintained.

Teaching via Zoom or another online platform is massively different from teaching in person, even if the formal content is similar. The physical and emotional atmosphere of school or university life is gone; there is less back-and-forth, no running about, no uproar. Teaching has always involved juggling many different tasks together, switching quickly from one to another; this is much slower online. There is more room for recording and surveillance, which probably means less imagination and risk-taking.

In the epidemic, relations among teachers may also be re-shaped. The whole workforce of a school or university is involved in producing educational effects. Much of the co-ordination is quick and informal; with online work this becomes slower and more formal. With re-opening, new balances and connections have to be created. All this has to be done under emotional pressure. Teaching is inherently an emotional process, and teachers like everyone else are affected by the tensions and losses of the epidemic.


In this troubled situation we need to re-think what is being taught and learnt. If governments make an educational response, it is likely to prioritise vocational education and STEM, on the claim that will help with economic recovery. That’s precisely the theme of the Australian government’s June 2020 ‘reform package’ for universities, helpfully entitled Job-Ready Graduates in case anyone misses the message. But that’s a very dubious response.

The epidemic itself should now be a curriculum theme, at all levels. That includes responding to the fears and problems surrounding COVID-19. It doesn’t mean we all have to master technical details of virology, though a basic knowledge of what viruses are, how they work, and what their ecology is, certainly should be part of general education. (I think we make far too much of subject divisions between STEM and humanities or social sciences.) The curriculum needs to be relevant to the social, emotional and health problems thrown up by the epidemic. Art practices, physical education and manual skills all figure here.

The epidemic strongly reinforces the need for moral education. This doesn’t mean religious or secular dogma. It does mean teachers and pupils engaging with the issues of ethics and solidarity that COVID-19 throws fiercely at us. Where hospitals have to triage, who should be treated and who left to die? When governments offer subsidies, who should get them? If walls are built, who is inside them and who outside? In short, to quote an ancient text, am I my brother’s keeper?

(These notes were written for a blog series on the educational impact of the epidemic. The post is at

COVID Self-isolation Diary, Day 14

Today is Day 14, and at 9 a.m. tomorrow I will feel that it's OK to leave self-isolation quarantine. I haven't had symptoms, I'll be fairly confident that I'm not a carrier of the coronavirus and so can't infect anyone.

But I certainly can be infected. The epidemic is still growing in Australia so the danger is actually greater than it was when I went into isolation. I'm in a high-risk group, and this virus does kill. So I'm going to step very carefully indeed while the epidemic lasts. As everyone else should do. No Kaffee-klatsches, no concerts, no court appearances, no cavorting on the bloody beach...

Keeping up morale has sometimes been difficult. An infestation of biting insects appeared in my house, and much as I hate insecticides (given what we are doing to the insect population of the world) I had to use them. The weather has been erratic here, and the news about the epidemic has got steadily worse. As I've said on other days, our ruling classes have been appalling in their incompetence and callousness.

It's still a hell of a lot easier trying to self-isolate in an established suburb of Sydney than in a settlement like the comunidades of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the Cape Flats and Soweto.  Or even New York. I can't see that the virus can be stopped now from spreading through most of the biggest cities of the world. There's a lot of trauma still to come.

I've been fortunate in social support. Family stocked my kitchen, friends and neighbours have brought fresh food to the door, colleagues and friends from as far away as Siberia have sent online encouragement. I'm very grateful to all of them, and to readers who have given me feedback about this blog and made me think it was really worth doing.

Advice to those starting isolation for COVID prevention? Hmm. Expect ups and downs: it won't be all grey monotone.  It takes a while to become consistent in following the prevention rules, e.g. handwashing and not touching your face, but keep working at it. Don't spend hours following COVID horror stories on social media - ten minutes is quite enough. Give yourself a few rules such as exercising at a certain time of day, but don't beat yourself up if you're slack about them. Above all, keep in touch with other people, every day. Do it by phone, by email, by skype, by facebook, by talking through the front door, by waving from the window, by sending smoke signals in Morse code. All these are valid.

And to wind up, COVID Reading. I've gone in for plenty of escapism, like essays about Elvis, and old comic books, and superannuated murder mysteries.  But one gets tired of that. So I've also looked at writing with more protein in it, and I want to finish by mentioning one of those books.

Svetlana Alexievich became famous for a book with an untranslatable title, Boys of Zinc or Zinky Boys or Boys in Zinc. It was a semi-fictionalized oral-history documentary exposing the grassroots experiences of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Vox pop social realism has been done before - Studs Terkel's Division Street America and Working are fine examples - but Alexievich turned it into War and Peace.  A number of other books in the same style, dealing with topics like the Chernobyl disaster and women's experiences of war, made her very unpopular with the regime in Belarus, and won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

The title Boys of Zinc was a reference to the zinc coffins in which dead Soviet soldiers were shipped back from Afghanistan, and also an ironic reference to the regime's heroic rhetoric about Soviet soldiers in WWII as "Men of Steel". To most people in the Anglosphere, WWII means the Battle of Britain and D-Day, with clean-cut democracies triumphing over Hitler through their innate goodness. (It's the Hollywood version, brilliantly taken apart in Paul Fussell's book Wartime.) In cold fact the Nazi regime was defeated by the Red Army and Stalin's dictatorship. It took four ghastly, grinding years of violence and devastation, leaving the Soviet Union with 25 to 30 million people dead.

Not long before Boys of Zinc, in the 1980s, Alexievich published an unusual book of stories from WWII called Last Witnesses. It's just been translated, and I've been reading it. A few pages at a time, which is all that I can bear. It's a collection of memories by Soviet citizens who had been children during WWII. If you ever want to know what a major social catastrophe is like for the vulnerable and powerless, have a look at this.

COVID Self-isolation Diary: Day 13

Friday the thirteenth day, no less... But nothing bad has happened, apart from an epidemic. Today the news went round that the United States has the largest number of cases of coronavirus infection in any country, 85 000. Known cases, that is. At the same time, president Trump's approval rating has gone up. It's good to know the American electorate can recognize forethought and intelligence when they see it.

Australia still has only a modest number of infections, a little over 3000 cases. But there is an acute shortage of test kits (as well as other medical supplies), so that's undoubtedly an under-count. State governments are cautiously thinking of letting some imprisoned people out, to reduce the casualties when the virus gets into the prisons. We can be sure that logic will not be applied to refugees, who are the living (and dying) proof of how tough the national government is on border protection.

Globally, we are now over 500 000 cases of known coronavirus infection, and 24 000 deaths. India has hardly begun counting. Anyone who still thinks this is a media scare, please put your hand up. Thank you, Mr Jones.

With all this unfolding, it's hard to focus on other tasks. I've spent my Day 13 mostly online or on the phone, talking with family and friends, cancelling meetings, and answering queries.

When universities began to send their teaching staff and graduate students off-campus to work at home, there was a wave of cheerful speculation about how much time people would now have to write that thesis, finish that article, compose that grant application. Often in fun, even ironic, but still, it seemed like a possibility.

Apart from the huge increase in childcare when schools closed, and the sudden demand to convert all face-to-face courses to online teaching, this happy idea missed the quality of the time available. When the time is overshadowed by a huge collective threat, and cross-hatched and interrupted with setting up new routines of living, you can't easily churn out high-quality intellectual work.

But some things persuade me we are still, at least partly, in contact with civilization. Yesterday I was listening to a jazz programme on a Sydney radio station when the DJ put on Chet Baker doing "These Foolish Things". Ah.

COVID Self-isolation Diary: Day 12

A grey, damp day, as the last couple of days have been. The garbage collectors, our unsung heroes, pass by with their truck, working in a light rain. Why does wet weather depress the spirits? In Australia, the driest continent, land of droughts and devastating bushfires, we should be singing for joy and dancing in the streets. (At 1.5 metres' distance, of course.)

Like so many others, I've been trying to understand the pattern of response to the novel-coronavirus epidemic by the right-wing governments currently in power through most of the world. Including the most prominent and most analyzed of all, president Trump.

I'm really not interested in the attempts to psycho-analyze Trump. What strikes me about this guy is not his bizarreness but his banality. In most respects he seems fully representative of his milieu. Rich white blokes in the US corporate elite can be expected to be competitive, prejudiced, narrow-minded and deeply selfish. Add a streak of resentment and some media skills, and you get something quite like the current Mr President.

So how can we understand the response of the corporate rich to the epidemic?  They don't care much about its impact on poor people, at home or abroad. They do care a lot about the value of their investments so they don't want Wall Street to tank. They think they are pretty safe and that if necessary their money can make them safer. And perhaps it can; I gather some of the New York rich have retreated already to wealthy enclaves in the hills, shipping supplies up by helicopter.

In an earlier generation the ethos of the ruling class in the rich English-speaking countries included a certain sense of public responsibility. It wasn't uniform, of course, but it was strong enough in the mid-twentieth century to make them accept the class compromises that gave us welfare states. That was the era of FDR and Eisenhower, Attlee and Macmillan, and out here in the periphery, Menzies and Playford. Over a couple of generations, that ethos has eroded and there is very little of it left. The willingness of the current corporate leadership - whether in finance, engineering, transport, manufacturing or fossil fuels directly - to trash the whole planet, knowing what is happening, is clear enough.

So when we look at the delays by right-wing governments in introducing hard measures to stop the epidemic, we certainly see ignorance and incompetence. (For a blow-by-blow narrative of the US case, see:
But we also see a strong motive - to protect Wall Street and the City of London, the share values of corporations and the bonuses of their CEOs, and the way of life for privileged groups that their profits support. Though of course using rhetoric about protecting 'the economy'. What that really meant was shown by the Morrison government in Australia, when it recently appointed a Commission to oversee the national COVID response. You'd expect it to be led by epidemiologists, healthcare, welfare and workforce specialists, wouldn't you?  Not one. Every single member of the Commission's board is a company director. Check it out.

But protecting the corporate economy isn't always straightforward. In fact a striking feature of the political response has been its hesitations and reversals. There are cross-currents and other pressures, including the political survival of the governments themselves. Given the patriarchal culture fostered by these regimes, there's a temptation to throw caution to the winds and opt for a strong-man, decisive-action approach. Johnson has gone farthest down that track. Trump tried it for a while, though he now seems to have veered back to the theme of protecting the economy. Meanwhile the virus itself seems immune to media appeals.

Enough. My Self-Isolation Reading today has included a 1975 book about rock music, Greil Marcus's Mystery Train, which I once found in a 2nd-hand bookshop. It has a wonderful essay about Elvis, that among other things explains why Elvis's early RCA recordings went beyond the Sun ones. And with that subversive thought, I'll sign off.

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