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

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