CORONAVIRUS

With Spain in lockdown, virtual education replaces the traditional classroom

The coronavirus outbreak has forced schools across the country to close, but some teachers face bigger hurdles than others as resources and familiarity with online tools vary from center to center

Spanish children taking online classes at home on March 11.
Spanish children taking online classes at home on March 11.SANTI BURGOS

In the middle of a room full of toys, a boy struggles with his building blocks while his sister draws. At the table, their father has just started to give a class on his laptop. On the other side of the screen, which is connected to Microsoft’s Teams app, 20 12-year-olds who study at Hastings School, a private center in Madrid, listen attentively, each of them in his or her own home.

Meanwhile in Torrelodones, 29 kilometers northwest of the capital, children with tablets are scattered around the apartment of Giovanni Alario, the vice-principal of San Ignacio de Loyola School. The youngest is listening to a video of her teacher telling a story; the middle child is taking history notes, and the oldest is busy solving math problems. “Any trouble with the integrals?” Jon Gonzalez, the math teacher, asks from time to time from the screen.

It’s cool to be autonomous, interactive, although of course I miss my classmates
Carmen, student at San Ignacio de Loyola School in Madrid

These were some of the scenarios last Wednesday on the first day of school quarantine in the homes of nearly 90,000 teachers in the Madrid region, after authorities ordered students to stay home and, if possible, receive their classes online. Madrid, La Rioja and parts of the Basque Country were the first to adopt the measure, and by March 16, with all of Spain in lockdown, schools across the country were scrambling to provide online classes.

But not all schools have the same resources, and the 1.2 million students in Madrid have so far been offered very different solutions. At the Manuel Nuñez de Arenas public school, in Pozo del Tío Raimundo, where a significant portion of the population is at risk of social exclusion, the principal on Wednesday helped one mother who was finding it hard to clarify her son’s doubts at home and decided to go personally to the school for answers. “But what is the difference between viviparous and oviparous?” she demanded to know.

With its multicolored corridors, this school has become a benchmark of educational innovation and social transformation in the region, and the memes of the WhatsApp class groups have been replaced by environmental studies homework. “With the diverse backgrounds in our school, many students don’t have a tablet, a laptop or any way of hooking up to online platforms, so we resorted to the class WhatsApp groups. Everyone has a cellphone,” says the school principal, Marta González de Iris.

There hasn’t been a planned response, a specific plan. Everyone is expected to manage as best they can
Carmen Morillas, Ceapa association

In the fourth-grade class, the kids have been researching the coronavirus and during their search for reliable information, they have learned to identify fake news. “It has also helped us to regain contact with families who were a bit out of the loop,” says their teacher Isabel Vizcaíno. “And the best thing now is that we can respond to doubts in a flexible and personal way, correcting their exercises and mistakes. In fact, this situation is an opportunity for everyone to improve.”

At Pío XII school in the Tetuán district of Madrid, the blog has been dusted off in order to communicate with families, but the reality is that not everyone has internet access. “Homework is tacked on the bulletin board at the school entrance for those families who do not have internet access,” explains the principal, Belén Muñoz. In public schools the most common online tool is an app called Roble, though many centers are still getting a handle on it. The alternative is a free access Google platform.

Carmen Morillas, from Ceapa, the umbrella organization for parents’ associations, explains that they are concerned about the lack of concrete measures. “There hasn’t been a planned response, a specific plan. Everyone is expected to manage as best they can. Ceapa sent the authorities a list of the 30 most frequent questions about these two weeks,” she says.

No clear instructions

In the Basque city of Vitoria, one of the first high-transmission hubs of the coronavirus, March 11 was the second day without traditional classes. And the 70 schools and universities in Vitoria were joined on March 12 by centers across the province of Álava. By March 16, schools across Spain had started remote teaching as the Covid-19 disease continued to spread.

Isabel Buesa, a civil servant and mother of two children aged nine and 12, is taking turns with her husband to work from home. “We have been working quietly in the living room for a couple of hours, but when they run out of homework... The first day was exciting, the second was boring. I don’t even want to think about the third. I’m afraid it’s going to feel very long,” she says.

This situation is an opportunity for everyone to improve
Isabel Vizcaíno, teacher

Ainhoa Urreta, a teacher in a state-subsidized private school, says that they were asked to make their working hours more flexible, even though they still have to go to the school. The center was shut down from one day to the next, and advice from the Madrid Education Department is only reaching the staff now. “They are asking us to do virtual classes, but we don’t know how. We are sitting in an office, sending homework by mail while our own children are home alone,” she says.

But for Jon Gonzalez, the teacher at the Loyola school in Torrelodones, the experience is nothing new. He already has a YouTube channel titled “Ja, qué mates” (Wow, check out that math), and both he and his students are making the most of the experience. “This is an historic opportunity,” he says. “A challenge. Technology is serving the needs of education.”

Carmen, one of his students, is surprised by how easy the change has been. “The crazy thing is that we are working much more than in class,” she says. “It’s cool to be autonomous, interactive, although of course I miss my classmates.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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