UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 1 April
On 1 April 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) hosted the webinar ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion’ as part of an ongoing series for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC). Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China) and Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) shared with other GNLC members, city representatives and education stakeholders from around the world their initiatives for the continuation and extension of learning opportunities for vulnerable groups as cities respond to COVID-19.
In his welcoming address, Mr Raúl Valdés-Cotera (UIL) said that he hoped these weekly webinars organized by UIL would continue to foster the sharing of good practice and knowledge. Moderator Ms Marie Macauley (UIL) introduced the event’s theme, equity and inclusion, drawing attention to the fact that COVID-19 has laid bare pre-existing inequalities and calling for support for learners who are now at home and in danger of being left behind.
Mr Harri Rinta-aho, Deputy Mayor of Espoo, shared his city’s efforts to continue providing high-quality education for students while schools are closed. Espoo has benefitted from its prior investments: digital preparedness was at an advanced level before schools closed and so the city was well equipped for the sudden surge in online learning. A digital platform called ‘Wilma’ has served as a medium for daily dialogue between home and school, while capacity-building activities for teachers have been implemented in collaboration with companies and other partners. In Espoo, teachers are recognized as fundamental to distance learning and have directly shared learning resources online, including through social media.
A number of measures have also been put in place to cater to the needs of vulnerable children. For example, pupils who do not have their own technological device at home can borrow one from school. It has been acknowledged in Espoo that switching to distance learning brings new risks, particularly for those children who rely on school to provide a safe space and food. Schools are therefore distributing snack bags to vulnerable pupils, while school welfare services continue to arrange meetings with children and families most in need.
In addition, measures for equity and inclusion in Espoo go beyond the school system and include wider initiatives to support the well-being of children and youth: various forms of youth work are now conducted online through gaming communities, chat services and social media, with outreach activities arranged as necessary. Non-Finnish speakers are also accommodated for during the pandemic: coronavirus information and instructions are available in 10 languages; a soon-to-be-launched chatbot service will offer information on COVID-19 in 100 languages; and a multilingual counselling service supported by volunteers and local library staff will be on hand to respond to Espoo residents’ queries and concerns.
Chengdu, People’s Republic of China
Ms Yan Wang, Deputy Director, Educational Resources Data Centre of Chengdu Research Institute of Education Sciences, provided insight into the situation in Chengdu. Chengdu and cities across China have been grappling with COVID-19 for months now, and Ms Yan pointed to how Chengdu’s responsive measures have become more refined over time. For example, an initial blanket ban on physical proximity to vulnerable people has given way to a more nuanced approach: now, if someone has been in quarantine for 14 days with no exposure to others nor symptoms of the virus, they are allowed to visit vulnerable relatives. Community staff call vulnerable locals on a daily basis to assess their needs, establishing whether they need masks, medicines or food, then delivering supplies to their door.
In Chengdu, grant subsidies have been given to low-income groups, including poorer families, and care arrangements have been made for the children of medical workers. With a boom in online learning, the local government has taken action to develop 4G-capable equipment to ensure all students can connect to high-speed internet. For students who do not have technological devices at home, schools provide textbooks and devices and arrange learning support over the phone. In addition, the television station Sichuan TV has released a free learning platform, and Chengdu Digital School provides nearly 15 million students across Sichuan with online learning opportunities free-of-charge.
Swansea, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Ms Judith James, Head of Strategic Regional Collaboration, Swansea University, began her presentation with some background information on Swansea and its ongoing commitment to work with disadvantaged groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. In relation to formal education, some schools have remained open for children of ‘key workers’, meaning that learning and childcare support is continuously provided for those whose work cannot stop, including those working in health and emergency services, prison workers, social care workers and school staff. In addition, children from poor families still have access to free school meals, with councils providing 1,800 meals per day, and children who need it are entitled to take a ‘grab and go’ bag from their nearest school each day. Delivery is arranged if children need to self-isolate.
Pupils without access to the internet have posed a particular challenge, including those living in rural areas around Swansea, and so the municipal council has arranged for printed learning materials to be delivered where required. Beyond schooling, local area coordinators in each community are overseeing efforts to support vulnerable people, for example by arranging for local volunteers to collect shopping, medicines and other vital supplies on behalf of others. Additionally, support lines remain open for people at risk of domestic abuse, and Swansea’s municipal government has showcased cultural sensitivity as well as inclusivity by preparing local Muslim communities for the potential need to cremate COVID-19 fatalities, in place of traditional Muslim burial practices. Another significant undertaking in support of vulnerable people is the immediate provision of accommodation to all homeless people across the city.
A rich and lively debate followed cities’ presentations and a number of questions on the topic of inclusion and equity were discussed. UIL’s Ms Macauley asked cities about the digital resources that have been made available for those who do not have access to technology and/or the internet. In Espoo, it is up to communities to provide the necessary equipment; so far, there has been only one request for additional technology and it was met. In Swansea, people have mobile phones but access to the internet can be problematic; paper learning exercises are required by these families. In response to a question on support and additional training for teachers, Ms Yan Wang noted that Chengdu Digital School has broadcast lessons to teachers as well as students on how to use technology.
The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the two previous webinars.