AMCHAM: Please describe how you and your team because progressively aware of the Covid 19 epidemic, the first steps you took, why you took those steps and the first results.
Claude Meisch: COVID did not come with a fair warning, so we didn’t have time to become progressively aware of the epidemic, because things happened quite quickly. Even before the first person was tested positive in Luxembourg, we prepared various scenarios how to deal with schools and childcare facilities in which cases of COVID-19 could occur. Another concern was to communicate sanitary measures to schools so that the pupils and teachers could apply them. We were already aware that the virus would have a significant impact on everyday life in schools, but the full extent was not yet foreseeable.
Consequently other countries began to close schools completely and it was not long before we had to make the same decision in Luxembourg on 12 March 2020. Within a few days, the entire school system switched to homeschooling. Our aim was clear: we did not want the learning process to be disrupted. At first, we anticipated that this decision would only be for two weeks, with possibly a week’s extension until the Easter holidays, but it soon became obvious that there was no way back to normality by then. Therefore, after 8 weeks of homeschooling, we opted for a system of alternating classes, which ran from May to the end of June. Thanks to this system, we reduced the number of students simultaneously present in the school buildings, while enabling them at the same time to finish their school year properly and to keep their social contacts to some extent.
AMCHAM:. How and why have you modified your approach over time?
Claude Meisch: The challenge in this pandemic is at least twofold: as a Ministry of Education, we have to continuously balance between limiting sanitary risk and ensuring the pupils’ right to education; moreover, we must regularly adapt our approach to the evolution of the situation and incorporate the latest scientific knowledge about the virus. Our goal has always been to keep schools open as long as possible.
When the pandemic started, little was known about the virus and the COVID-19 infection process, and protective material such as masks, disinfectants, etc. was not readily available in sufficient quantities. In order to limit the spread of the virus, the government had to close schools and childcare facilities, just like other sectors of society. After the first lockdown, international studies showed that children and young people were less infectious and less affected by the virus than adults; this allowed us to reopen schools by implementing a system of alternating classes.
Over the weeks, we came to realize that even in the small country of Luxembourg, the spread of the virus is not the same everywhere and that we could take different measures on local or regional levels depending on the number of COVID-19 cases in certain classes or schools. This encouraged us to work out a sanitary concept with different scenarios which has been applied since the beginning of the school year in September. It was quite successful, because, and unlike in neighboring countries, it helped us to limit the spread of the virus in schools and to avoid the closure of schools, even if schools had to face considerable organizational challenges. Now, since the beginning of 2021, we are being confronted with mutants of the virus, and thus, we have to implement a stricter sanitary plan, including more testing, mandatory masks, etc.
AMCHAM: Please assess the good and the less good associated with the process and results of the imposed home-schooling initiatives?
Claude Meisch: There is no doubt that homeschooling can never replace face-to-face teaching. Personal contact and guidance provided by teachers is essential for the learning process. In addition, social contacts with fellow students are essential for the development and well-being of children and youngsters. These are the reasons why we only resort to homeschooling when there is really no other alternative for sanitary reasons.
On the up side, homeschooling has quite clearly pushed and promoted digital learning. Everyone had to get used to teaching and learning with digital media, even if it was an unfamiliar approach for some. New digital media and content were created, both by teachers and the ministry, for example the website www.schouldoheem.lu, as well as guidelines for digital learning and teaching. I am convinced that schools will continue to benefit from this new experience in the long term, by combining, for instance, innovative digital teaching methods with more traditional ones.
AMCHAM: Are there any categories of students by nationality or socio-economic levels who have been more negatively impacted by the education adjustments that you have had to take and what have you and your team done to mitigate these adverse impacts?
Claude Meisch: During the first lockdown in spring, when the school system literally switched to homeschooling from one day to the other, there were definitely students who could not participate in homeschooling due to a lack in digital equipment. This was however largely remedied by providing laptops or tablets to those in need, thanks to the joint efforts of all partners, schools, communities, etc. And as of right now, the ministry has an additional stock of 5 000 tablets available for lending.
We are of course aware that even beyond digital equipment, students do not have uniform learning conditions at home. Family backgrounds are quite different: not everyone has a room or desk of their own, not everyone has parents who can guide and support them, etc. It is quite a challenge for all parents to juggle homeschooling and home office, but it can be assumed that especially in disadvantaged families, situations arise where parents cannot take care or are simply overwhelmed by the additional homeschooling challenges. It is evident and necessary to prevent this social inequality from exacerbating and we undertake all efforts to keep schools open as long as possible. Moreover, during homeschooling, we continued to offer 1:1 mentoring to those pupils who could not be reached otherwise and all pupils in primary and secondary education were offered support lessons during the first two weeks in September.
AMCHAM:. Are students behind where they should be or on-track to keep pace with the curriculum?
Claude Meisch: In general, situations may differ a lot from one to another. Fortunately, and thanks to our sanitation plan, schools have been able to stay open and the majority of students have been able to attend their regular classes almost continuously. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that the ongoing situation has a negative impact on the learning progress of many. Students who already had difficulties with in school learning before the crisis risk to be left even more behind in homeschooling. Moreover, we have to pay particular attention to specific class levels: in cycle 1 of primary school, for instance, young children may be particularly impacted with regard to their language development; in the upper classes of secondary school, the preparation for university may be impacted. To help all students to catch up on lost time and learning opportunities, we are now investing even more resources in tutoring and differentiation.
AMCHAM: How would you rate the morale of both students and teachers?
Claude Meisch: I have great respect for the children and youngsters and the way they cope with this unprecedented situation. Children learn quickly and I have always noticed during my visits to schools how well they comply with sanitary measures and how they try to make the best out of the situation. The same is true for teachers, who make all possible efforts to help students progress despite a very difficult context and organizational challenges in schools. Nevertheless, we should not close our eyes to the fact that not everyone is doing well. The past year was full of restrictions, our life has been completely turned upside down. The crisis is leaving its mark, even if some are better dealing with it than others.
For children and adolescents, isolation and monotony are even more difficult to cope with than for us adults. They lack much of what they need for their psychological development in childhood and adolescence, and for building up their self-confidence: friends, carefreeness, testing boundaries, etc. For some, there may even be additional stress: existential fears of parents, fear for the health of relatives, family problems, etc.
AMCHAM: Are there any steps which have been undertaken to improve the morale of either students or teachers. Why and what has been the results?
Claude Meisch: On the one hand, teachers are developing very creative ways to offer interesting activities to students while respecting sanitary measures, to escape from the dreary daily routine from time to time. In addition, the ministry has also developed a lot of materials, such as websites with recommendations and easy-to-follow exercises to support well-being during the pandemic, exercises for physical activities at home, recreational activities for children, regular online competitions, etc. We are also in regular contact with school principals and youth organizations to get their feedback on the well-being of young people.
Above all, we need to take time. Time for conversations, time to listen, time to support students in their well-being and to care for them. For example, I have arranged for class teachers in secondary schools to take time to have an individual conversation with each student and ask about their well-being. We also launched a campaign #act4support which comprises various initiatives, like for instance guidelines and good practices to help teachers, educators and parents to be attentive to certain signs that might indicate if children or young people are not doing well. We have also set up a helpline, 8002 9393, open 24/7 and offering educational and psychological assistance to students, teachers, parents and families.
AMCHAM: What lessons have you, your team and your teachers learned from this crisis?
Claude Meisch: The last 12 months have been challenging for all of us. This crisis is beyond any past experiences. We all had to learn to make decisions at very short notice and to implement them. We learnt to keep the education system running in the best possible way, despite the uncertainty that has been ruling our everyday life for almost a year now. We learnt to continuously search for a balance between our goals and the measures we have to take to reach them: ensuring the health protection of all while guaranteeing the right to education and preventing the young generation from becoming victims of the pandemic. These goals cannot be easily reconciled, but we have to do our best to fulfill all of them and we are in for the long-hall.
AMCHAM: What and how would you do anything differently based on the knowledge you have now that you did not have when this crisis started?
Claude Meisch: I think that every decision was right at the moment it was taken. A crisis means that you never know how it will develop and you have to make decisions based on the given facts at that moment. It was important to us at all times that we uphold the right to education of the students and at the same time, of course, provide the best possible protection in schools and childcare facilities. This objective still guides us today. However, the measures we implement are changing because of what we now know about the virus. In May and June, all schools functioned in A and B groups. Since September, we have a sanitary plan that enables us to be proceed in a much more differentiated way and to act more locally when needed. This allows the majority of classes in the country to continue with face-to-face classes and to recur to quarantines only when and where they are really necessary. Now that we are confronted with new variants of the virus, we have to adapt the sanitary plan once again.
AMCHAM: What lessons learned, and advice would you like to offer to your teachers, students and parents of students? 11. Is there anything else you would like to say to your students, their parents and your teachers?
Claude Meisch: I would like to thank everyone, students, teachers, educators, parents, because it is thanks to their joint effort that we have managed to keep schools open for so long. We have a common goal: to get through this crisis without letting children and young people become victims of the pandemic. I am very aware that the situation is not easy for anyone. I know that it is sometimes hard to cope with all the decisions that the government has to make, especially when they come at short notice and when the situation is so rapidly changing.
And I would like to appeal to their patience. Patience to stand in solidarity and to continue to comply with the sanitary measures as good as possible. Everyone can do their part in contributing to the common effort in the fight against the virus.
AMCHAM: How are things going in the English language educations tracks and what are the future plans?
Claude Meisch: Our international school offer, including the English-speaking segment, is very popular. I am very happy that the Luxembourgish public school now offers English-speaking sections leading up to 3 different diplomas, namely the International Baccalaureate, the European Baccalaureate and the A-levels, attracting a growing number of students both in primary and in secondary education. In the next two years, we will expand the existing offer by creating two more public European schools: one in Mersch, which is to open in September 2021, and another in Luxembourg-City, which will follow in 2022.