The School Closure Challenge
On 17 March 2020, the government of Tanzania officially announced a one-month school closure as one of the measures to control COVID-19 spread. The decision to close all schools came just one day after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Arusha. Then, the closure was prolonged two months more before schools re-opened on 29 June 2020.
To most schools and families, this came as a surprise. Families felt unprepared to continue their students’ learning out of school. There was uncertainty about when schools would reopen. The big question was: how will students keep learning while away from schools?
It was a very challenging time for parents and students. Everyone quickly strategized. Social distancing was a barrier to meetings between students and parents. Schools needed an effective strategy that could shift learning quickly from in-person to remote. Access to curriculum and communication tools through technology would have to play a great role. Most schools could not do this.
However, Quest Forward Learning, reviewed by the Tanzania Institute of Education (TIE), worked well for this shift. It provides ordinary level secondary students in Tanzania not only with remote access to the curriculum content, but also with the capability to fully and actively interact with it and with their teachers, whom we call “mentors.” Because of Quest Forward Learning, learning and growth could continue.
The Quest Forward Distance Learning Plan
The Opportunity Education Tanzania distance learning team quickly created a distance learning plan. This plan required every student and subject teacher to have completed Quest Forward orientation, have a tablet or laptop with the Quest! app installed, a source of power, and internet at home. It established communication channels between schools and families for sharing weekly learning schedules, frequent check-ins, announcements, and updates.
Mtakuja Secondary school in rural Moshi and Ihsan Islamic Secondary School in Dar es Salaam successfully implemented this plan. The students at these schools learned successfully while at home during the school closure.
Students worked on their academic materials according to weekly study schedules, completed and turned in their artifacts, answered review questions, and completed additional assignments to their mentors as in the normal classroom setting. Mentors set aside time to review and assess the work sent by their students, and held check-ins with them for feedback through their established communication channels. Parents and guardians were very supportive of their children at home by providing them with internet access, setting aside intentional time for their children to learn, and helping to create a conducive learning environment.
Despite unprecedented challenges, schools that implemented the Quest Forward distance learning plan observed many positive outcomes.
1. Mentors communicated with each student daily, supporting them and ensuring they were on track.
To keep students on track and to keep the structure of a normal school day, mentors provided weekly study schedules. They used the established communication channels with families to show them the name of the course, level, and quest students should complete daily. They phoned students and parents of students to track their progress and used the Quest! app to answer students’ questions. Students uploaded artifacts and sent them on the app or Google Drive. For science lab assignments that were difficult to complete at home, science mentors quickly provided alternative activities that fit students’ environments better, and students completed them successfully.
2. Students and mentors grew valuable skills.
We grow through challenges. Learning remotely was a great opportunity for both students and mentors to think critically, work out of their comfort zones, and learn from setbacks. Mentors practiced all of their skills in supporting students to learn from their homes. Everyone grew in technology, communication, planning, and teamwork.
3. Distance learning has helped students understand the importance of the essential habits and they have embodied them.
The 6 Essential Habits became more essential during the COVID-19 school break than ever before. Prior to this break, Quest Forward students were nurtured to develop and understand these habits: Be Curious, Manage Yourself, Communicate and Collaborate, Solve Problems, Learn from Setbacks, and Live an Integrated Life.
Students displayed the highest level of self-management. They followed weekly study schedules, finished quests, completed artifacts and assignments, and turned them in to their mentors for review and feedback. Students reached out to their mentors and fellows for any help they needed. They shared ideas on the team communication channels.
Also, Quest Forward students displayed the highest degree of curiosity. Whenever they faced something new while at home, they contacted mentors and asked about it. Students collaborated with parents or guardians to make learning possible at home.
4. Schools completed their syllabi.
Students completed quests according to their school’s weekly and daily schedules. This provided a smooth pace through courses and the syllabus.
Yassin Adam Shamte, a chemistry mentor at Ihsan Islamic Secondary School, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, said “‘Learning Happens Everywhere and Always’ has been the most conspicuous Quest Forward principle during the COVID-19 school closure. Quest Forward Distance Learning has emphatically demonstrated that learning can take place even at home, and not necessarily in the physical classrooms, and in a very interactive manner, with the curriculum content, classmates and mentors.”
5. The relationship of the school administration, mentors, and parents of the students became stronger than ever.
Schools communicated regularly with parents of their students and shared updates, building upon those relationships. Parents became more involved in their children’s learning process. Parents created home learning environments and set aside time for their children to learn. They gave their children materials to complete artifacts. Parents also spoke constantly with mentors, ensuring their children’s learning progress was always on track.
We are sincerely grateful to students, mentors, families, and the Opportunity Education team. Each played a great role in making Quest Forward distance learning a success. Everyone involved in these efforts kept moving forward with perseverance and courage.
We encourage Quest Forward Schools to take advantage of our distance learning plan if similar school closures occur again. Schools that implement Quest Forward Learning are uniquely positioned to overcome any challenges that present themselves in the future.