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UNESCO learning cities and responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 24 March

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CC BY- 2.0, Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar
25 March 2020

On 24 March, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning organized its second webinar on learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. Following last Thursday’s insights into how learning cities such as Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Shanghai (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Iran) and Manizales (Colombia) are dealing with the crisis, it was the turn of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy) and São Paulo (Brazil) to share their experiences. There was wide participation from around the globe, with 250 city representatives and other stakeholders attending the webinar.

Following introductions by moderator, Ms Marie Macauley (UIL), and host, Mr Raúl Valdes-Cotera (UIL), Mr Henrique Lopes, of the Healthcare Sciences Institute, Universidade Católica Portuguesa, opened the webinar. He emphasised the gravity of the rapidly evolving COVID-19 crisis, indicating how the pandemic had spread since the first webinars, with significant increases in cases and deaths and a host of new countries affected. This crisis will not be easily resolved, as a second and potentially a third wave of infections are anticipated in the coming months.

Lifelong learning can fundamentally support the dissemination of knowledge in this era of social confinement, helping people to maintain health and hygiene and engage in new learning opportunities. We are beginning to see the enormous potential for online learning and how it may alleviate negative mental effects of isolation. Education for healthcare, preventative training, improved functional literacy – lifelong learning in response to COVID-19 can cover these priority areas and more, but only if local governments invest.

Presentation by Henrique Lopes

Osan, Republic of Korea

Mr Kwak Sang Wook, Mayor of the city of Osan in the Republic of Korea, spoke of how his city took a national public information campaign one step further to devise a range of innovative initiatives at local level. People have been encouraged to wear protective masks across the Republic of Korea. In Osan, a mask-sharing project built on this momentum. Citizens have voluntarily signed up to produce basic protective masks by following guidelines widely disseminated among the local population. The many thousands of masks produced by citizens have since been distributed to school students and socially vulnerable groups. Furthermore, Osan’s local government has sought to provide targeted support to those families suffering most from school closures, such as single parents and families on low incomes. Emergency care has been provided by ‘Growing Together’ community centres, while a city fund finances the preparation of disinfection sites with the help of local citizens. Lunchbox delivery services have been organised for the elderly, and Osan hopes to emerge from the pandemic as a city having done everything possible to protect the most vulnerable members of its population.

Presentation about UNESCO learning city of Osan

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© City of Osan, Republic of Korea

Wuhan, People’s Republic of China

Ms Zhou Jia, researcher at the Wuhan Academy of Educational Sciences in Wuhan, People’s Republic of China, emphasized the power of online learning and community education during the pandemic. In Wuhan, primary and secondary schools officially started ‘air classes’ (online learning) in February. Since then, more than a million students have participated. In addition to retaining regular subjects, school curricula have been expanded to address virus-related topics, and a newly created ‘air classroom platform’ has supported regular and responsive online learning. Anticipating enormous demand for this platform, the city of Wuhan conducted stress tests and worked to resolve technical problems in advance. Particular attention has been given to underprivileged students’ access to air classrooms: coordinated provision of equipment, targeted distance tutoring and technical support for stronger internet signals have ensured that the children of key workers and those without access to technology do not miss out on online learning. The city of Wuhan has also promoted lifelong learning for the general public, so that local people of all ages can learn how to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Free courses for public welfare have been offered by the city’s library and a comprehensive Wuhan online learning network has made abundant resources available on its website.

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CC BY SA 3.0 unported, AndrewHorne at English Wikipedia

Turin, Italy

Mrs Isabella Calvagna, of the Education Department for the city of Turin in Italy, provided an honest assessment of the difficulties in responding to COVID-19. Schools must follow government guidance on distance learning, although they are facing some difficulties because not all families have the necessary devices. The city of Turin has therefore tried to strike a balance between supporting schools in accessing online learning and respecting their autonomy. Online platforms substituting schooling in Turin have been used to communicate with families and host homework, though some technical problems have led to disruption. This is understandable given the seismic shift for some schools from never or rarely utilizing online learning to conducting all their learning activities online, but even schools with no prior experience are finding solutions.

Just as Osan has made use of national measures to develop local initiatives, the city of Turin has undertaken activities echoing centrally issued guidelines on distance learning. For example, the ‘Foundation for the School’ initiative has provided schools with greater internet bandwidth and organized webinars to help teachers with online learning. The City of Turin has signed an agreement with the ‘Foundation for the School’, which will lead to an online learning experiment with 20 primary and secondary schools centred on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Additionally, the Torino City Love project has been developed in collaboration with local companies and offers free resources and skills programmes to support citizens and businesses. Turin recognizes that locally devised measures are instrumental in responding to the crisis, yet sees great value in international networks at this time.

Presentation about the UNESCO learning city of Turin

São Paulo, Brazil

Mr Luiz Alvaro Salles Aguiar de Menezes, International Affairs Secretary of São Paulo City, talked of how São Paulo City Hall has convened a ‘crisis cabinet’ in response to COVID-19. This cabinet is cross-sectoral, comprised of representatives of different areas – including international affairs and human rights – and led by São Paulo’s mayor and secretary for health.

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CC BY-NC 2.0, Babak Fakhamzadeh

All schools have recently closed across the city, with one week’s prior warning so that schools and parents could prepare. There are now one million students at home and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable is challenging. For those children from poor households who would ordinarily receive meals at school, the city of São Paulo has provided financial support so that families can buy food to replace school meals. With São Paulo at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, flexible and cheap digital learning systems are needed, and the local government is looking to international organizations to benchmark new technologies and facilitate their implementation. A quick and immediate response to the crisis has been to bring forward school holidays across the city in order to minimize the loss of school hours and, while schools remain closed, some will become makeshift hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

Following city representatives’ presentations, questions posed by participants addressed issues such as libraries’ capacities to provide resources despite being closed, measures to support students suffering from stress, and the challenges of monitoring and evaluation during this time of distance learning. These themes, as well as several others identified during UIL’s first webinar on learning cities’ responses to COVID-19, will be addressed in more detail in thematic webinars in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on UIL’s website for more details.

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