How to keep Omicron woes at bay and continue being better learners as well as educators 

The ongoing pandemic has had devastating effects on many spheres of life, including our learning and teaching abilities. Here's what we could do to be better and do better 
Here's what they have to say | (Pic: XIM University and Edexlive)
Here's what they have to say | (Pic: XIM University and Edexlive)

Careers, travel, pre-planned choices — everything came to a standstill when the world was hit by a pandemic in 2019 that didn’t just take away lives, but also changed the norms of the society in 2020. It came unannounced and spread like wildfire, not exempting a single state from its wrath. 

The pain of losing our loved ones, the trauma of isolation and social distancing, the new normal in classroom teaching, the careers that took a backseat which were expected to flourish — the year 2020 showed the public of all age groups what survival feels like in real life. And just when in 2021 we thought the world was recovering, getting vaccinated and starting to begin the offline regular education system, the virus changed its forms and took over the plights again. 

The year 2021 saw the reopening of schools, offline classes, students getting used to the previous schedules of examinations and evaluation techniques, slowly learning to take positive steps ahead and the country was pacing towards normalcy with people being given double doses of vaccination all around. But then, Omicron happened. A new variant. A super contagious one. 

Omicron, the variant originally identified in South Africa in November 2021, drove a new flood of pandemic across the world. Omicron was a new concern since it appeared to have every one of the most perilous transformations seen in past variations. There was an abrupt expansion in the number of cases within weeks. Schools and colleges that reopened after a wait of a year and more started detecting symptoms in their students even amidst strict guidelines followed and precautions taken. 

Vaccination was also kept in check. Yet, this variant found its way, sliding into the classroom corners, and forcing administrations to shut the doors of their institutions for the safety of their students and faculties. E-learning became the mode of education again. Projects and assignments were now confined to laptop screens instead of an open classroom experience where confidence, body language and presentation hold better scope, always. The joy of teaching became limited to Zoom calls and Google Meet. It took a toll on the health of faculty members as they had to keep themselves glued to the digital mode. 

No wonder, the variant wasn’t as harmful as it was expected to be in comparison to what the Delta variant did. But its spread amongst students, vacating campuses, travelling back home, isolation and medicines made it very tough for them to focus on their studies and the examinations that followed.

From December 2021 to January 2022, Omicron showed us days where students had to attend lectures from rooms of isolation and hospital corridors, while on the other hand, faculties had to restructure their teaching and evaluation techniques on a fresh page. This not only led to a downfall of productivity during the crisis, but posed a major challenge for students when it comes to coping with their career goals, while their families tested positive for COVID. Not just that, students who aimed for higher studies abroad, had to give it up or re-think their plans. 

All we are left with again is shattered hopes, yet stronger conviction to rise up again. The new suggestion of booster doses, mask mandates and once again, the cancelling of gatherings is what we have accepted. Omicron undoubtedly came as a silent shock and became the biggest challenge to the education system from the very beginning of 2022. A holistic approach to education — that addresses students’ learning, social and emotional needs — is crucial, especially in times of crisis. Many schools are going to open in hybrid mode. It is highly crucial that teachers, faculty, educators and all stakeholders should be highly engaged and involved in this new process.

Few interventions 
The good news is boosters appear to be very effective at increasing immunity. But for kids and those below 15, the wave would still be a matter of concern. When it comes to online education or e-learning, the rural population is not completely equipped with utilities like fast internet, uninterrupted power supply and electronic devices. 

With COVID-19 halting classroom learning sessions, online learning has paved a new way to retain normalcy for students and teachers. It is heartening to see that not only urban educational institutes, but state-run schools in rural areas have also gone digital and resorted to online classes to avert academic losses. Although not every village and town in India is infrastructurally developed to sustain online education, it is motivating to see many rural schools and colleges adapting to e-learning completely during these times. Also, many affordable and low-bandwidth e-learning solutions are coming up with multilingual platforms to facilitate easy and convenient online learning classes in India. It was also announced in the Union Budget 2022.

Role of teachers, academicians and educators. They play a significant role during this point in time. They help to break down those psychological and social barriers to provide a space where students with any learning ability can try their best. When educators do this, they are able to create a sense of trust among students, which has been proven to improve relationships, increase engagement, boost creativity and performance and help students feel included and respected. Classrooms are best managed when we set appropriate expectations, provide engaging and relevant lessons, offer students choices and celebrate milestones and accomplishments. As instructors, we must be thoughtful in our class preparation to intentionally create opportunities to build trust. Here are some ways to do that.

Whether educators are teaching in front of a physical classroom, preparing asynchronous learning experiences or facilitating a live virtual class, learners should be able to trust that they can bring their full selves to class. An emotionally supportive and psychologically safe learning environment allows students to build relationships based on trust and open communication with everyone in the space. This helps strengthen their coping skills, self-regulation and self-affirmation over time. 

Common behaviours of educators who build trust among their students (and peers) often include:
- Listening to everyone
- Asking questions to gain insight from others
- Seeking ways to collaborate
- Genuinely wanting others to succeed

Here are ways to embrace these behaviors, continuing to build trust and encouraging active learning throughout the semester: 

Ask open-ended questions and actively listen to students’ responses. Doing so will demonstrate that you are interested in and value their thoughts and ideas. It also prompts students to think carefully and more deeply when engaging in classroom dialogue. For example, in organisational leadership courses, how can one facilitate several discussions during class time? After one student speaks up, other students share similar examples. This builds connections in a non-threatening way and encourages deeper reflection for everyone. 

Find meaningful ways to correlate students’ past experiences to the material. It is helpful to add notes throughout the lesson plans to remind teachers to pause and ask students for their examples, stories or learnings related to the material. This builds students’ confidence in their ability to participate without having to know the answer and it helps honour what makes each student unique. 

For example, when teaching about communication styles as part of being a leader, teachers can ask students to share an instance when they had to lead a group or a team and how they were successful in getting members to accomplish a task. Teachers should continue with that prompt till at least three or four examples are shared by different students. Then, as a class, you evaluate which communication styles were used in each situation to connect their experiences back to the lesson content.

Embrace diversity and create a culture of inclusivity and respect in your classroom. In learning cultures that embrace differences, people feel included, respected and are more comfortable sharing their ideas. Humans have universal desires for respect, competence, autonomy and social status; involving students in ways that support these are essential to creating a safe space for learning. 

This might include intentionally placing students in groups with peers they have never met before or sending everyone on a scavenger hunt outside the classroom, demonstrating your trust in their ability to behave and return on time. Encourage students to think out of the box.

The authors are Dr Kalpana Sahoo, Faculty in Organisational Behavior and Sweta Mohapatra, Student, Business Management, XIM University. Views expressed are their own.

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