Editorial: Education in Europe and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Introduction

The global Covid-19 pandemic has been a crisis of an unprecedented scale, threatening lives and normality as we know it. The virus diffused rapidly, leading to drastic regimes of social distancing and confinement. The pandemic catastrophe quickly led to a multiplicity of other emergencies, including an education one. Ultimately, the spring of 2020 was to unfold a triple crisis that shook the pillars of society and its institutions: this was the combined effect of a health crisis, together with the continued ecological disaster, as well as the unfolding of a crisis of globalisation and the sudden halt to any forms of physical mobility (Delanty, 2021). Given that movement and the free flow of people and ideas have always been a fundamental component of the European project, the triple crisis quickly transformed into a severe new disruption at the heart of the EU itself. Although Brexit, Trumpism and the migrant emergency had proved challenging for European leaders, the enormity of the new shock has been incomparable to any of the crises European societies have endured post-war.

A new era of global turmoil and suffering began; although the pandemic is still affecting our lives enormously, we also know that a new era of deep reflection about ‘normality’, our planet and our existence on it has also begun. This Special Issue intends to be part of this reflexive discussion about the European education policy and research space, a space shaped continuously by crises and opportunities, by utopias of a shared progressive and liberal education for all, but also the dystopias of nationalism, populism, climate destruction and now a global health emergency. Above all, the pandemic has once again highlighted the complex topological entanglement of the triptych of centre/colony, global/local and physical/digital relationships: on the one hand, for some time now, epidemics have been seen as the predicament of the ‘Other’, usually affecting developing countries of the South. On the other, although national and local ‘solutions’ seemed momentarily to supersede the ‘global’, it was only through global scientific collaboration that vaccines were produced in unprecedented speed. Finally, above all else, the replacement of physical social interactions by ones enabled by digital platforms have had – and will have for a long time from now – an enormous effect on education research and practice.

Indeed, Covid-19 quickly led to a new – nearly – global regime of social distancing to halt the spread of the virus. Within a matter of days, schools and universities in most countries around the world became ‘no-go’ areas, as people’s physical co-presence was considered a potential threat for the rise of infections. With some few exceptions, education buildings were closed down; the space of education became increasingly digital. The pandemic led to a crisis, during which the everyday life of schools, universities and all educational institutions was severely disrupted. There was a rush to set up emergency forms of teaching and learning. Soon it became clear that school closures were not to be a temporary measure; at the time of writing, in spring 2021, school closures are still present in a number of European countries. Following Agamben (2003), this Special Issue asks: is the pandemic the exceptional event, after which ‘normal’ education practice will resume? Or will the pandemic lead to the normalisation of the exception, the making permanent of digital infrastructures as the new enablers of pedagogical practice? What might this mean for education research?

Whether or not a new ‘normality’ will substitute the pre-Covid world is unknown. Societies do not deal with crises following linear and predictable trajectories. The global pandemic is a moment of immense magnitude, such that will lead to new transformations, deeper than the digital turn and larger than constructing pandemic-proof education organisations. As institutions are ‘delegated the task of stating the whatness of what is’ (Boltanski, 2011), education research in Europe has a central role to play in re-evaluating the processes of Europeanisation and globalisation, rethink borders and bordering, and co-construct the principles and values that will be central to post-pandemic education as a social institution and a space of social transformation. If European education researchers already had the important task of revealing and questioning social inequalities, the experience of the last year has made that duty even more imperative.

Despite the Covid-19 crisis being a uniquely global common experience, country responses were indeed different: they depended on the severity of the crisis, but also their available knowledge repertoires, their unique policy cultures and ideas, and the given set of policy alternatives and instrumentations available to them. When the knowledge/policy relationship was faced with unique conditions of uncertainty and high risk, European societies confronted the emergency in multiple, bounded ways. Indeed, the pandemic provoked a ‘breakdown’ in the European governance of education that has arguably revealed the limits of its fabrication. We witnessed the suspension of the mechanisms of the European education governance, and the return of the strong state as the key venue in education policy-making. Extraordinary measures were taken and many wondered how far the militarisation of everyday life, including the life of children and young people, could continue, in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of the infection.

Of course, the global pandemic is still an unfolding event and complex intra-national and trans-national concatenations are developing for repairing – or possibly even rethinking – education in its pandemic and post-pandemic future. The emergency regime translated in the necessity of the production of fast policy and knowledge (Peck and Theodore, 2016; Takayama et al., 2017) and in the acceleration of the digitisation of education systems in Europe and all over the world (Selwyn, 2020; Williamson, 2021; Williamson et al., 2020). Although the production of fast data about the pandemic was heralded as the only possible route to safety, at the same time there was also social acceptance of the uncertainty of numerical knowledge and of medical expertise. As the authors in this double Special Issue will show, the acceleration occurs at different paces and is provoked by a range of institutions. Decisions around time, as well as space, seemed to occupy the centre-stage of educational policy-making. Seen through this lens, the urgency of finding solutions has translated in overlapping regimes of topologies and temporalities: there have been attempts to radically transform teaching and learning into events that can occur remotely, from home, and through the socio-technical affordances of online platforms. Acceleration is essential to modernity, and, during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been a central feature of policy responses: speed is power (Rosa, 2013).

This Special Issue originated in that climate of radical uncertainty from a call for papers EERJ launched during the first European lockdowns in late spring 2020: it attracted many proposals and led to a final selection of articles which focused on the range of policy responses, education and social effects, and future perspectives faced by education systems of European member states. In that respect, the Special Issue belongs to the same accelerated impetus to instigate a collective process of knowledge-making into a particularly challenging period, when education researchers around Europe and beyond were affected by the health crisis, the social distancing and the digitisation of academic work. Although this work shares the impulse of acceleration, it does not follow the logic of quick-fix, or propose magic solutions for an imagined ‘recovery’: rather, it is oriented to explore the possibility of critical educational research in a time of emergency and change. The articles we collected are varied, come from diverse point of views, and draw on various conceptualisations and theories, highlighting the vitality of classical approaches to education policy analysis, but also the fruitfulness of new perspectives. In the following, we will focus our attention on some common threads, by framing them in a short history of the pandemic in Europe.

The new education ‘state of emergency’

Pandemics are part of the history of life on Earth. Viruses are essential ingredients of the compound nature–society. Nonetheless, the contemporary world did not retain memories of its past (for example, the Spanish flu at the beginning of the 20th century) and was soon to realise its fragility in front of the unknown: as recent health crises (SARS, HIV) were not comparable, the normal everyday routines in terms of contacts, travels, activities, etc. created an almost perfect environment for the widespread diffusion of Covid-19.

How did Europe, and namely the EU, confront the pandemic? Initially, with some hesitation and delay. Several months were lost in the inability to collaborate and to consider the necessity to take action in a dangerous situation. While the infection started in China in December 2019, it was only in late January 2020 when Italy banned flights from China in a desperate decision to contain the disease. Europe, and the European Commission in particular, slowly realised that Covid-19 was not an issue outside of, but at the heart of Europe. For a complex institutional field like the European space, this should not come as a surprise. Disasters are incidents that institutions tend to ignore; they are ‘anomalies’ that do not confirm their realities. Even when they consider dissonant information, they undermine its relevance to preserve their normal perception of the situation.

For some time, Covid-19 was considered a disease of the Far East. It was considered a threat for Africa, but not for Europe and the Western world. Covid-19 was classified as a case like SARS, MERS, swine flu, Ebola, Zika; it was destined to affect the ‘Other’. A crescendo of events followed rapidly, leading to the official recognition of the spread of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. The EU has no decision-making powers over health policy; the latter is under the control of member states and in some cases of local authorities. In January, the first moves of the EU Commissioner for Health were to draw attention to the disease, to mobilise the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and to try to coordinate the efforts of nation members with the creation of a crisis unit. However, member states were reluctant to admit the seriousness of the situation. They tried to avoid spreading panic. The first emergency meeting held at the EU level was not successful in raising the attention to the risk of the pandemic. Media and institutional attention was elsewhere. The last meeting of UK parliamentarians at the European Parliament due to Brexit and the possibility of a new migration crisis at the borders with Turkey appeared to be more severe concerns for the EU project. It seemed that the virus of rising populism and nationalism posed the perceived highest risk for the fabric of the European space, rather than Covid-19 itself. As a result, there was initially a deficit of knowledge about the virus’s effects. As the infection spread, it also became clear how European states were unprepared to deal with it in terms of medical equipment, health infrastructures, and policy measures.

Nevertheless, when Italy called for help as the diffusion of the virus was overwhelming its health system, and many countries, like Germany and France, were severely affected by the infections, more important decisions were assumed at the EU level. At the end of March 2020, the Stability and Growth Pact was suspended for the first time, by activating the general escape clause so that country members could use the state budget deficit to counter the economic effects of the pandemic beyond the agreed limits (3{0841e0d75c8d746db04d650b1305ad3fcafc778b501ea82c6d7687ee4903b11a} of state budget deficits and 60{0841e0d75c8d746db04d650b1305ad3fcafc778b501ea82c6d7687ee4903b11a} of state debt of GDP). After some difficult negotiations, a budget (1.82 trillion euros) and a recovery plan called Next Generation EU, containing several measures and financial support, was decided in July 2020, in order to sustain a concerted project to relaunch EU economies. Due to the pressure of the pandemic, EU leaders took a historic decision on a highly contested issue: this was on the share of collective debt, paving also the way for a possible reform of the mechanisms of the Eurozone. Despite the initial hesitation, the pandemic led to a halt to the ‘normality’ of the EU and opened a space of possibilities. It is too early to say whether it will be a temporary suspension of the dominant mechanisms of decision-making, or the first step for a paradigmatic change in the philosophy of EU governance. Under the difficult circumstances of the first wave of the pandemic, the EU gave priority to the protection of its citizens, suspending the economic regime.

As one would expect, given the initial slow realisation of the threat, European education governance was largely suspended and the focus moved to the support of EU member states and the rapid decisions that needed to be taken in relation to educational organisation closures and suspensions. In March 2020, the first decisions concerned the Erasmus+ programme: these were meant to support the continuation of this flagship European initiative through the offer of several online resources, drawing on European platforms (School Getaway, ETwinning, EPALE, etc.) and EU-funded research projects (https://ec.europa.eu/education/news/coronavirus-online-learning-resources_en). However, far more radical decisions had to be taken by the member states: social distancing and the effort to contain the pandemic led to unprecedented school closures in most countries.

School closures was a hard decision to take. School activities mobilise many people: teachers, headteachers, students, parents, and other staff. While Covid-19 was soon revealed to be more dangerous for the adult population (notably for older age groups), school closures were considered one of the most effective measures of containment and prevention of the disease. National and local governments made this decision, by drawing on scientific data and trying to balance risks and losses. School closures, however, were not a consistent decision across the EU. It was limited in some cases (like in the case of Sweden); more severe in others (i.e. in Italy school closures continued for a long period of time). It was characterised by closures and openings in relation to contextual variations of the infections and local policy-related decision-making. It was nevertheless the most massive schooling disruption that the European continent has experienced since World War II. However, the handling of the health crisis in Europe looked for some time as simply the aggregate of national responses; emergency rule and school closures as the politics of last resort were squarely in the hands of sovereign states; the closing of borders became almost a symbolic act of securing the polity of member states, against threats from ‘foreigners’, even those who were close neighbours and allies.

As a consequence, and a for a prolonged period of time, school openings and closures in many countries were regulated by the increase/decrease of the curve of infections and the complex set of indicators designed to represent the pandemic dashboard. An emergent fast regime of governance by data was installed and implemented through the mobilisation of technoscientific expertise, drawing on live health data, digital infrastructures, medicine and statistics with the aim of orienting, and possibly coordinating, the policy-making at the local and the national level. In some way, after many years of soft governance driven by networked globalisation, we experienced the powerful return of the sovereign state (or, in some cases, federal governments and local authorities), where governments are the sole decision-makers, depending on their political orientation, by taking the bio-medical-statistical expertise on board (or, in some cases, not).1 The preoccupation to create immunity dominated the agenda, making the cosmopolitan approach much more peripheral, even at times seen as dangerous (Esposito and Hanafi, 2013). Fortress Europe had proven to be a sieve, unable to contain an invisible submicroscopic agent, which was as pervasive as it was evasive. Perhaps it was the first time that migrant ships sinking in Lampedusa were seen as less of a threat; perhaps it was the first time that Europe’s external threat could not be quietly packed away in a migrant camp on the island of Lesbos.

Transnational actors tried to regain their position in the educational agenda with the production of data to measure ‘learning loss’ (Azevedo et al., 2021); the intention was to enhance datafication in order to promote new interventions and further policy and research entanglements as a way to repair systems and bring ‘recovery’. Here, the future(s) of education (International Commission on the Futures of Education, 2020) becomes a pivotal issue, given the historical dimensions of the global pandemic and the social inequalities that it has revealed and exacerbated. By intersecting with the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan – defined with emphasis as ‘Europe’s Moment’2 – the EU followed its strategy of shaping education futures and updated the infrastructure of policy knowledge on the construction of the new European Space of Education 2025. Further, a public consultation is anticipated for the Digital Education Action Plan that presents a comprehensive strategy for digital education to be realised in the next few years (2021–27).

These documents represent a new strategy to restore the ‘magister of influence’ of the EU on the education systems of member states, after the pandemic catastrophe. While both the construction of the European education area and the Digital Education Action Plan were already in place before the pandemic, Covid-19 has acted as an accelerator. These new policy priorities provide both the semantic, as well as the new temporal and topological frame for the remaking of the European space of education in the 21st century: this is a space of quick transformation, enabling mobility that is not only physical but also – and crucially – digital. The idea is to try and tame the current condition of radical uncertainty, by inscribing the future into calculable horizons; this includes the introduction of new priorities (like the attention to the ‘green recovery’) and the continuation of the technocratic governing approach, albeit with elements of consultation and debate. As we will see in the next section, both the datafication and the digitisation of education are key to the construction of these post-pandemic governing panoramas.

Digitisation and Changing Forms of Education

An essential effect of the pandemic is that digital infrastructures quickly became the pillars of many social activities. Work, leisure time, social connections, banking, and schools and universities migrated abruptly to the digital world, and depending on the level of restrictions, many became possible only through their digital form. As education could rely on digital infrastructures, platforms and software, schools and universities were never completely closed. Teaching and learning became possible at a distance, and many forms of emergency education were enacted. The shift to the digital was almost immediate: despite the institutional collapse triggered by the pandemic, digital platforms created a safety net for the emergency education and the ‘magic’ of education going online. Parental support became necessary to assist young learners in accessing materials – of course, not every pupil in Europe was equally privileged to have both the digital tools and the parental involvement required to ensure a fairly smooth transition; additionally, digital platforms, although enabling some learning to happen, in their majority did not cater for creating the conditions for socialisation and play.

The digitisation of education policy and practice had established itself as a key instrument well before Covid-19. It became part and parcel of the datafication of education, the broader process of producing education data intended to make systems visible, commensurable and comparable. Digitisation and datafication intersect and support one another. They are ubiquitous in any aspect of educational policy-making. They reshape educational practice, opening spaces of manipulation, experimentation and coordination that can augment the possibilities of teaching and learning. The degree of digitisation, however, across the countries is uneven. In the EU internet connection is not equally distributed in European schools. The share of students attending highly connected digital schools is varied. They increase with the level of education (ISCED 1, 2, 3). Nordic countries are usually better equipped digitally than other EU countries. Rural schools and small towns are usually less well connected. Further, school staff displayed a considerable variation in the degree of preparedness (Comisión Europea, 2019).

The immediate turn to the digital was therefore complicated in most countries and required an extraordinary effort to sustain the emergency education offer. Schools and education leaders were oriented to whatever available technologies existed: from online platforms, to applications, software, and digital content developed mostly by big companies, like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and by a panoply of old and new ed-tech enterprises, in order to provide easy-fix solutions. Public and private partnerships at the international and national level rapidly developed to support the many forms of emergency teaching and learning with the digital apparatuses. UNESCO launched the Global Education Coalition,3 with more than a hundred organisations as participants: these were big companies, the OECD, World Bank, Zoom, profit and non-profit providers, thus making visible the increasing influence of international and private organisations in education. This convergence became somewhat inevitable, in order to provide solutions in times of emergency, but paved the way also for the expansion of the ed-tech market (Williamson, 2021). Powerful networks are emerging between intergovernmental organisations (OECD, UNESCO, World Bank), global industry and educational technology businesses with the promise to repair the disruption of education during Covid-19 (Williamson et al., 2020), but also to create the conditions for a smoother transition and use of online learning environments in uncertain times to come.

The pandemic was, therefore, a window of opportunity for advancing the digital agenda in education. It permitted an unexpected experiment for testing a form of schooling from a distance and a possibility to install permanently the ‘digital’ in the ecology of education practice. While this passage is not without consequence, it is not sufficiently problematised in the debate. Like any technical device, digital technologies are not neutral. The rhetoric of ‘techno-solutionism’ puts often serious pedagogical considerations and questions in the back seat, disregarding the long research debate on the form and effects of schooling (Masschelein and Simons, 2015; Maulini and Perrenoud, 2005; Ramirez and Boli, 2016; Tyack and Tobin, 1994). In that debate, the continuity of some characteristics of school (the grouping by age, the teacher as a unique authority, the closeness of the classroom, etc.) is acknowledged as enduring features for a ‘school’ to be considered as a ‘school’. Recent cases, like the case of the algorithm system used for student assessment in the UK, introduced biased evaluations, discriminating against students attending schools in disadvantaged areas in comparison to more affluent students (Williamson, 2021). Closer investigations in the working of digital platforms reveal how they shape education practice (Decuypere and Landri, 2020; Gorur and Dey, 2020; Hartong and Förschler, 2019; Perrotta et al., 2020). Far from being passive, they are active actors in the modification of educational forms. A detailed analysis of Google Classroom has revealed the multiple ways that it moulds educational participation (Perrotta et al., 2020). Research has revealed the automation, synchronisation and hypervisibility of educational activities in these digital environments. Other research suggests that through the GUI (graphic user interface), learning management systems (like Blackburn, for example) modify the space of educational experience, alter the time of education and contribute to the processes of attributing values to it, paving the way to the emergence of the ‘blended learner’ (Grimaldi and Ball, 2019).

Critical Education Research in Times of Crisis

The Covid-19 crisis has severely affected educational research. Restrictions have impacted on the conditions of the everyday work of researchers, by limiting normal research routines (face-to-face interviews, participant observations, etc.). Similar with all education institutions, higher education and academic research have had a notable shift to the digital. In such a critical situation, where traditional sources of research data were faced with severe restrictions, it is important to ask what methodologies and what kinds of educational research have been possible.

The social distancing led researchers to turn some research from face-to-face to the digital, and at the same time to draw on data ‘born digital’. Online surveys, digital interviews, audio/video/photo-elicitation, diaries, online discussion on social media, digital methods and mapping, network analysis, tracking, etc. – this is only a short list of the new possibilities of doing fieldwork (Lupton, 2020). The suspension in many countries of standardised testing has raised some preoccupations about the impossibility of measuring learning outcomes. Several estimates of learning losses, by drawing on existing econometric models, are calculated on the basis of the reduction of schooling time, and expectations about the decrease of the individual personal income and national growth are proposed (Hanuschek et al., 2020). Many online surveys have been realised to understand the impact of the pandemic and describe future scenarios by intergovernmental organisations, like the OECD, in order to create policy knowledge (Reimers and Schleicher, 2020). Many investigations draw on official documents and describe the debates on the basis of the information circulating online, relying on digital ethnography. At the moment, few types of research concern the experiences of students and parents that are involved mostly in surveys, and less by other research design. While many underline the widening of inequalities, at the same time, they express complaints about the lack of data that would allow fuller accounts of the realities of education during a pandemic. This is ‘unknown territory’ that will solicit additional investigation to give a sense of the disruption and to trace the possible mechanisms of repair.

The need for generating knowledge, however, should not mask the risks of doing education research in a time of acceleration. The complex and fast technoscientific assemblages that have driven the production of the vaccines have been astonishing. However, the field of education research can hardly be comparable here, as this acceleration could narrow even more the aims and scope of new research. The proposed attempts and strategies to deal with the crisis do not seem to problematise the dominant approach in policy-making, as Covid-19 has been rapidly used as an opportunity to propose radical reforms in education inspired by technological solutionism. Educational crisis, and the radical uncertainty that it has provoked, risks being reinscribed in the same machinery of the pre-Covid-19 policy–knowledge nexus.

To avoid falling into this trap, the articles of this Special Issue move in the horizon of the histories of the present (Braidotti, 2019; Popkewitz, 2013). Histories of the present are theoretical and empirical exercises to understand what is happening, the emerging configuration of powers, the likely effect of the envisaged policy decisions and imagined scenarios. They offer the opportunity to escape from the trap of the acceleration, without being submerged by the waves of transformation. Volume 1 of this double Special Issue focuses primarily on the digitisation of European education systems with all the challenges that this sudden pivot entailed: contributing authors have primarily focused on the exacerbation of social inequalities through digital platforms, as well as the impact this transformation has had on pedagogical tools, examinations and the student and teacher experience. Volume 2 takes a broader perspective and examines the effects of the pandemic on the different education systems, the diverse responses and policies that countries followed, as well as the role and impact of school closures and homeschooling.

While the pandemic is a window of opportunity for powerful networks, it is also a chance for problematising the old, pre-Covid-19 world of education policy characterised by the dynamics of global education reform (Fuller and Stevenson, 2019; Grek et al., 2021), the datafication of education, the increasing imbrication of private capital, and the more recent resurgence of populist and nationalist discourses in education (Archer, 2020). An analysis of the complexity of repairing the ‘old’ normal, while replacing it with the new, requires fine-grained, situated research of the educational transformations that the last year have brought forward (Komatsu and Rappleye, 2017; Zhao, 2020); the conditions we have all lived through during the last year make this as hard as it is urgent.

To conclude, this double Special Issue proposes to ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016) of the educational present. The ‘Education in Europe and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ articles aim to contribute to the discussion about the extent to which European education research can actively contribute to a social transformation that foregrounds the principles of equality, cosmopolitanism, democracy, digital humanism and ecological vigilance. In so doing, the articles in this double issue are ‘histories of the present’ that abandon both the nostalgia for a past that never existed, as well as the forecasting of dystopian futures yet to come; instead, they actively ‘slow down’ in order to consider the paradoxes and the dilemmas of the current crisis and work towards the building of a brighter, sustainable and more equitable post-pandemic world.

Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

ORCID iDs
Sotiria Grek https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5452-7762

Paolo Landri https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7933-9848

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Sotiria Grek is Professor of European and Global Education Governance at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. Sotiria’s work focuses on the field of quantification in global public policy, with a specialisation in the policy arenas of education and sustainable development. She is the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council funded project “International Organisations and the Rise of a Global Metrological Field” (METRO). She has co-authored (with Martin Lawn) Europeanising Education: Governing A New Policy Space (Symposium, 2012) and co-edited (with Joakim Lindgren) Governing by Inspection (Routledge, 2015), as well as the World Yearbook in Education: Accountability and Datafication in Education (with Christian Maroy and Antoni Verger; Routledge, 2021).

Paolo Landri is a Senior Researcher of the Institute of Research on Population and Social Policies at National Research Council in Italy (CNR-IRPPS). His main research interests concern educational organizations, digital governance and educational policies. His latest books are: Digital Governance of Education: Technology, standards and Europeanization of Education, London, Bloomsbury, 2018 and Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration through Actor Network Theory, London, Routledge, 2020.

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