Education and the pandemic. Challenges, questions, oversights - an analytical statement prepared by nonprofit organizations
Education is one of the areas of our social lives which is most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with healthcare, it is one of the most important public services, and should remain the government’s top priority. Unfortunately, recent decisions in this domain lack transparency, are not based on open dialogue, and do not point to any clear, constructive strategy.
Government officials, as well as the media focus on the healthcare system, economic issues, or discussing whether ski slopes should open for the winter season. We know of plans to lift constraints in numerous branches of service, yet we know nothing about the key public service - education.
Education seems to have fallen out of the spectrum of the public interest, whereas we must remember that long term social and economic consequences of closing down schools will haunt us for years to come. There is also no information about the government’s strategy for the upcoming months - what logistic and program options are taken under consideration and what concrete, specific solutions is the Ministry of National Education working on. There are no existing official analyses of the situation in schools, there is no research conducted on assessing “educational losses” liaised to the closing down of schools.
Online education will remain our only choice for the next couple of weeks, at least until January 17th, 2021. We do not know how the epidemic will affect the organization of education in the second semester. However, it does not mean we should not be working on possible scenarios of slowly returning to stationary and/or hybrid forms of education for chosen students and institutions.
As representatives of nonprofit organizations that focus on education, we wish to express our concern about the situation of Polish schools and preschools, long term consequences of the pandemic for students, and the weight carried by both teachers and parents. We demand information on strategy, planning and substantial steps that should be undertaken by the officials - first and foremost on a central level, but equally by local governmental institutions.
We demand uptodate, complete information on procedures which are put in motion. We also expect the government to introduce an open, public debate on the proposed solutions. We postulate including the opinions of social partners, such as local governments, unions, and the voices of those, who are directly affected by the current crisis - principals, teachers, students and their parents/guardians.
- Online education resulted in a deeply concerning issue - “students disappearing from the system.” There are numerous students who do not show up for online classes, and do not complete their home assignments. Schools lack information about what is happening with those kids. According to the latest research conducted by the Digital Center, it is a mass issue. 48% of teachers from secondary schools, high schools and technical schools said that at least one of their students does not participate in online education on a regular basis. In professional schools this problem is even larger - it has been mentioned by 58% of interviewees. Another issue concerns “online class skipping” - students log into online classrooms, but do not participate in the lessons.
- What is the scale of this issue?
- What happens with those students?
- How do schools monitor their situation?
- Can teachers and students count on support regarding this issue from the education officials and the government?
- Should teachers be the ones responsible for looking for the missing students?
2. Online education affects the psychological condition of children, especially the youngest ones. Experts who took part in a survey conducted by the School with Class Foundation on students’ psychological health have alarming conclusions. More and more often, children mention a considerate drop in their mood, increased anxiety and the appearance of suicidal thoughts. 36% of teachers think their students are seriously addicted to their phone/tablet/the internet. 47% of teachers point out addiction as the most common issue. The necessity of spending most days in front of a computer or other device that enables online teaching increases addiction to technology among children and adolescents.
Prolonging the period of online education also means a longer period of separating students from their peers, a longer lockdown, even if it is eased by organized sport activities or extracurricular activities in smaller groups. It is worth mentioning that online education also interrupted the adaptation of first-class students to their new school environment. Children are bombarded by information about a dangerous pandemic. They experience stress, fear for the health of their families and their own. They are forced to work with their camera on, but without direct contact with their peers and teachers. They work under time pressure - this can all cause difficulties in balanced social and intellectual development as well as psychological crises. According to 76% of teachers that took part in the School with Class Foundation’s survey, the most common psychological issues are low self-esteem and lack of interest from parents/guardians.
According to experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, crisis intervention professionals), children experiencing the aforementioned psychological issues often experience online education as traumatic. Moreover, in situations where lessons are not conducted live, there is no chance for a teacher to observe any concerning signals and address them with parents/guardians.
Only 52% of teachers who took part in the Digital Center’s research admit that it was discussed how much time children can spend in front of the screen without considerable harm to their health. Children who were under professional psychological care prior to the pandemic, often had to put therapy on hold, since they did not want their families and flatmates to overhear them talking about intimate problems. In numerous cases teachers try to support their students through online conversations, meetings with therapists or organized support groups. However, this might not be sufficient.
- What actions are undertaken by government representatives in order to provide children with the much needed psychological care?
- How are schools and teachers supported by education authorities on all levels in this area?
3. Teachers themselves rarely receive psychological support. Research shows that access to such support is difficult or impossible. Many teachers receive support from friends, colleagues or the school principal. According to the Digital Center research, 52% of teachers say they received psychological help - 42% of them admit it was from their colleagues - the Ministry of National Education mentions only 2%. According to experts, teachers are a professional group exposed to a heavy psychological burden, especially now, during the pandemic. They often feel responsible for supporting students in crisis - 75% of respondents believe that students would come to them if they needed help.
- What does the government do in order to provide teachers with the necessary psychological support?
- How are officials planning on supporting school psychologists that teachers can reach out to and trust?
4. The pandemic aggravated the issues that were already alarming before the COVID-19 breakout - difficulties connected to an unrealistic, widely expanded, overly elaborate and detailed educational program. From the very beginning, switching to online education limited the possibility to meet the requirements of the program, both in terms of general education and professional education. Learning without everyday direct contact with peers, teachers and homeroom teachers, as well as without group work in class, is a challenge for everyone. In spite of the efforts of schools and teachers, who had to brush up on their digital skills themselves, it is no surprise that most schools are behind schedule. Thankfully, many principals and teachers are sending out a clear signal that what they need is students’ engagement and support in developing their key competences, not just “going through” the entire material.
A good step - the announcement of new exam rules by MEN, which will limit the number of requirements and exercises to be completed by students by the end of the year/semester. Young adults and teachers, however, have reservations to the proposed solutions. They are simply insufficient. Further, the widely discussed promises of curbing the program for all students is still not being executed.
What actions are being undertaken in order to make external examinations adequate to the possibilities of preparing for them by this year's eight-graders and final-year students?
How will the program requirements be made more realistic for students?
5. For many students, grades 1-3, online education means simply lack of systematic studies and difficulties in socializing. The first years of education prepare students for further studies - they’re a way to learn the school dynamics, get to know other children, establish relationships with teachers, learn how to function in a group, learn how to write, read, not to mention count... Those are skills almost impossible to acquire online. Right habits connected to writing are a result of individual work with teachers. Same goes for mathematical competences - they require one on one contact and support in solving occurring problems. Online education limits that direct, regular contact and social relations. Further, it forced most parents of younger kids to become teachers themselves. Not everyone has those abilities, skills, not all parents have time for that form of engagement.
What is the plan for younger students’ education after the winter break?
What options are taken under consideration?
How do schools and teachers plan to support parents? Will the last year’s experiences be used in a systematic way?
6. Online education leads to increasing inequality, not only in Poland. Due to differences in cultural and educational capital, many students do not receive the right educational support at home. Their parents' level of education matters, but also simply their presence at home. The economic resources are equally important - not all parents can pay for after-school lessons or provide their kids with the equipment necessary for online education. According to the Digital Center’s survey, 36% of teachers mention that the lack of technological equipment is the main problem here. In a research done by the Institute of Public Affairs, 81% of schools mentioned the lack of access to devices that enable online education. Another challenge - poor quality of internet connection - this applies primarily to small town schools (43% of teachers in the Digital Center research who pointed to internet access as the main issue come from towns below 10 thousand citizens).
The issue of inequality is especially visible in disadvantaged families and environments. Online education inevitably increases the inequality regarding access to education. Digital exclusion applies not only to individual children or families. It often affects entire schools which do not receive enough financing, were poorly managed or simply never invested in education based on new technologies simply because they didn’t need to or did not have the resources.
What ways to monitor inequalities and strategies to minimize them are being introduced by the government?
What steps were undertaken to bridge the educational gap in e-learning so far?
Shouldn’t small-town schools from regions with low COVID-19 rates be opened earlier than those in large cities and regions more affected by the pandemic?
7. Students’ digital competences are often insufficient for the challenges of online education. Digital Center research shows that children and young adults, although they are skilled in using social media and communication apps, often have trouble in responding to emails, opening a link, sending an attachment and using Office tools. It is worth noticing that most of these skills should be taught during computer science classes.
There are teachers who keep working on their digital competences, but the support of officials in this area is not sufficient. Switching to online education motivated many teachers to strengthen their skills - some learn on their own, some count on the support of their colleagues or school principal, others acquire new skills through teacher networks on social media. The ability to take up additional training is not part of the system and is a result of individual needs of teachers. This could mean that the number of teachers with low digital skills is still quite large. The multitool character of online education also causes difficulties in teaching and learning. The amount of tools which teachers had to get to know in a short amount of time was excessive. So many as 68% of teachers use 6 or more programs in online education, even though many schools already have access to educational platforms such as Microsoft Team or Google Classroom.
- Is there any research conducted on the teachers’ level of competences and their training needs?
- Are government and local officials conducting such analyses? What are their recommendations?
- What changes in the way those digital competences are developed will be introduced?
8. The pandemic exposed issues with leadership and management on a central level, as well as lack of trust to principals, schools and teachers. Education in the times of pandemic uncovered the flaws of totally centralized decision-making, which blocks flexible reactions to the appearing challenges. Principals and teachers are burdened with the responsibility for the way schools work, but they are not allowed to make autonomous decisions, for instance about closing down schools or switching to a hybrid education system. And yet no clear legal norms were introduced to regulate online education, including teachers’ working hours. There is little support from curators, who dedicated much energy to controlling schools before the pandemic. Now, in times of crisis, unfortunately we see little of these systemic efforts of curators to help schools, teachers and students (only in recent days they began to collect information on the situation of schools).
- when does the government intend to analyze the structure of educational management and draw conclusions from the ongoing crisis?
- how to change the centralized model of management based on decisions made at the top, and switch it to a more decentralized structure based on mutual support and trusting schools and teachers?
Digital Center, Online education in times of pandemic, part I
Digital Center, Online education in times of pandemic, part II
„Online education and adapting to social conditions during the coronavirus epidemic”
Warsaw University Department of Pedagogy, Online education in the times of COVID-19
School with Class Foundation, Student psychological health (in: Special principal task force. Online education in times of isolation)
Roman Czernecki Educational Foundation
Digital Center Foundation
Prof. Bronisław Geremek Center
Empowering Children Foundation
Educational Enterprise Foundation
Stefan Batory Foundation
Foundation for Student Rights
Pole Dialogu Foundation
J. A. Komeński Foundation for Children
School with Class Foundation
Federation for Women and Family Planning
Psychological Health Institute, Polish Psychologists’ Association
Institute of Public Affairs
Political Critique (Stanisław Brzozowski Association)
Citizens for Education
Janusz Korczak Association
Przestrzeń dla Edukacji Foundation
Association for Legal Intervention
Stowarzyszenie Umarłych Statutów Association
Coalition for Equality and Choice (WKRW)
We encourage readers to benefit from the recommendations and conclusions from our research. If you are interested in a broader commentary to our hypotheses listed in the statement, please feel free to contact us:
Aleksandra Czetwertyńska firstname.lastname@example.org, Digital Center Foundation
Iga Kazimierczyk email@example.com, Przestrzeń dla Edukacji Foundation
Agata Łuczyńska firstname.lastname@example.org, School with Class Foundation
Alicja Pacewicz email@example.com, School with Class Foundation
Aleksandra Saczuk firstname.lastname@example.org, Roman Czernecki Educational Foundation
Paulina Sobiesiak-Penszko email@example.com, Institute of Public Affairs