The schools open in the country from today, as the government eased Covid-19-related restrictions. The Ministry of Education released the renewed recommendations and regulations for schools. Those parents who prefer to keep their children at home would be allowed to do so, the ministry says, as the distance-learning option remains available.
While many parents are happy that their children will go into classrooms after a nearly three-month break, new lockdowns are still possible, health professionals warn. This puts the challenges to distance learning at the forefront of the debate about education in times of pandemic.
Challenges of the remote learning
With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic in late 2019, Georgia had to urgently convert the already creaking school education system into a functional distance learning mechanism.
While every Georgian government asserts that education is their main priority, investment has been piecemeal and the progress in performance – as tracked by PISA scores, for example, lackluster.
Georgia confirmed its first COVID-19 case on February 26, 2020. In an effort to curb the spread of the infection, schools were shut down on March 2 for two weeks as a temporary measure. In reality, the school year ended without students ever going back to class. In September, the schools re-opened, only to be closed again on 26 November, as the second, more destructive COVID-19 wave infections hit Georgia.
Most of the public schools lacked any previous experience in remote education. The shortage of resources, lack of trained teachers, and the necessary equipment made the challenge all the more daunting.
Remote education implies an internet connection and proper equipment both at schools and in the homes. In reality, many Georgian pupils are not adequately equipped, especially in the rural areas. As elsewhere in the world, online education draws on and threatens to deepen social and economic cleavages.
The 2020 report by the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), a watchdog, shows that around 78 thousand socially underprivileged school students are not connected to the internet at home. This makes for 13.1% of the entire school population. 95% of those pupils from economically vulnerable families live in areas with internet coverage but cannot afford to pay. This, according to the research, leaves a staggering one-fifth of the school students without “effective engagement in the education process.”
Deputy Head of Preschool and General Education Department of the Ministry of Education Mariam Chikobava tells Civil.ge that the lack of equipment proved to be their key challenge. “Unfortunately, the Ministry does not have the necessary budget to provide devices and internet to all the students, but we still made effort to identify them and to help with existing means, through schools, resource centers, local municipalities. Yet, this remains a problem,” Chikobava says.
Simon Janashia, a Georgian educational expert, notes that the Ministry of Education could have distributed the available devices from the closed schools to the students in need, but they refrained from taking this measure “due to fear of state regulations” that prohibit such transfers.
The government tried to address the problem by launching TV lessons on the public broadcaster. Education Ministry’s Chikobava says the recently launched joint project with the mobile network company MagtiCom, will provide pupils and teachers of all public and private schools with discounted mobile internet packages. But the real impact of these measures is difficult to ascertain.
Teaching the teachers
Simon Janashia says teachers don’t have sufficient knowledge and skills to organize and teach online classes. The location and age are key factors, he says. Those in the capital and in bigger cities are more attuned to modern technology, while those in the rural areas, and of an older generation, find it particularly difficult to adapt. It complicates things that the teachers in rural areas also happen to be older, according to the national statistics.
2018 research about the quality of school education in Georgia says 85% of the teachers are of age 36 and older, while 13% continue to serve above the retirement age of 65. These are usually the teachers who can not be easily replaced – and meaning rural schools. The Ministry set up the virtual consulting centers in all districts of Georgia, where volunteer technology experts help teachers hone their online skills, but these are most useful for improving the digital literacy of those teachers that already master the basics, rather than for starting up elderly educators with new sets of skills.
“If we look at education as a human right, more school students are deprived of this right when remote-learning. Some of them are completely sidelined from the learning process, while many receive low-quality education that does not comply with necessary education standards,” Janashia worries. He says the annual learning targets will be missed.
For online classes to work efficiently, parents need to be implicated in the process alongside the pupils. Janashia tells Civil.ge that the Education Ministry’s communication with the parents has been problematic. The parents felt they did not get the proper guidelines and could not help their children efficiently, while their feedback was not sufficiently integrated.
Ms. Chikobava agrees that there were some teaching issues, as the ministry was going through the steep learning curve, but she claims that by autumn the guidelines were established and the telephone hotlines were handling requests adequately.
With the re-opening of schools, new communication problems emerge. The Parents Initiative Group rallied on January 21 in Tbilisi’s Mziuri Park, demanding a clear plan for resuming the in-person learning process – and for managing the pandemic at schools.
The parents asked the Ministry to report the details of teachers’ retraining process, how they plan to handle the hygiene in the classrooms, and the adaptation of the infrastructure.
“We do not know a lot of things. We do not know the strategic view [of the Ministry]. For this reason, we want the responsible authorities to feel pressure from us,” one of the organizers told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Georgian service.
In this context, Janashia stresses that the Ministry is not forthcoming enough. He thinks the officials don’t feel accountable to citizens, preferring instead to point at the acknowledgment of their achievements by the international organizations.
“If you look at the Ministry’s webpage, you will not find any report about a meeting between the authorities, the teachers, and the parents discussing the existing problems, while the reports how different international organizations hailed the government’s efforts are prevailing,” Janashia points out.
The prospects of returning to relative normalcy are vague. Georgia still expects to roll out the vaccination of the most vulnerable groups by the end of March, but it is yet unclear when the country will restore the degree of normalcy.
Distance learning is thus likely to accompany, if not substitute, the classical teaching method for the years to come. But the economic impact of the pandemic only deepens poverty and social cleavages. Even in middle-class families, it becomes difficult to combine remote work, with remote schooling – as several internet-connected devices and higher bandwidth are necessary. Many school students are unable to receive a decent education and public school pupils fall further behind the private ones.
The government is confident that it used the online learning period efficiently to prepare for the safe return of the students to the schools. The coming months will reveal the real levels of readiness. But as the country learns to live with COVID-19, challenges of remote learning deserve to be addressed and integrated into national education policy.