Adapting, picking battles and bribery aid home schooling from Bulgaria to Bondi Beach during the coronavirus pandemic.
The words of Paula Leibowitz, an Australian education worker and mother of three, will be hauntingly familiar to parents trying to weather the pandemic, keep on top of their jobs and, most challenging of all, ensure their offspring carry on learning while schools are closed.
“It’s pretty tiring,” says Leibowitz, who lives in the Sydney beachside suburb of Bondi. “It’s not just the schoolwork, it’s the intensity of the ongoing interaction.”
She has long since learned to pick her battles: English and maths classes are non-negotiable, but Leibowitz knows that reality and sanity tend to prevail over ambition when it comes to other classes.
“Every parent you speak to has a totally different perspective and it differs from day to day,” she adds. “Some days are really good and others you have to give it up by 11am.”
The story is the same in Italy – the first European country to close its schools – as parents and children attempt to navigate the choppy waters of the new educational normality.
“By staying at home, every day, without physical contact with teachers and classmates, my six-year-old daughter, who is a good schoolgirl, has developed a real intolerance towards studying,’’ says Paola Anzalone, a security worker from Agrigento in Sicily. “She is a shy girl and it is difficult for her to interact with the rest of the class via a monitor while everyone is talking at the same time.”
The idea of home schooling until September terrifies Anzalone – “not only because I am a mother of two, with a job to combine with home schooling, but also because I believe that at that age children need physical contact with school and their classmates”.
A challenge for teachers
Annalisa Distasi, from Orvieto in Italy, is trying to ensure that her three children do their remote classes while also fulfilling her duties as a high school teacher.
“I’ve got my own lessons with my students and at the moment I’m doing six live lessons a week, but I also do other work, such as recording video lessons, preparing homework, which takes up most of my days,” she says. “It just feels like the amount of work is twice as much as it used to be and my routine has completely gone as I work until late at night.”
As Distasi points out, teachers are also having to adapt – and fast.
Bulgaria announced a state of emergency on Friday 13 March, ordering the immediate closure of educational establishments and many businesses.
In a country whose conservative and hierarchical educational system means that teachers rarely deviate from the decrees of the education ministry, the order triggered a weekend of hectic preparations.
Despite the fact that half of Bulgaria’s teachers are over 50 – and that its digital literacy rates lag behind the EU average – staff have adapted well.
Over that weekend, teachers and students self-organised wherever they could online, mostly using Viber and WhatsApp chatrooms, as well as closed Facebook groups.
By Monday 16 March, they had launched their distance learning processes on whatever platforms they were already familiar with or had managed to learn overnight.
Bozhidara Ilieva, an ICT teacher in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city, has been delighted at the rapid progress her colleagues have made. She says that while older teachers had undergone digital training, many had been reluctant to use their skills – until now.
“There was a huge leap overnight – from writing notes on a piece of paper in the staffroom to sending emails!”
Old inequalities resurface during the crisis
The transition to online schooling, however, has not been seamless, nor fully inclusive. In Bulgaria, as elsewhere, the pandemic has exposed enduring socio-economic divides.
The country’s education minister admitted a month after the transition that 11% of students – mostly from the underprivileged Roma minority – were not covered by online learning and their teachers and mediators had to work with them over the phone and in person.
Financial differences also translate into digital differences. Over the years, Italian governments have carried out substantial cuts in education and the country spends a lot less on the sector than almost every other western country.
Although the government and many associations have used their resources to provide the most disadvantaged students with tablets and free connections, home schooling in the country has inevitably exacerbated social inequalities, especially in the poorer south.
“Those who have capable parents, equipped with means, such as tablets or computers, have an advantage,’’ says Arianna Filippone, an elementary school teacher in Palermo.
“Those who are not lucky enough to have these resources are clearly more disadvantaged. Even today, almost two months after the school closures, authorities are still trying to figure out if there are students without tablets or an internet connection.”
In Spain, the Red Cross is not just feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless; it is also handing out thousands of tablet computers and 3G cards to families so that their children can carry on learning.
“We knew who some of the people who would need help were, but we’ve also had to innovate as we came across new groups,” says Moisés Benítez, national organisational development manager for the Spanish Red Cross.
Meanwhile, the regional government of Madrid has been criticised for contracting fast food companies to feed children eligible for free school meals.
In the US, the epidemic has also exposed deep disparities between privately funded schools and public school districts, many of which have struggled to provide a long-term solution for teaching outside the classroom.
In Fairfax County, which serves nearly 200,000 students in northern Virginia, the first video instructions were introduced four weeks after schools were ordered shut, and were categorically dismissed as a “disaster” when they were rolled out.
Erika, a mother of two, said the failure was like the “wild west”, with kids waiting 40 minutes to log on to their class sites, which teachers themselves could not always access. While it is rated one of the best school districts in the US, Erika reckons that her kids are getting about one hour of engagement with teachers each week.
Towards a different educational future
Earlier this week, Spain’s education minister said schools may need to operate at half capacity if a coronavirus vaccine has not been found by the time classes resume in September. The other half of students would have to carry on with computer-based distance learning.
The reopening of schools in France is turning into a headache for the authorities and exacerbating the existing uncertainty for parents.
The president has decided that schools will reopen “progressively” to rescue the 5%-10% of pupils in difficult learning and social circumstances who risk dropping out of the education system altogether, and to allow more parents back to work. However, the decision on which schools open and where has been delegated to local authorities.
Theoretically, creches, nursery and primary schools will reopen on 11 May for teachers and the following day for pupils. The two lower years of secondary schools – colleges in French – will return to class on 18 May. For the remaining years, a decision is to be made at the end of May regarding a possible return on 2 June.
Florence Charras, 46, mother of three from Toulouse who works for the regional education authority overseeing secondary schools, said she would be happy to send her children, aged, four, 10 and 13, back to school as soon as they opened. “It’s hard working from home with three children,” she says.
As the wait, the arguments and the bribes stagger on, many parents in Ireland who are wrestling with home schooling have embraced a school principal’s simple exhortation: “Stop trying to be superheroes.”
Catriona Golden, principal at Educate Together National School in Ennis, County Clare, threw a lifeline to harried parents with a Facebook post in March that went viral.
It was “absolutely not possible” to work from home and simultaneously juggle distance learning with a primary-aged child, she wrote. “The very idea is nonsense. If you’re trying to do that, stop now. You can certainly have activities where your child learns, but your focus is your job, and survival.”
10 May 2020