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School’s Out: How Pandemic Derailed North Macedonia’s Education

The pandemic has surprised North Macedonia’s educational system much as an icy road would surprise a bus that was not regularly serviced.

In most cases, both the bus that is not regularly serviced and the one that is regularly inspected will do the job; on straight and dry roads, both vehicles will transport passengers safely.

However, all it takes is for the weather to surprise us once in ten years, and the bus with bad brakes and summer tires will lose control on the icy road.

That is what happened this spring to the country’s education system, which hasn’t been regularly and properly “serviced” for decades.

Key department spent summer asleep

“In nominating you as minister, I was convinced that I could count on your full responsibility and commitment in performing the duties. That is why I expect results immediately,” Prime Minister Zoran Zaev wrote to the new Minister of Education, Mila Carovska, on September 3.

The Prime Minister, and part of the public, had high hopes of Carovska at the education post, mostly because of her earlier success in the Labour and Social Affairs department.

At its first session, on September 1, the old-new government decided that all schools should use a unified distance-learning platform.

But the decision also practically confirmed that, from June onwards, when it became clear that the virus would not go away easily or quickly, until September, there had been no real preparations for the start of the school year.

Thanks to this delay, the distance-learning platform was presented just 12 days before the actual start of the school year.

Children received their passwords less than a week before October 1. In the meantime, teachers had to be trained intensively on how to use the new software.

According to BIRN’s information, during the summer sessions of the former “technical” government, no discussions took place on finding software solutions for distance learning; the Ministry of Education was still convinced that children would go physically back to school in autumn.

The impression that the department slept over the summer was confirmed by the delayed start to the school year, and by the fact that over the summer it did not purchase a single computer for distance learning.

Due to these delayed signals from the central government, the municipalities also did not realize on time that they should also procure computers for teachers in their jurisdiction.

The municipality of Kisela Voda only made a decision to buy computers in the last week of September.

There are now examples from all over the country of teachers facing the challenge of bringing their own laptops from home.

“It’s like expecting textile workers to bring their sewing machines from home,” Jakim Nedelkov, head of the educational workers’ union SONK, told BIRN.

Just two weeks before the start of the school year, Minister Carovska said that while the ministry had been providing internet access to schools for years, not all schools and classrooms had it.

The question now was whether all schools could get internet services that had the speed and capacity to allow so many teachers to hold online classes at once.

One sign that they have only just started thinking about all the challenges created by the selected learning model is that they have only just realized that teachers from first to third grade will now have double the amount of work.

This is because they will be teaching classes divided usually into two groups, with no more than 20 pupils during any one class, meaning they will need double the time to teach all the children.

They will now have 40 hours of teaching work plus other school obligations, which means they may exceed the planned working hours limit of 48 hours per week.

From the beginning, the pandemic revealed that North Macedonia’s education system had no plan B, and cannot adapt easily to an emergency situation either.

Principals told BIRN that the ministry had suggested ways to teach and platforms to be used, but for the most part left them responsible for organising the teaching process.

Schools were left alone, in effect, which is reflected in the diversity of the platforms and approaches they have used.

Researchers from the non-governmental organisation Leaders for Education, Activism and Dfevelopment, LEAD, tried to explore through a survey how teaching was done after March 24 in high schools, after the decision was made that the year would end with distance learning.

One per cent of high school pupils surveyed said they received no tuition at all, 26 per cent used platforms such as Google Classroom and Edmodo, 28 per cent received online tuition, and up to 44 per cent worked by submitting assignments and presentations.

“This way of transferring material directly affected learning; students say they had difficulties understanding the lessons and the material,” the conclusions of the LEAD survey read.

EduIno, the platform promoted by the Ministry of Education, was used in only 1 per cent of cases.

This was not surprising; the platform has no content for high school pupils and the contents for primary school pupils are mainly ten-minute videos, where a teacher just tells or reads out a lesson.

Virus puts teachers back in focus

The corona crisis has again put the focus on teachers. All over the world, many parents spent the spring working from home while also playing the role of substitute teachers. They assisted teachers in distance learning, which was imposed as part of the measures imposed to fight the virus.

It was the same in North Macedonia. It was not easy for teachers, many of whom are parents themselves, to be put in the dual role of distance-learning teachers of pupils and substitute teachers of their own children.

But this unique situation did mean that parents learned more about their children’s teachers.

Questions arose about their quality and commitment, and whether society sufficiently valued and recognized their work.

Ljubica, a mother from Skopje aged 42, whose daughter finished eighth grade from home, said she had built up her own nuanced picture of the teachers.

“The history teacher was the best; his lectures on Zoom were like attending a real class. All the children listened to him and were engaged. But he is younger and obviously still enthusiastic,” she noted.

“Unlike him, some of the other teachers did not appear for a whole month, and others were just piling up materials,” she added.

It would be wrong to create a profile of all Macedonian teachers only from mechanically listing the given stereotypes about them. Moreover, there are many stereotypes.

One is that the best-qualified people in North Macedonia rarely end up in this profession.

“The teaching profession is unattractive, and usually it is candidates who are less successful in secondary schools who enroll at teaching colleges,” read a comprehensive analysis published in 2018, Teachers’ Education in Primary and Secondary Schools.

The reputations of some educational institutions, such as the Pedagogical Academy, were damaged by a scandal over forged diplomas, and students seem to have little interest in enrolling at teacher training colleges.

Politicians are aware that the best students usually do not wish to become teachers.

For the past four years, the Ministry of Education, through the mandates of two different governments, has sought to encourage university and high school students to become teachers.

First, a scholarship of 18,000 denars [300 euros] was introduced for undergraduate studies in mathematics, physics and chemistry, where teachers were in short supply. A lesser scholarship of 100 euros was provided for those who enroll in the course for primary school teaching.

Teachers in primary and secondary schools now earn about around 400 euros a month – 24,000 denars in primary and 25,000 in secondary school, after getting pay rises of 22 per cent over the last three years.

But, despite the increases, the profession is still not seen as attractive.

Union chief Jakim Nedelkov says the pay is still not high enough. “If we take into account that the average salary [in North Macedonia] is around 27,300 denars [444 euros], it becomes clear that teachers are paid below the average. And, our teachers, together with teachers in Albania, have the lowest salaries in the region,” he added.

Teachers do not have any special allowances either, except for an allowance of about 1,000 denars [16 euros] per class teacher.

Also, in North Macedonia, the teaching profession is considered a low-paid but secure job, which in insufficiently democratically developed societies is an ideal combination for political manipulation.

The political system has long manipulated teachers through their indirect employers, local mayors.

Over the last decade, teachers mostly got jobs through the political parties, and in return, were supposed to express their gratitude by compiling voting lists, conducting door-to-door party promotions and attending party rallies.

At such party gatherings, we heard one teacher from Stip who was unable even to name the ruling party against which she was supposedly protesting – and a teacher from Bitola who carried a funeral cross with the name of Prime Minister Zaev on it.

In a situation where the educational system was surprised by the prolonged coronavirus crisis, and when even more organised societies have had trouble finding a fast and high-quality replacement for teachers’ and pupils’ physical presence in schools, the quality, commitment and skills of each teacher has come to the fore.

Olivera, aged 38, a mother from Skopje, whose child finished first grade last spring, said the biggest problem was that the teachers had failed to adapt the content they needed to transmit to the children via computers.

“My daughter and I tried to watch the videos that some teachers voluntarily posted on the initiative of the Ministry of Education, but they did not hold her attention,” she said.

“But, on one occasion, our teacher sent us a YouTube video in Serbian, adapted to the age group of the children, and it immediately captured her attention,” she added.

Many teachers did not try to adapt lessons provided in the form of power-point presentations to the age group of their pupils.

“We received presentations with seven to eight slides full of text that is not [suited] for children still learning how to read,” Olivera said.

“For Easter, we received a presentation that fifth or sixth graders, who are roughly familiar with the concept of religion, might understand, but which could not be explained to a six-year-old,” she added.

It has been announced that the lessons and classes will be shortened in the new school year, but it is up to the teachers to find a way to grab the attention of children from various competing “influencers” on sites like TikTok and YouTube.

Distance learning stuck in techno stone age

Sometime in late March and early April, many parents shifted to working from home, following advice from health officials not to expose themselves unnecessarily to the virus.

Suddenly, people’s living rooms became offices, and their children’s bedrooms became classrooms.

People hunted down forgotten Skype passwords, took old tablets out of basements and opened Zoom accounts.

Inside the home, besides obsessively washing their hands, they were looking for quiet corners where online meetings could take place. On social networks, under the hashtag #StayHome, tips were shared on what is most important in an emergency – not to lose your mind and how to establish a new work and study routine.

One interlocutor, Ljubica, a parent from Skopje, told BIRN: “We worked from home and studied with our daughter at the same time. We often did not have time to make lunch and ate whatever we could find in the fridge. I went to bed tired every night, I could hardly wait for the year to end.

“We were playing school at home. But when speculation spread that the children might return to school on May 15, I was scared. My daughter didn’t learn anything from home and would have failed all her classes,” she added.

This inadequate adjustment to distance learning was a result of schools’ failure to use digital tools long before the pandemic.

Research done by LEAD, which focused on the situation in high schools, showed that digital tools were rarely used. And the rule in North Macedonia is that if something is bad in secondary schools, it is far worse in primary schools.

As many as 65 per cent of surveyed high school pupils said that, before the corona crisis, they either did not use digital tools at all or used them at most twice a month. This starting position could not deliver good results.

The rule in our country is that if something is bad in the secondary schools, it is even worse in the primary schools.

Online lectures are currently the best alternative for the physical presence of pupils in school, because children and teachers can see each other and communicate.

However, the LEAD survey found that as many as 60 per cent of high school students who attended classes online during last school term from March to July, in the first wave of the pandemic, did so via their mobile phones.

“The question is how appropriate the telephone is as a teaching device, bearing in mind that it has its limitations, especially in the interaction with the teacher and doing homework,” the LEAD team noted.

The situation will be similar in the new school year because the state did not procure computers or tablets for students – and those who lack internet access and computers will only receive printed materials and follow lessons on one of the channels of Macedonian Television.

The new reality caused by the corona virus has made the computer a central and necessary tool for teachers.

But research by the Skopje-based Metamorphosis Foundation has shown that, until now, the computer has been little used by teachers in the country.

The data it obtained through an online questionnaire it administered from June 26 to July 15, 2020 showed that 15 per cent of teachers did not use a computer at their workplace; 44 per cent have used their own laptops for instructional purposes.

In the new school year, most teachers will have to teach from workplaces in schools and contact their students online.

Many of BIRN’s interlocutors said that although some schools would have problems with the internet and with a lack of computers, the biggest problem was the number of pupils – 40,000 – who will not have access to online lectures.

New Education Minister Carovska, on one of her televised appearances, admitted that even if the government tried to procure devices for these children right now, they would only arrive somewhere in the second semester.

Earlier, the elections were an obstacle to opening a public procurement of this volume, which was not planned at the beginning of the year.

The argument that no one imagined that a new virus would force pupils to learn from home remains valid, but there is no alibi for the politicians.

The country would have met the new reality far better prepared if the “Tablet for every child” project had been implemented; announced three times, from 2012 to 2019, it was never finalized.

The idea of procuring tablets for about 250,000 students was primarily to abandon printed textbooks and so reduce the high cost of making them, a cost paid by the state every year. However, not one Minister of Education had the courage to actually implement it.

The project was a missed opportunity to digitize Macedonian education.

In Nikola Gruevski’s first term as Prime Minister, thousands of desktop computers were, in fact, bought for schools.

But the computers alone did not help much, as many schools faced a slew of problems with them, including a lack of a reliable electrical supply, to get them to work.

Most of these computers were multi-user PC stations, which are now in most cases defunct or only used infrequently.

Also, at that time, there was no serious digital content for those computers. In many schools, they remained unpacked because there were no suitable conditions for their use.

Today, few of them are in use. Most are now obsolete, and police bulletins have been full of cases of theft, involving them.

Pandemic risks worsening inequality in education

“Everyone has the right to education. Education is available to everyone upon equal terms. Primary education is compulsory and free,” reads Article 44 of the constitution.

Behind these short and simple sentences lies the enlightened idea of a society that provides all citizens, regardless of their economic and social situation, with equal conditions for education and essentially equal opportunities for professional and personal fulfillment.

Hence, the importance of education is seen in the efforts of democratic societies to get children to spend as much time as possible in school. In Finland, for example, students spend up to ten hours a day at school.

According to some research, which Minister Carovska has often referred to, North Macedonia’s students spend 900 less hours a year at school than peers in more developed European countries.

The goal is for all children to be exposed for as long as possible to the positive influence of teachers, pedagogues and psychologists, who in primary schools not only have an educational role but also play a role in upbringing.

This is especially true for children from socially disadvantaged families, who spend a lot of time on the streets and may live in families where violence is common.

Even before the corona crisis, North Macedonia could not boast of an education system that provided equal opportunities to all children. There was already a serious discrepancy in the quality of schools between urban and rural areas.

However, starting from March 24 this year until no one knows when, most of those 250,000 pupils in the country’s schools are now, and will remain, at home – a prerequisite for worsening inequality in education.

The corona crisis will have the biggest affect on children for whom school was the only positive setting for their development. These are children who, for various reasons, were neglected, both in terms of their upbringing and learning.

But the learning process in the classroom and in front of a computer is not the same.

Children remember most from lectures, and also learn from trials and errors, or while listening to their friends reading, or watching them solve tasks on the board. They often help each other and prepare for tests together.

During the pandemic, this has not been available for them and they cannot be expected to achieve results identical to those obtained under normal conditions.

The extent to which many children actually learned via the distance model is illustrated by parent Ljubica’s experience.

She said she and other parents helped their children with the tests and the homework. “We talked to and consulted with other parents when the children were having tests,” she explained.

“We would do the tests together with the other parents in just ten minutes, and then we would wait for an hour to pass, so that the teacher would not know that we were helping,” she said.

“It was the same with the homework. We exchanged assignments to see what the others had written, and then we just changed some things so that no one would know that we were cooperating,” she added.

Learning lessons from the crisis

Judging by the words of Minister Carovska, who perceives the crisis as an opportunity, society should learn many lessons from the coronavirus crisis.

“We will learn a lot from this, especially why it is important to take care of education, why it is important for the state to invest and, when it allocates money to the Ministry of Education, to make sure it is spent in a way that will improve the quality of education,” Carovska told the TV show “Win-Win”.

The authorities also expect the National Distance Learning Platform to be of long-term benefit, as it can be used for additional school activities, from counseling with pedagogues and psychologists to various after-school activities that children could attend from home even in future.

If any a positive effect comes from the corona crisis, it is that the curricula in all grades and classes can be unburdened from the unnecessary material that has been taught so far, educators with whom BIRN spoke said.

This analysis started with the metaphor of education as an irregularly serviced bus. On the eve of the new school year, three days before October 1, the bus simply “stopped” when the internet platform through which children were supposed to connect with their teachers failed to start, and no one was able to log in.

The Ministry of Education assured the media that they were “working on overcoming the problems” – an explanation reminiscent of a quote from the Chernobyl TV series.

The night before the nuclear reactor blast, which caused an unprecedented environmental disaster, the plant’s chief engineer had said the situation was “not great, but it is not terrible either”, a phrase that completely missed the magnitude of the problem.///BalkanInsight

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