Reps: We need effective online classroom simulation as schools close

Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center).
Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Schools in Estonia will need to use innovative online solutions to ensure students are learning remotely and yet "in the classroom" at the same time, education minister Mailis Reps said Friday. From Monday, March 16, all schools in Estonia are closed, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic which has seen the number of cases in the country rise to 41. The government declared an emergency situation late on Thursday night.

An additional issue, as the end of the school year approaches from late May, is how to deal with exams, which are harder to conduct remotely in terms of ensuring the test is being taken by the student themselves.

Most schools have already come up with different solutions which simulate the classroom, reps said, including the Education IT Foundation (HITSA).

"We want the kids to be involved in distance learning, but at the same time realistically simulating teaching taking place in real-time," Reps said, speaking on ERR radio show "Vikerhommik" Friday morning.

Reps added that those efforts are currently being made to create completely new electronic platforms where group work can also be carried out and which would aim to curtail feelings of isolation schoolchildren may face.

Reps said it is very difficult to predict how long the current situation will last, adding a number of very practical issues are already being discussed with schools.

"How will we deal with the end of the school year? If admissions are postponed to the beginning of the next school year, the health insurance and similar issues would not be interrupted," the minister explained.

A thornier issue, Reps said, is the question of final exams, which can be conducted online easily enough, but are harder to validate and authenticate that the student themselves did the exam.

At the same time, Reps expressed hope that a solution to this problem would soon be found.

"We are now moving on in stages every two weeks. The Ministry of Education has its own command center where, for example, finishing high school in a situation where final exams cannot be carried out [is discussed]."

"This topic is particularly acute in Tallinn, where 700 children would otherwise be together. This has been postponed, but of course, everyone wants to know where they can go to study, "Reps said.

Reps considered the children to be automatically referred to their current school, theoretically possible but unlikely.

The minister himself bought goods in stock at 2 o'clock in the night

Reps also spoke more broadly about the coronavirus outbreak and the emergency situation, noting that this was a more unpredictable illness than regular flu

Borders were being beefed up but this meant at the main crossings, Reps said, where a short questionnaire needs to be filled in by those entering the country. Whether people do so truthfully, for instance about questions where they had traveled from, was a matter of their own consciences, Reps said.

Reps also said more time (measurable in hours) was needed for the government and its commission to put together a crisis package on economic issues, with the main focus being avoiding the situation in 2008 when, she said, people were left more to fend for themselves.

The minister explained that yesterday's government commission focused primarily on what powers the police need and what resources are available for health care.

She also reiterated statements by other government ministers including the prime minister, that restrictions of free movement within the country would not be necessary, and praised the private sector for its own initiative and responsibility, citing shipping firm Tallink as an example.

Reps also said that not only large gatherings but even smaller ones which could be densely populated, such as birthday parties, should be postponed or restricted to the immediate family circle, citing the example of the Võru party last weekend which was attended by a coronavirus carrier – that town's schools were closed ahead of the blanket closure announced last night, though only by a few hours.

Reps also said that she had been to an all-night Prisma store after the government commission meeting Thursday to stock up on supplies, noting that even at 2 a.m. the store was busy, and the staff helpful.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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