Shortage of supply teachers should coronavirus second wave hit schools ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Primary school classroom in Estonia.
Primary school classroom in Estonia. Source: Sille Annuk/Postimees/Scanpix

The return of the new school year has been met with challenges for teachers, parents and students alike, as schools teach most classes in-person – for a lot of pupils for the first time in many months – but also make preparations for some e-learning components, as a means of reducing the potential risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. The sector also has a shortage of supply teachers should regular teachers fall sick.

Many schools are planning their schedules to reduce in-school contact between students, rather than return to distance learning-only as was the case from mid-March to the end of the academic school year. 

"Considering everything we went through in the spring, I think that half an egg is still better than an empty shell," Maris Vaher, Estonian language and literature teacher at the Old Town Education College (Vanalinna Hariduskolleegium) in Tallinn told ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera.Nadal" Sunday night.

"Of course, we all like to be here during the school day and see our students face to face," she added.

Children from fourth grade onwards at the 700-pupil Järveküla School, just outside Tallinn, will see some remote learning incorporated into their timetables, though so far all grades (1st to 9th) are at school in the traditional way.

"This [remote learning] system will start with us in October so that students get a week at school, a week at home, and the last week of the trimester is a feedback week," Mare Räis, school director told AK.

"However, it seems sensible for teachers and students to get to know each other first, because there are a lot of new teachers, encountering new subjects ... then to remind us of all these digital environments again," she said. 

However, not everyone finds the approach ideal. Mother of three Helen Orava said that remote learning, partricularly for the 6th to 8th grades, makes things hard for all concerned, especially parents, who often have to oversee tasks. Orava's children are going to school at the moment, but remote learning is likely to return in some shape or form. 

"In basic school, when the load is higher, i.e. at about 6th, 7th, 8th grade … the child gets seven hours [teaching] a day. Each teacher gives e-school assignments, then in very many cases the child needs guidance and explanation. /.../ It is not normal to give a parent this responsibility and tasks on a daily basis. Yes, various agreements can be made, but then it is an agreement between the school and the parents," she said. 

Maris Räis of the Järveküla school said that topics are being revised along the lines of which require higher levels of instruction and which not so much. 

Kristi Vinter-Nemvalts, undersecretary at the Ministry of Education, said she does not think that schools installing e-learning on a part-basis have overreacted, however. 

"I don't think it's an overreaction at all. We are not completely out of the coronavirus crisis, because the spring summary of distance learning showed us that distance learning is a way of learning that is very suitable for some students," she said. 

An added factor is a lack of supply teachers should regular teachers fall sick in a coronavirus second wave, or even display the slightest potential symptoms, which would require self-quarantine at home; this can also increase workload burdens on teachers who are not yet sick. 

"We cannot predict how massive this problem will be and the ministry certainly does not have a reserve of substitute teachers. Finding solutions must start at the school level, at the local government level," Vinter-Nemvalts said. 

The distance learning carried out in spring also proved burdensome to teachers, as the tech used did not always lend itself as well to issues such as large numbers of students having the same questions, in the way that face-to-face learning does, Maris Vaher of the Old Town Education College said. 

14,200 children started their school careers at first grade level this September, the education ministry says, adding this figure looks set to continue for the coming years; in 1995 the figure stood at 22,800, though generally started to fall from then on. This fall has also led to a decline in the number of general education schools, from 545 10 years ago to 510 this year, though this has been offset somewhat by an increase in the number of private schools in that sector, from 33 to 56 over the same period.  

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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