Katri Raik: Schools and kindergartens need a master plan for fall

Katri Raik (SDE).
Katri Raik (SDE). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

During the crisis, new forms of study became increasingly common with each passing day. Distance and hybrid learning are here to stay. These new approaches have as many proponents as they do skeptics. Their pros and cons need to be weighed and analyzed, SDE deputy chair Katri Raik writes.

The academic year has begun, but coronavirus fears remain. Schools and kindergartens are split, with one part awaiting precise guidelines and orders from the Ministry of Education and Research, while others are happy there are no instructions and decisions can be made in-house.

However, everyone agrees on one thing: the ministry must strive toward creating certainty that is needed, in addition to teachers, by students and parents. Everyone is awaiting clear, carefully considered and maximally longstanding decisions that need to be negotiated between state agencies.

Unfortunately, we have now seen on several occasions mismatching positions by the education ministry, Ministry of Social Affairs and the Health Board. Different stances should be ironed out and a common approach found. And this is where people in education look to minister Mailis Reps whose position puts her in charge of the entire process.

There are other problems in need of solutions. Throughout this long and exhausting spring, schools sent in reports and filled out questionnaires. And they were diligent in doing so, the minister assures us. However, schools and the people who run them also want feedback, they need a kind of "master plan" to tell them what comes next, which scenarios to prepare for and what are the best practices for organizing study in the conditions of the coronavirus.

It is customary for the interior ministry to collect mountains of information but only give out very little or none at all. However, things need to be different when it comes to education and healthcare.

Heads of kindergartens are especially concerned. Preschools are run by local governments. They also need to be noticed and treated as part of a common education system. A kindergarten teacher also needs digital tools and training, they too get tired and make up a risk group. No teacher should be left behind in this difficult time. The ministry must lead the way also in preschool education.

The coronavirus crisis brought great change, including more frequent contacts between parents and the school. Parents quickly became assistant teachers. In school, we would require assistant teachers to have pedagogical education, while we cannot expect that from parents teaching their kids at home. Parents felt like a heroes with good reason.

I believe that after this spring's experience, parents are more appreciative of teachers' work and have more perspective when listening to their kids complain. This change in attitudes helps make the profession of teacher more prestigious.

Parents are partners for schools and kindergartens. It is peculiar to listen to stories by education professionals of parents who refuse to understand that a sick child or one who has just returned from a trip abroad cannot be sent to school. A sick child belongs home!

The state needs to find resources to compensate parents who are forced to stay home with a sick child from day one. The same goes for teachers who take ill unexpectedly and indeed all employees. This ensures people stay home with mild symptoms and do not become a danger to others.

The coronavirus spring was eye-opening. Parents got a lot of new information about what is happening in education. They counted the typos in textbooks, wondered at the complexity of texts and realized that workbooks that require a part of the textbook to be copied still exist. The ministry needs to figure out how to boost the quality of study materials.

New forms of study became increasingly common during the crisis. Distance and hybrid learning are here to stay. These new approaches have as many proponents as they do skeptics. Their pros and cons need to be weighed and analyzed. Estonia must be able to afford education research.

Teachers' expectations for digital studies include best practices sand study materials being accessible in a single environment and a concrete training system. The Moodle environment developed by Estonian universities serves as an example here. Parents hope that the next potential wave of distance learning could take place without their active intervention. These are the matters that need to become the priorities of the newly created Education and Youth Authority.

These claims are not random, nor are they based on a single conversation with a head of school and three teachers. They are the result of the Haridusfoorum survey that is the only study of education in the coronavirus age that we have. The next one by Tallinn University will not be ready for another six months.

Teachers' working time and renumeration deserves separate attention in the new situation. We need to do everything we can to avoid teachers burning out. The danger is real. Distance learning forced teachers to spend hours sitting behind the computer, still giving students feedback late in the evenings.

Should this fall bring about a situation where half of the class is at school and the other half at home – the only way of dispersing students for many schools – pressure put on teachers will spike. It means teachers having to work two full days. What about teachers who have two children and a sick mother to take care of at home?

In closing. All of it is not meant as massive criticism for the education ministry or minister. The coronavirus period will rather be counted as a success story of our education sector. A big thank you to everyone who helped us through this crisis. But it is always possible do be better and do more. That, along with the dedication of the people working in education, is what makes the Estonian education system so successful.

Let us move on together and leave no one behind. Next to strong and successful schools, we inevitably have weaker ones that need support. Our comprehensive school system needs special care and attention during difficult times so kids would have access to maximally similar education everywhere in Estonia.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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