Pandemic complicates Tallinn schools' first grade entrance tests

Classroom in Tallinn's Old Town Educational College (VHK).
Classroom in Tallinn's Old Town Educational College (VHK). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Some Tallinn schools are hoping that the coronavirus pandemic does not lead to a situation where children accepted into the first grade for next academic year are done so on the basis of residence, rather than through passing an entrance exam as is normally the case.

While schools that do run entrance exams for first graders, really rather more reasoning tests, but still requiring literacy – including Tallinn English School and the Old Town Educational College – do so in the first half of February, with a view to the capital's board of education getting its lists of admissions by March 1, the pandemic has caused problems in terms of adhering to coronavirus best practices and often-changing regulations.

The schools are generally run by the local education authority (some have private schools associated with or appended to them) in Tallinn, but still select their pupils based on some fairly opaque selection processes.

Nationwide, schools have in principle been permitted to go on with in-class learning since Monday, but in practice many schools, including in Tallinn and Harju County – the worst-affected region of the country by COVID-19 rates – are sticking with remote learning.

School No. 21 still requires some face-to-face assessments

Valentina Taliaru, head of elementary pupils at Tallinn's School No. 21, one of the largest in the capital with over 1,200 pupils, told ERR that precautions have included not permitting parents into the schoolhouse, and using four different entrances to admit pupils. This could, however, cause a problem for young children having to come to take the entrance exam – a nerve-wracking experience enough as it is – without their parents' presence.

Taliaru said: "I can't imagine how we might be able to solve this situation. We try things in a very kind manner, the teachers come out, we collect them (i.e. the examinees-ed.), but we don't know how it will turn out."

Given the students' ages, the oral aspect of the entrance exam cannot easily be dispensed with, she added.

"We can't assume that she or he is already expressing themselves in writing. We have calculation questions and some writing aspects too, for example, we make use of a 20-character proverb, but this still happens via direct contact. This cannot be done remotely," she went on. 

The alternative would be for the education board (Haridusamet) to allocate places based on residence, Taliaru added, noting that only a few children, and no staff, had been off sick of late. 

The school has postponed its entrance tests to later in February, rather than the traditional first half of the month, in the hopes that the situation will improve.

Other precautions in place during school entrance tests include retaining the same teacher with the same group throughout the process.

Tallinn English College postpones entrance exams to late February

Toomas Kruusimägi, director at Tallinn English College (Tallinna Inglise Kolledž),says his school is in a similar predicament.

The school plans to hold its entrance exams at the end of February, meaning there is very little leeway for worsening conditions, given the March 1 deadline.

Kruusimägi said: "We act according to the restrictions that apply. If there are restrictions in place that make it inappropriate to perform tests at that moment, we would postpone them according to the epidemiological situation in the country."

That said, Kruusimägi said he hoped there might be scope for exemptions in the case of February's exams.

He said: "There are also legal aspects at play here. It is viable that the situation might be discussed and debated. A pandemic scenario should not create a situation which casts a shadow whereby things that are not relevant or reasonable happen."

"We have heard all sorts of stories, including strong suggestions from the Ministry of Education and Research, that [exams] should be carried out as in pre-primary education, where the school administrator determines what happens at the school."

Old Town College giving parents Zoom feedback

Meanwhile, the Old Town Education College (VHK) says it plans to conduct its tests one-on-one with children, with parents to be given feedback via Zoom video link, though plans have yet to be finalized, school principal Kersti Nigesen told ERR.

Nigesen said: "It all depends on how quickly we can mobilize. If we try to meet each child separately, it will be very time-consuming."

Tallinn Secondary School of Science teachers escorting pupils to and from school

Tallinn Secondary School of Science (Tallinna Reaalkool) in the meantime has found long working days and additional burdens in any case; smaller groups and a teacher escort for pupils – even to and from home given parents are barred from entering the building – is taking up resources, Ene Saar, the school's principal, says.

"As a result, the day is much longer for us, with more groups and more reception hours. Teachers escort students home ... there must be more of them at work," Saar said, adding that this means the entrance test system will need adjusting this year too.

This school still hopes to carry out its modified tests in mid-February, but will postpone if needed, Saar said.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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