Minister of Education and Research told ETV's political discussion show "Esimene stuudio" that the education sector has to be prepared for restrictions to continue after March. In addition, assisting graduating classes in catching up is a priority.
"We have reached a point in crisis management, where people receive a message through how strict the requirements are and not through personal responsibility. Perhaps we have not given them enough personal responsibility during this crisis," Kersna said.
A recently established restriction allows students to go to school two days a week, starting mid-March. "It is important that graduating classes can deal with possible study gaps, that they can look their teachers in the eyes, go over materials together, discuss them," the minister noted.
Grades 1-4 will continue studying in schools, as will students with special education needs. Consultations are also allowed in small groups. According to Kersna, the government also discussed a scientific council recommendation of closing schools altogether - for a shorter period however.
The minister said that after consulting with school managers, the government decided it was reasonable to instead look at the long-term vision and leave students home for the entirety of March instead of having to make new decisions every week.
"Exams will happen and exams are mandatory. There is a change for basic schools (up to ninth grade - ed) that the exam result will go on their graduating certificate and their graduation will not depend on that, but rather what their grades are," the education minister said.
High school students will move forward with the previous system, which states that students have to receive at least one point to graduate. This has however raised the question of what will happen if the student is isolating at home or is sick during both the exam date and the re-take date.
This situation would need a change in legislation. "We must amend the law for this and will go to the Riigikogu to ask for this, to get a government mandate to organize an additional exam or if the government were to establish movement restrictions for our exam dates, we would untie graduating conditions from exams," Kersna explained.
"The message received from young people is unambiguous: do not discount us. Help us learn, help us prepare, but do not discount us," Kersna said, adding that discussions with universities are ongoing to have preparatory courses easily available.
Leveling education gaps could take three years
The current restrictions, set to run until at least April, are expected to result in a decrease in infection numbers, but it will not mean the crisis is over. "We must prepare for this crisis to not finish with March," Kersna said.
The minister said global studies have shown students lagging behind by half or 3/4 of a year as a result of distance learning. She added that the situation might not be as dire in Estonia however. "We have certain infrastructure in place as an e-state, we have the digital literacy," Kersna said.
"Studies today show that the rate is 30 percent for students who say they like distance learning more, 40 percent say there is not much difference and some 30 percent say they do not like distance learning and their grades have suffered," the minister added.
Kersna does not approve of the idea to begin the schoolyear anew in fall, as some students have liked distance learning. "Therefore I think these complete approaches are not good. We must however deal with each child and their study gaps personally."
There are plans to map the gaps in education with the help of tests and level exams. "If we find out where the specific gaps are for students, we can deal with them personally," Kersna said.
"It has been said that the leveling of study gaps will take three to four years," Kersna said. "I think we in Estonia will go by turning this distance learning into our strength and not a weakness. It is also a terrific foundation for educational innovation."
Education a priority for state budget discussions
The education minister noted that students' burden has grown during this crisis and a helping hand is sought to help them out. "More than 200 university students are prepared to help teachers in schools," she said. "When I speak of leveling gaps in education, we will certainly help schools, we will not presume they do this with their own resources."
Kersna said it will bee an important part of state budget discussions in the future: "It is certainly a field where we must invest heavily in the coming years."
She does not think extending the schoolyear is necessary, but does approve of the idea of study camps over the summer, which were quite popular last year. "I hope the families' situations is improved by having first to fourth grade students in contact learning. Parents must also remember that distance learning is not home schooling, that parents must teach children. It is still the school's duty to educate the child in distance learning," she said.
Kersna emphasized that teachers' wages will also be a main topic of discussion for the next state budget discussions.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste