Education minister: We will keep schools open as long as possible

Education Minister Liina Kersna (Reform).
Education Minister Liina Kersna (Reform). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Time spent learning remotely has had a negative effect on performance and mental health of students. Unstable school organization has had such a devastating effect on some people that they are flunking out of the system. If one door closes, another must open, Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna writes.

The coronavirus pandemic has been raging in Estonia for over a year and a half. It may seem like a short time in the long run. In truth, students now attending third grade have hardly seen different conditions, while the lives of high school students have not been what they imagined. Not to mention preschoolers who do not remember anything before Covid. Their world only exists in this new reality.

The last year and a half that has directly affected three academic years has changed our education system considerably. On the one hand, we have taken a massive (tiger) leap in proving that flexible forms of study are possible. On the other, this time has also highlighted the shortcomings of our education system.

Remote learning not a good fit for third of students

The pandemic made us work and study from a distance. Studies on how remote learning has affected students' performance and motivation are available.

A student satisfaction survey by the Education and Youth Board from this spring found that 18 percent of students found it difficult to understand the curriculum in fourth grade, 22 percent in eighth grade and 26 percent in 11th grade. Generalizing the results, this leaves us with roughly 16,000 elementary school, 9,400 basic school and 6,100 high school students with difficulty learning.

In a Tallinn University remote learning study, a third of students deemed remote learning less effective than contact study and said they struggled with the former. Half of teachers who participated in the study found remote learning less effective than its traditional counterpart – 42 percent believed students absorbed less of the curriculum.

Satisfaction surveys also demonstrated that nearly half of 11th grade students who had been on remote learning for a long time said they were "fed up with everything" by spring time. A stressed person has lower motivation that affects their academic performance.

These results show that time spent on remote learning because of the pandemic has and continues to have a negative effect on the performance and mental health of students.

Filling gaps in study and students' mental health as priorities

Scientists and experts believe that study gaps have a cumulative nature. The backlog will deepen in the coming years, while motivation will keep falling, causing students to drop out of school that will in turn translate into social expenses and reduce success on the labor market.

The pandemic has shown that the mental health of young people is especially vulnerable if they are robbed of feelings of belonging and opportunities to communicate.

The World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF recommend three policies for minimizing the harmful effects of the pandemic:

1. Keeping schools open

2. Making sure students have help catching up.

3. Giving teachers training and support to allow them to diagnose gaps in study, adjust to children's individual needs and make more effective use of digital environments in cases where remote learning is necessary.

We have observed these recommendations in Estonia.

Additional resources for filling gaps in study

UN, World Bank, European Commission and UNESCO analyses suggest long-term school closures have caused noticeable gaps in study as remote learning simply isn't as effective as contact study.

Scientists have pointed out in Covid effects studies that gaps in basic knowledge and skills will continue to affect the ability to obtain new skills throughout a person's life. Skills learned at a young age form a foundation on which new skills are built later in life.

Gaps in study also have a negative effect on motivation, with the two closely linked. Students who understand and know the curriculum have increased motivation and vice versa. This has an effect on future academic performance and education choices.

Therefore, it is crucial to pay attention to gaps in study now.

We allocated €13.5 million to address study gaps and motivation of students in spring: €6 million for schools and €7.5 million to support motivation, mental health and general ability through study interest camps.

The new state budget has €12 million for additional support services to organize study flexibly and in a student-centered manner. This additional funding helps prioritize every student's needs, for example, by having smaller study groups, offering individual consultations or hiring assistant teachers. We will leave decisions up to schools and school managers. All general and vocational education schools will be supported.

We deemed keeping schools open the top priority when preparing for the third Covid wave, so we would not send students to study from home lightly and in mass. Working with the Health Board and the scientific advisory council, we developed the simplified quarantine principle that applied to all children and youths who came into close contact with an infected person at school.

Students did not have to stay home after a close contact in an educational institution. Instead, screening was used to determine people who had been infected and who stayed home. Health Board data suggests that just over 4 percent of close contacts tested positive in September and 6 percent in October, meaning that close contacts in school are less prone to being infected than in the rest of society.

In cases where high levels of the virus exist in the region, heads of school, working with the Health Board, can put entire schools, grades or stages of study on remote learning, which option will be used as necessary. We have deemed it important to consider regional circumstances so as not to close schools in mass.

Estonia once again has a very high Covid infection rate. We are clearly in the red and hospitals are filling up very quickly, especially with unvaccinated elderly patients. The general background also means we have a lot of school outbreaks.

Data from the Health Boards reveals that Estonia had 178 outbreaks on October 17 of which 103 were connected to educational establishments. A total of 1,268 children and 269 adults have caught the virus in schools. We can see younger students and unvaccinated older students being infected.

Most adults who have caught the virus in schools have been unvaccinated, while vaccinated teachers are also being infected as their immune response weakens over time. That is why the government has decided to give all education workers a booster dose six months after they complete their vaccination cycle.

It is crucial for students and school employees to be vaccinated for the purpose of keeping schools open. Today, 83 percent of teachers are vaccinated. A little over 45 percent of 12-15 and over 60 percent of 16-17-year-old students have gotten a single shot of vaccine.

Estonia's youth vaccination rate is 15th in Europe. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Iceland and Italy have vaccinated considerably more young people than we have. Experience of other countries has shown that vaccination helps keep the spread of the virus under control and considerably lowers the likelihood of developing a severe case of the illness. Schools can also operate in a much more stable manner then.

Dear parents, if your child who attends school and can be vaccinated is not yet vaccinated, please consult your family doctor over the school break. A vaccinated student can attend school and participate in hobby education with peace of mind.

We see that unstable school organization has had such a devastating effect on some people that they are flunking out of the system. If one door closes, another must open. As adults, it is our job to know which door the outgoing child will open. Time needs to be made to go over complicated subjects with the teacher. The student's future coping could depend on it.

We are doing everything we can so that students and teachers could look each other in the eye. So our schools would remain open and our children continue to receive the best education in the world. This requires teachers and as many students as possible to be protected using vaccines. We have no other choice.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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