North Macedonia, Bulgaria and the Ghosts of the Past
4 October 2022
Governments around the world are tackling the COVID-19 pandemic imposing partial or full lockdown measures, often including school closures. However, researchers warn about the long-term negative effects of this disruption in the education system. They put the costs of school closures to billions of dollars.
Researchers claim that learning losses may lead to earning losses. The Visegrad Group (V4) countries are no exception to global education trends, but it is still early to tell whether the current school closures can be compensated for or the long-term consequences of the pandemic will put the cohesion of the societies and the planned technological shift to a test.
When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, governments were experimenting with a series of measures to tackle the spread of the virus. School closures were among the universal responses to fight back, or at least slow down the virus.
Globally, as many as 188 countries – ranging from Indonesia to Slovakia and from Canada to Argentina – opted for shutting down their schools, partially or entirely, affecting a total of 1.6 billion children worldwide.
In March 2020, the V4 countries were among the first to suspend physical teaching, in all three levels of public education (primary, secondary and university) and schools remained closed until September.
Roughly speaking, the entire second semester of the 2019-2020 academic year was affected and shifted to remote teaching, which in many cases, did not go beyond sending out exercise sheets via emails. Parents, students and politicians hoped for a one-time, temporary closure and did not bother much about the learning time lost during March-June.
The V4 governments were triumphant for having survived the first wave of the pandemic relatively unscathed and ignored the possibility of a powerful return of the virus in the autumn.
Reports reveal that school closures and the sudden shift to remote or digital learning found the education system, including teachers, students and parents unprepared in the V4 countries, just like in most parts of the developed world.
Although today’s students are usually called the ‘digital generation’, with a good command of all kinds of digital devices, their competencies were not enough to pave the way for a smooth transition to digital education.
Schools and teachers were much less prepared, and in most cases, they were left alone with the exorbitant tasks to reorganise teaching. It has become clear that it was not enough to master digital competencies: the whole education process has to be organised and implemented differently. It should have been tailored more to the individual needs of the students.
When compared to other EU members, the V4 countries did not underperform in this respect. One of the few early pieces of research, an Oxford University study conducted in Dutch primary schools revealed that remote teaching in the spring resembled more to vacation for many students, even in a technologically advanced country like the Netherlands.
An OECD report found that learning losses in the spring semester of 2019-2020 can amount to an equivalent of one-third of a year in most developed countries. The situation could even be worse in the United States, where the Brookings Institution estimated that after months of remote education children would return to school losing 30 per cent of the reading gains acquired in the previous year and losing 50 per cent of gains in mathematics.
With no remote classes at all, this damage could be much bigger.
Studies focusing on the V4 region are rather scarce regarding specific learning losses or lower competencies due to school closure. Yet, it is telling that in Poland, 74 per cent of students passed the school-leaving exam in the spring of 2020, compared to 80 per cent a year earlier.
Experts also draw attention to the widening socio-economic gap as a clear consequence of the pandemic. Poorer families often lack the ‘hardware’ of digital education, including laptops and smartphones, especially if they have several children.
In small flats, children may lack space where they can study, but perhaps the biggest drawback is that in disadvantaged families, parents often cannot help or assist their children with their studies, let alone motivate them.
In Hungary, for example, around 10 per cent of the students did not have either laptops or tablets or internet access. Still, in some cases, basic services like electricity were also missing. There was a huge geographical difference between the country’s northern-eastern part, where one-third of the students had difficulty accessing the internet and the well-developed western part and the capital, where only one in ten had such problems, reveals a study of the Hungarian Institute of Economics.
The pandemic has further exacerbated inherent inequalities. The Viktor Orbán-government, which centralised the complete school system in 2013, leaving no autonomy (or financial resources) at the municipal level nor in the hands of school directors, offered little help to bridge this widening gap.
Feeling helpless, some dedicated teachers personally delivered worksheets and school material to children in disadvantaged families, which did not substitute for personal teaching. Experts calculate that up to one-fifth of children, mostly coming from disadvantaged families, disappeared from the education system, and their learning loss would be the hardest to compensate.
The other V4 countries face similar challenges. A study of the Polish CenEA Centre for Economic analysis revealed that in Poland 1.6 million children struggled with technical barriers of remote education: seven per cent of the students did not have internet access and 17 per cent lacked the necessary device. Close to a million children did not have a suitable place at home to study and hundreds of students disappeared from the system.
According to the Slovakian Institute of Educational Policy, five to seven per cent of primary school children lacked internet access, and the Košice-based NGO ETP (Centre for Sustainable Development) warned that pupils from poor families may learn only a tenth in remote learning of what they would learn in school.
In the Czech Republic, where socio-educational inequalities had been higher than in most EU countries even before the pandemic, the gap has grown further, writes a study of the Czech Institute of Democracy and Economic Analysis.
Here, the root of the problem was not the ‘hardware’, but rather the ‘software’. In the Czech Republic, only six per cent of households with children reported not having a computer or tablet and barely three per cent lacked an internet connection.
The biggest problem was the lack of parental guidance or help, especially for children in disadvantaged families, leading to a lower level of motivation to participate in online lessons, typical of lower socioeconomic status families.
It is difficult and probably too early to calculate whether the generation most affected by school closures will suffer permanent drawbacks, or will manage to catch up later. Their digital skills have undoubtedly improved and so have the competencies of their teachers.
Factual knowledge, social skills, and cooperative competencies have most probably deteriorated, but perhaps these can be compensated if the digital period does not last long. The first wave has also proved that remote learning – at least in its current form – can never be as effective as classroom instruction.
In the autumn of 2020, when the second wave of COVID-19 hit all European countries, politicians were trying to find a better balance between safeguarding the health of their citizens and keeping the economy afloat. Upholding quality education – so far – has played a minor role in their calculation.
For most politicians, schools were important primarily to allow parents to return to work and keep the economy functioning. Most countries – the V4 included – started the school year as if nothing happened before, with full physical teaching (except most universities, where remote learning has become the new norm).
But most governments, like Hungary’s, later had to fine-tune its school closure policies, when infection rates skyrocketed. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia gradually switched back to full school closures during the semester, while Hungary kept a hybrid system.
Younger children (under 14) were sent back to school as research showed that they were less prone to fall sick and develop serious complications due to COVID-19. Their remote education proved the least effective in the first wave, and experts agreed that, especially in the first four grades, the teacher’s physical presence is indispensable and homeschooling would put too much burden on the families.
The older cohort (above 14) switched to digital or remote learning as they were deemed mature enough to study independently, following their teachers’ guidelines. Still, even more importantly, they did not require parental guidance or attention and thus hindered adults in their work.
The effectiveness of the older cohort’s remote learning will be first tested in the final exams in the spring and summer, which will also reveal whether teachers, schools, students, parents and educational authorities have been able to draw the conclusions from the first wave of the pandemic and adapt teaching and learning methods to the new realities.
Altogether, it seems very likely that students in many countries will end up losing almost a full year of face-to-face teaching. This can have serious long-term economic consequences.
In a rather gloomy OECD report, researchers translated the loss of learning into a possible loss of income. The bad news is that, at least according to the OECD report, missing as little as three months of school can already make a difference and have a material effect.
A World Bank study finds that if schools are closed for five months, with so-called moderate mitigating effects – meaning some remote learning which is more than only sending out exercise sheets – children would lose 0.6 years of studying.
In the absence of effective policies, every child in this cohort – currently in primary and secondary education – could face a salary reduction of yearly 872 US dollars or an average reduction of five per cent of his/her earnings. This would add up to 16,000 US dollars of lost earnings during their lifetime and amount to a loss of 10 trillion US dollars for the global economy. With no remote learning at all, the toll could be even higher.
Evidently, calculations can fail and cannot be applied to every single country. Fast bounce-back of the economies and rapid catching up of students cannot be ruled out, especially in more developed countries with future-oriented governments.
In the case of the V4, it can be concluded that the regional and social gap which had already existed in education has further deepened during the pandemic. Exacerbated with economic difficulties like rising unemployment, the disadvantaged and lower-educated layers of the society were hit twice: by the immediate consequences (job and income losses) and by long-term effects (education losses) of the pandemic.
Growing inequality will be a mounting challenge for all countries, especially for those, where populist political movements are on the rise, capitalising on social dissatisfaction. Equal opportunities in education, the most effective social mobility tool, and easing social tensions, are now being challenged by the pandemic.
Governments have to maintain social cohesion and prevent the disadvantaged layers from sinking into further marginalisation and poverty. In the twenty-first century, basic skills will be essential to find employment. If children at a young age suffer learning losses in basic competencies like reading, writing or maths, it would be next to impossible to catch up with the more privileged ones.
If investments are not made in education, society has to foot the bill later as social or welfare transfers.
The V4 governments have to face another structural challenge. If permanent learning losses lead to lower competencies in the next generation, this may undermine the region’s chances to become a high-skill, high-income region.
The Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia strive to jump from a predominantly manufacturing country to a more knowledge-based economy.
Digitalisation, innovativeness and creativity will all play a crucial role in the modernisation of the V4 economies. Still, first and foremost, a skilled and qualified workforce, which will be able to adapt to the new challenges, is needed not only in the next ten but in the next thirty to fifty years.
North Macedonia, Bulgaria and the Ghosts of the Past
4 October 2022
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