Yes, I respect education, and I want my children to go to school, but at what cost!?
In recent months, the media have been at odds in regards to when classes should start in the new school year. Physical attendance in schools includes too many factors that are still up in the air, as well as risks that a developing country like ours can avoid, if it opts for online education for all - from the safety of our homes. Of course, no type of lessons is without its drawbacks, and all problems need to be considered, in order to make the right distinction.
My opinion that online education is a better option for our country has not been made on the basis of a hasty and emotional conclusion, on the contrary, it is a well-supported and learned view that considers all aspects of the problem at hand: health, economic, social, educational and legal. Of course, that type of teaching is not without its problems.
The first most obvious problem is the fact that not all students have the technical aids to follow this type of instruction. This is a serious problem that requires a systematic solution, and it would be easiest to accomplish this through donations. Consider the group Daj, ne frlaj (Don’t Waste, Donate) as an example, whose members often donate various kinds of technical aids, and if a nationwide action was to be organized with the support of the state, in cooperation with various services, it would undoubtedly be successful. Proof of this is the action carried out by individuals such as Borche Stamenov. Some teachers have already started finding ways to help their pupils and students, and so has the Teachers for Online Lessons group.
The lack of socialization is also a problem. Considering "normal" lessons, this is true, but since we are talking about lessons during a pandemic, with faces covered with masks, distancing and protocols, in conditions where socializing and interaction will be reduced to a minimum, and classes shortened, making them insufficient to correctly pass on and take in the material, it all sounds more like antisocialization!
Opponents of online lessons also talk about the danger of insufficient students’ attention, but if we are being realistic, we will admit that physical attendance is no guarantee of paying attention. Another argument, especially for sixth graders and secondary school freshmen, is the inability to get to know their teachers, yet, once again the fact that we are in a pandemic is overlooked. There will not be a lot of getting to know each other, they will not see each other’s faces, nor will they recognize their voices with the masks. The argument that children should go to school in order to get them off the streets and that parents have to go to work seems more like taking use of children, not fighting for their rights. Among other things, schools are not playrooms!
Underscored as the most significant problem is the lack of a national platform for online learning. However, the "Plan for teaching in primary and secondary education" of the Ministry of Education and Science presents the platform EDUINO from FINKI that can support 300,000 users, covering the total number of teachers and students. The need to work with computers can also help us become part of the world, technologically and informationally literate, and it should not be seen as a disadvantage, but as an advantage.
The first and most important argument against blended learning is the stay of (some of) the students and their teachers indoors for an extended period of time - which is a proven risk of spreading infection and it poses danger to everyone involved, along with their parents, relatives, family members who are most at risk, etc. Another disadvantage of blended learning is something that is often overlooked - teachers are deprived of the right to choose. If blended learning is chosen, the children will have a choice, and the teachers will not, except to retire early, which is becoming more and more frequent in other countries, and in our country such an option is not legally provided, so the only solution is to either accept their "fate" or resign.
The very name blended learning is actually wrong! It should be called double teaching, as the teacher will have to prepare the same material twice, for physical and online attendance. In the case of larger classes, where there is a need to split into two shifts, this will actually mean triple teaching for the same teacher! This is confirmed by the experience in the United States. If we are to talk about real blended learning, then it is parallel lessons. This model is not possible due to the lack of high-speed internet in the classrooms for streaming. Besides, the outdated school computers would not provide a good quality feed. How will the teacher teach the two groups, just how understandable with he/she be with a mask on his/her face, for the one in front of the computer and the one from back of the classroom, how will the teacher write on the board making it visible for the one in front of the computer?... It is practically impossible and, in the end, both groups of students would receive poor quality teaching.
The main tool of teachers in their work is speech, which will not be sufficiently understandable under a mask. Besides, anyone who wants to be properly protected must not remove the mask throughout the school day, because once removed, masks no longer offer protection and must not be reused. The World Health Organization explains why this is not possible in schools. In addition, the only masks that provide reliable protection are KN95, and they are for single use, cost about 250 MKD and cannot be found in children’s sizes on our market.
Students and teachers who will attend classes in schools will not enjoy good quality education also due to the psychological stress caused by the unnatural environment, adherence to protocols, distancing, masks, as well as constant fear of each other, due to the danger of infection, as well as a general mutual distrust. As we have already mentioned, in such conditions it is impossible to achieve socialization.
To ensure effective protocols, due to the concentration of viruses indoors, which is known from aerosol physics, constant sterilization and proper ventilation is required, which cannot be ensured in our schools. In addition, due to the constant hygiene costs, the municipalities will be exposed to huge costs, and we know all too well the situation in the schools. In February this year, before the start of the pandemic, the Union of High School Students made a request for soap(!) to be provided in schools and highlighted the desperate state of hygiene in schools. How can we talk about implementing almost hospital-level hygiene in schools, with such conditions?
But even if your child chooses online classes (for high school he/she will need a doctor’s note for that, as explained in the MES Teaching Plan), “the validation of students’ knowledge will be done through physical attendance in school, at the end of each half-term”. One is left to wonder how does this measure respect the safety of students (especially those at risk)!?
The main problem with blended learning is the illusion of the right to choose. Those who are at risk and do not have computers will be forced to go to school. And many teachers will find themselves in the same situation for different reasons. The same will happen with many other employees who, in case of general online lessons, would have to be excused from their work duties, and with blended learning they will have only one choice –to go to work and their child to go to school!
Another topic that has been neglected is exposing retired people to risk. In our environment, grandparents are usually in charge of picking up children from school and taking care of them some time after. Retirees also help many families financially. As the most at risk group, they will be exposed to great danger and the consequences for these families can be catastrophic. Serious pieces written on this subject advise developing countries not to reopen schools, in order to protect retirees and to avoid a collapse of the already fragile health system.
Let's not forget, autumn and winter are coming, bringing with them the flu, pollution, closed windows - as yet another risk factor, but also the heating season. If the schools do not work, there will be no need for heating and the children will not be exposed to the polluted air in the schools. According to statistics, almost 90% of the schools in Macedonia use non-eco-friendly fuels for heating, and half of them were built in the period from 1946 to 1980, and 5% were built from 1900 to 1929! Furthermore, students use public transport, which is another big risk factor, and those who come from other places in the country will stay in boarding schools, and we know that the conditions there do not allow proper implementation and maintenance of protocols.
As we can see, the disadvantages of blended learning are enormous and insurmountable. To overcome them, a month or a year is not enough, what is needed is a complete reform of education, the educational system and infrastructure.
Until then, the only safe solution for a developing country like ours is online lessons for all, students and teachers alike! With online lessons, the state will have to find mechanisms to deal with all of the listed problems, otherwise children, teachers, parents and workers will not be protected, high-risk groups in particular. In the case of blended learning, seemingly everyone will have a choice, but in fact everyone will be left without a choice!
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