School is over … forever?
Efforts to keep schools open aroused mixed feelings among teachers, students and parents. While some were concerned about infection, others said the education and mental wellbeing of Slovak children and adolescents are more important after nearly two years of insecurity and schooling.
The situation for Slovak children is certainly dire. During the first and second waves of the pandemic, Slovak schools were closed for much of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. Only schools in Colombia and Costa Rica among OECD countries were closed longer in 2020, according to a survey by the State of School Education. An average student in Slovakia, now 13 years or older, spent no more than eight months in school between January 2020 and June 2021.
The first wave of the pandemic, which lasted from roughly March to May 2020, caught the country off guard. Schools have been closed to limit people’s mobility and contain the spread of infections. With no tragic effects from the first wave, the country was unable to properly prepare for what was to come in the fall of 2020.
Despite initial attempts to limit school closings to individual schools or districts, October 23, 2020 turned out to be the last day of school for students in grades 5 to 9 of primary and secondary level (this group includes all children aged 11 to 18 Years, give or take a year).
Thereafter, the situation improved slightly after a mild lockdown and several nationwide test rounds. People were able to go to cinemas, theaters and shopping malls, but children were not allowed to go back to schools despite repeated attempts by the Minister of Education. The only exception was made for children in material need who did not have the means to access online education.
After Christmas 2020, when Slovakia was completely closed, all schools continued distance learning. Kindergartens could only be opened to children whose parents worked in critical infrastructures and to those who could not work from home.
Kindergartens, special schools and grades 1 to 4 of elementary schools reopened on February 8, but only in districts with a lower warning level. At the same time, face-to-face teaching for the final classes of secondary schools was resumed. Many schools that could reopen remained closed anyway; their principals complained about the lack of guidelines for opening the school.
It wasn’t until April 2021 that schools began to open in all districts. In order to avoid a repetition of the lengthy closings, the Covid vending machine system – a guide for schools in the event of infections detected in students or employees, which came into force at the end of August – was launched to keep schools open as long as possible to keep.
Gröhling’s arguments for keeping schools open are based on numbers. On November 26, he reported that only 1.6 percent of the country’s high school students tested positive using PCR tests. He insisted that no other department has such reliable data from tests and that education is very effective in isolating positive cases and quarantining contacts.
The minister also referred to the higher vaccination rates in the sector, with teachers in the spring of 2021 among the priority groups for vaccination regardless of age, above the average for Slovaks aged 18 and over with around 55 percent. The highest vaccination rates in education were recorded in the districts of Dunajská Streda, Bratislava I, Bratislava II and Bratislava IV. About 11 percent of teachers have now received booster doses.
By December 6, however, regional authorities had ordered schools in 35 districts to be closed across the district. Most of the closings did not affect kindergartens and the first four grades of elementary school or children up to the age of 11. The closure of schools in Bratislava, where the vaccination rate is among the highest in the country (64 percent), has generated much criticism.
Mathematician Richard Kollár, who has come to be known as one of the country’s chief monitors for the pandemic, pointed out that the closure was imposed regardless of vaccination rates for teachers and students. “Slovakia may be the only country in the world where a fully or almost fully vaccinated class cannot go to school, while unvaccinated people with a week-long antigen test result are allowed to go to work,” said Kollár.
He also found that children are the least vulnerable group to this pandemic, with much less contact outside of school than adults outside of work.
School closings are also divided between organizations that are dedicated to the upbringing and education of children and young people and their mental health. While the student alliance called on the education minister to follow the advice of experts at least at regional level and to close schools, other organizations such as the Let’s Give Voice to Children initiative or the parents’ association supported the decision to not all schools in Slovakia this school year close.
Such groups rely on evidence from organizations such as UNESCO showing that school closings have high social and economic costs for people in all communities, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls and their families. These include social isolation, rising drop-out rates, increased violence and exploitation, gaps in childcare and poor nutrition.
The Educational Policy Institute, a think tank, did some research during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and found that nearly 52,000 students did not participate in distance learning at all. That was about 7.5 percent of all pupils and students in Slovakia. Many more, around 128,000 students (18.5 percent), had no access to the Internet. Teachers and social workers would personally take home printouts of worksheets
Miroslava Hapalová, director of the National Educational Institute, which reports to the Ministry of Education, said in an earlier interview with The Slovak Spectator that school closings not only negatively affect educational outcomes for all children, but also significantly increase the differences between children from different social classes – including economic ones Backgrounds. “Children then have limited access to free lunch, psychological and special educational support and other services as a result of closed schools,” she said.
Psychologists from the Slovak Research Institute of Child Psychology and Pathopsychology point out the long-term negative effects of such a decision on the mental state of children.
“We have seen a sharp increase in the number of elementary and secondary school clients in our facility who have problems with anxiety, depression, social phobia, self-harm, eating disorders, overuse of the internet, computers and cell phones.” They wrote in a statement . “It’s a response to long-term social isolation.”
Even after returning to school, children fail more often – some have lost their work habits, cannot concentrate and prepare for school and achieve significantly worse results than before the pandemic. Problems related to an impaired sleep regime are increasing. “The effects on children’s mental health can be long-term, irreversible and lifelong,” the statement said.
After the school closings ordered by the regions in December, the government finally listened to calls for a nationwide switch to distance learning. Gröhling’s veto only extended school days by two weeks. His SaS party admitted that bare politics eventually penetrated their decision to give in and compromise to close schools in exchange for keeping shops and small businesses open for the two weeks leading up to Christmas.
That did not necessarily satisfy the Minister of Education. “Last year Slovakia closed schools, but we still had one of the worst pandemic waves, while countries that did not close schools did not have such a bad course.” [of the pandemic wave] and managed to keep the personal training going, ”said Gröhling.