Guidelines for the operation of the school education system in the school year 2020 – 2021 in the conditions of Covid 19. What do the Guidelines say and what do they fail to say?

A very different school year awaits us, during which attendance form and distance learning in an electronic environment will alternate. The majority of students and teachers will start in person as classes, whole schools, districts and even the whole country will probably go periodically to distance learning. It will be possible for some children – especially those with impaired immunity or from families with parents most at risk of the pandemic – to study throughout the year in other forms, including distance learning. This is clear from the Guidelines for work in the academic year 2020 – 2021, which the Ministry of Education and Science published on August 27. What do the Guidelines say and what do they fail to say?

The guidelines for the operation of the school education system in the school year 2020 – 2021 in the conditions of Covid-19 contain mandatory and recommended measures to reduce the risks of transmission, infection rules in case of or suspicion of Covid-19 in school, switching algorithm to distance learning in an e-learning environment, training opportunities for students at higher risk than Covid-19, an explanation of what additional support students who have missed face-to-face lessons will receive, guidelines for maintaining a good psychological climate to avoid stress and misinformation and others.

Basic provisions of the Guidelines

Basically, the Guidelines define or recommend several things

  1. The school year will start in person and the aim of the system will be to run it in person for as many students as possible for the longest possible periods of time. The indisputable fact that the present form in which teachers and students interact directly is the best is clearly stated.
  2. In view of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the expected influenza epidemics, it is very likely to be necessary periodically when enrolling in distance learning in an electronic environment. The aim will be to do this for as few students as possible without compromising their health and the health of their families. Therefore, the so-called “bubble model” will be applied, in which a group of students will communicate intensively, primarily within the group and will observe social distance from other students and teachers. It is recommended that the “bubble” be the class. In it, students will communicate freely without having to observe social distance, including without wearing masks in the classroom. Of course, in smaller schools – for example, in merged classes or in All-Day groups involving different classes – the bubble can be at class level or even stage. The principal should do his best to reduce the interaction between students from different classes or at least from different stages. For example, the different stages can be separated on different floors, to enter and exit different corridors and exits if the building allows it, to make different starting hours for different classes and respectively the breaks to be at different times and so on. When this interaction occurs, it must be subject to measures of social distance, such as wearing masks and be brief. Therefore, students must wear masks in the common areas of the school – the corridors, stairs and others, in the buses of secondary schools and so on.
  3. The guidelines set mandatory health protocols for action in case of doubt or in the case of a PSR-confirmed diagnosis of Covid-19 in a student or adult. Leading is the effort to prevent infection and to ensure the safety of students. Therefore, at the first symptoms of the disease, the student is taken out and returns to school only after confirmation by a doctor that he is healthy. In cases of confirmed Covid-19 under the 14-day quarantine is placed the “bubble”, ie the appropriate class. It is these students who go into e-learning from a distance while the other classes and students continue face-to-face learning. In the case of positive cases of students in more classes, the relevant Regional Health Inspectorate may quarantine the entire school and so on. The situation is similar with teachers. At the first symptoms, the respective teacher leaves the school and returns only after confirmation by a personal doctor that he is healthy. In case of a positive teacher’s test, it is replaced by another, as the students continue in face-to-face training, as the requirement is for the teachers to be constantly wearing a mask or helmet and at a distance of at least two meters from the students. The situation is different only with the positive test for a primary school teacher. Then the relevant class passes under quarantine and distance learning.
  4. The guidelines allow for four types of distance learning in an electronic environment
    – Synchronous learning in an electronic distance environment (absences and grades are set). In essence, this is a continuation of the learning process in a way very similar to face-to-face learning with a similar program, but in a virtual classroom.
    – Asynchronous distance learning in an electronic environment (no absences are set, but the participation and engagement of the student are taken into account in the assessment process). It sets tasks through popular electronic means such as Messenger, email, Skype and receives answers to completed tasks.
    – Alternation of synchronous and asynchronous learning in an electronic distance (absences are placed only for the hours of synchronous learning in an electronic distance)
    – Alternative ways, incl. by providing materials on paper (evaluation is also possible). This method is necessary in cases where students do not have electronic devices. Although on a national scale, according to the Ministry of Education and Science, only about 5% of students do not have devices, a study by the Amalipe Center shows that in schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups nearly a quarter of children do not have suitable devices or internet connection at home. In nearly one-fifth of these schools, more than half of the children do not have devices, which makes it virtually impossible for distance learning to take place in an electronic environment. The work of educational mediators is especially important in these cases, as mediators distribute paper materials and help students. The same Amalipe Center survey found that 76% of schools with a concentration of vulnerable groups actively used educational mediators during distance learning between April and June 2020.
  5. Schools will be one of the cleanest and disinfected places. Bulgarian schools have always been like this, but in addition to the already existing rules of hygiene, the Guidelines require thorough disinfection every day and even more intensive in case of doubt or proven Covid-19. The cost of disinfectants, masks and others will be a major item in the budget of any school.
  6. There is no single solution that applies to all schools and all situations. Each school in accordance with the specific situation will have to determine which will be the “bubbles”, ie groups of students who will be able to interact without social distance, how to regulate access to the school building of individual groups, parents, external visitors, how the students’ meals will be organized, how parent meetings will be held and so on. Schools will have to show maximum adaptability and creativity depending on the development of the pandemic situation, interacting with the Regional Department of Education and Regional Health Inspectorate.
  7. In alternative forms – independent, individual or distance form of education can continue children whose immunity is impaired due to disease or whose parents fall into the endangered of Covid-19 group. This is done after a document from the personal doctor and the consent of the Regional Department of Education. The mechanism aims to meet the demands of parents who are worried about their children being educated in a pandemic and at the same time to create obstacles to the dropping out of school due to parental disinterest.

What do the Guidelines fail to say?

The document, although prepared by MES experts, looks more like an instruction from the health ministry, supplemented by organizational issues. Health standards and regulations, as well as issues related to the organization of the educational process occupy the main part of the Guidelines. This is quite understandable in view of the upcoming beginning of the school year after nearly half a year of absence of students from the classroom. The organization at school will be very different from what it was half a year ago in order to preserve the health of students, their parents and teachers. Beyond the text of the document, important issues remain related to the purely pedagogical side of the interaction between teachers, students and parents in the new situation. The important questions about how the full scope will be ensured, the prevention of dropping out, as well as in what form the scope teams under Decree of the Council of Ministers 100/2018 will continue to exist, remain unaffected. These issues are painfully topical. The lack of any attention to them in the document raises concerns whether the successes achieved in this direction, which the Ministry of Education and Science was proud of in the previous two or three years, will not be completely rendered meaningless by the pandemic.

Several things become clear, although they are not explicitly stated in the Guidelines:

  1. The application of interactive pedagogical methods and the overall idea of ​​classroom interaction will face serious challenges. This is especially true for the junior high school and high school stages, but also for the primary. The requirement for the teacher to be 2 meters away from the students and to wear a mask or helmet creates a barrier to all innovative pedagogical methods. Teachers will have to find new ways to activate and actually interact with students. This is possible and the situation can be used as a catalyst in this direction.
  2. There will be additional difficulties in organizing extracurricular activities with students from different classes and stages, as well as in organizing inter-school activities. At the same time, the added value of these activities cannot be disputed. It is certainly not good, and it is practically impossible for the individual “bubbles” to be perceived as a hermetically sealed monad (ass in Leibniz) that does not interact with other groups of students. Principals and teachers need to find appropriate ways to conduct inter-school extracurricular activities and extracurricular activities involving students from different stages in the respective school.
  3. The problem with the lack of suitable devices – tablets, computers, etc. – remains relevant among some students. Although to a lesser extent, the lack of proper internet connectivity remains a problem. The education ministry has found a partial solution to the second problem by allowing schools to pay for students’ internet connectivity. Regarding the lack of suitable devices, the Ministry of Education and Science allowed the purchase of tablets with the funds for consumables, which are required for extracurricular activities under the Education for Tomorrow project. Unfortunately, this step was not taken under the Support for Success project. At this point, schools must seek support from companies, municipalities or other institutions to procure the necessary devices. Amalipe Center continues the campaign “Old advices for a new beginning”, in which more than 800 devices have been distributed so far. Of course, parental commitment remains paramount. The best support that parents can provide for their children’s education at this time is by providing them with an appropriate device. As this can hardly be expected in the most marginalized families, it is necessary to create a school fund for devices. This is an important part of the efforts to ensure equal access to education in the new situation.
  4. It is very likely that some students will not go to school after the half-year break. The pandemic and its subsequent distance learning during the second school year jeopardized the success of the full scope efforts. Full scope teams, educational mediators, and teachers need to make an effort to get all students in attendance from September 15th. However, they do not drop out when you first switch to distance learning in an electronic environment.
  5. Educational mediators are an invaluable helper in reaching the most marginalized families. Most mediators have been appointed under the Support for Success project and their contracts are due to be renewed for another year in September. The pricipal has the right to select a new mediator if the previous one did not work well. Without any form included in their job description, the educational mediators actively supported distance learning in the spring of this year. They also organized many activities for dissemination of information materials and prevention of the pandemic in the respective Roma neighborhoods. Very often they helped the students not only by distributing printed materials, but also by showing them how to participate in synchronous learning. The mediators themselves need to be prepared for these tasks. It is also important for the principals of the respective schools to provide an appropriate way for their additional stimulation – by using the funds for vulnerable groups under Article 52a of the ordinance on funding or in another way.
  6. Parents are a key factor in the successful implementation of distance learning. Amalipe Center survey in June found that the majority of schools reported a seriously increased parental commitment to children’s education after the introduction of distance learning in March. At the same time, there are many disturbing examples in which large groups of parents have been successfully manipulated through social networks. In October 2019, parents took their children out of schools in Sliven and Yambol because of the rumor that social workers would take their children and send them to Norway. In May, the MES’s efforts to provide free internet in nine big neighborhoods were partially sabotaged in two cities due to a rumor from social networks that 5G devices were being installed. Currently, two opposing rumors are spreading in some social networks – not only in the Roma community – about the pandemic and schooling. One is that Covid-19 does not really exist, and many registered cases are manipulated by the government to absorb European funds. According to this rumor, disinfection and distance measures are unnecessary and do not need to be followed. The opposite statement, also actively circulated and found in front of some parents, is that schools will become a breeding ground for the pandemic as it will affect children and their families. It is obvious that the widespread acceptance of any of these rumors will create problems in the new school year. That is why it is important for schools to urgently inform parents about the upcoming measures and to convince them of the safety of children in the face-to-face training. Parental trust is the best prevention against the many rumors that will inevitably continue to emerge.