Over 40 000 children will not be able to study online

Two weeks before the beginning of the schoolyear the Ministry of Education announced three possible school attendance options. Still, over 40 000 children in the whole country will be faced with the major challenge of general access to education – they will not be able to attend school in case classes are moved online. The major reason for this is the lack of technical tools – no access to internet; the lack of a laptop or a PC or the possession of a single device by the entire family. This is what is indicated by the data collected by partner organizations which the Trust for Social Achievement (TSA) works in close collaboration with.

The decision of the Ministry of Education concerning regular in-person classes is definitely beneficial in terms of the resumption of the educational process, as remote learning was a challenge for many families, especially those with special needs. Going back to school will have a positive influence:

- on the mental health of children, students and parents;

- The contact with peers will help children to a certain extent to return to their regular lives both inside and outside of school, which is important for their wholesome socialization;

- The provision of free hot lunches will be resumed which for a lot of students from poorer families is often an essential meal;

Going back to school, however, still poses serious challenges related to educational access. One aspect of this is the lack of public transportation from smaller villages and towns to bigger towns and cities which is also grounds for justified parental concern. Another issue is that thousands of students do not have internet access or the necessary devices to participate in remote learning – weeks after the transition to remote learning, the Minister of Education – Krassimir Valchev – stated that around 10% of Bulgarian students do not have access to online forms of education.

The Trust for Social Achievement realizes that the issue of lack of electronic devices is not solely a Bulgarian one. This is a global challenge - which is also validated by UNICEF whose data state that 463 million children around the world do not have access to remote learning. The statistics show that in Central and Eastern Europe the segment of students with no access because of the pandemic amounted to 34%.

The introduction of e-learning gave Bulgarian institutions the opportunity to quickly and effectively identify disadvantaged students. For example, at the moment, only 22% of schools are fully equipped, and over 90% of their students have suitable devices at their disposal. This data was collected by the “Amalipe” Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance which supports a network of over 300 schools across the country, with the financial help of the Trust for Social Achievement.

The COVID-19 crisis highlighted the lack of clear policies and mechanisms which support the poorest families and those who are disadvantaged, which has further deepened the inequalities present in the education system.

During the spring months, in order to compensate for at least a part of the lacking support during the period of remote learning, the Bulgarian NGO sector managed to initiate a plethora of charitable campaigns. Private companies took part in some of them and donated money or PCs and laptops.

In the course of two months, together with our partner organizations, we managed to provide laptops and tablets for almost 1000 children in need. A quick survey by TSA’s Equal Chance project among the children and their parents showed that students in the later stages of school education used the devices provided to them and did not experience technical issues with the e-learning process. The ones who had difficulties were the younger children up to year 4 (10-11 years of age, t.n.), as they needed the assistance of an adult in order to join the e-learning platforms.

COVID-19 put all of us in unexpected and difficult situations. The crisis made visible a range of issues in education which for a variety of reasons have not been dealt with in a sustainable manner. Teachers were also seriously pressured between the measures of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health on the one hand, and the wishes of parents, on the other.

We should not forget that all electronic devices do is to provide access to the virtual classroom – they do not measure the quality of education. Neither do they guarantee the thorough supervision of teachers and teachers’ ability to measure the children’s and the students’ performance. Synchronous and asynchronous e-learning still stands as a serious question about our educational system. Remote learning is a useful and effective complementary form of education. But for it to become a substitute for in-class learning in extraordinary situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, a constant dialogue with parents, schools and the NGO sector will be a necessary condition.

The Trust for Social Achievement Foundation is ready to assist and support the efforts of all institutions in the frameworks of its programs and according to its capacity to provide safe access to education for every child and family in need. Furthermore, through our partner networks, we will keep supporting teachers and schools in their efforts during the exceptional situation which we are all faced with.