By Barbara Erling

When the Polish government instructed all schools to shut on 11 March, it did not initially require online classes to be held instead. Yet after two weeks the authorities ordered all students and teachers to restart education through remote classes.

With over 7.5 million learners now affected by the closure of Polish schools and universities (which have also moved teaching online), an unprecedented experiment has begun. Yet it is one for which some teachers appear unprepared and some students – especially those already from underprivileged groups – are under-equipped.

Oliwia Podlaszuk, an 18-year-old technical school student, lives in Zalipie, a small village in southwestern Poland. Podlaszuk’s school provides online lessons for its students, but she cannot attend them, because the internet connection in her village is too weak.

Like the rest of her family, Podlaszuk uses mobile data to access the internet. They do not have a router at home. The family lives in an old, prewar building with thick walls that severely limit wireless connections. “There is some internet connection outside, but I don’t want to have classes in the backyard,” says Podlaszuk.

Only one teacher has asked why she has not been attending online classes. Her form tutor blames her for being lazy and ignores her messages explaining the issue. “I feel isolated from the rest of the class,” says Podlaszuk.

Like many students, Podlaszuk has been cut off from education. Young people, especially from rural areas, where the internet infrastructure is weaker, now face the problem of digital exclusion.

In 2018, the last year for which data are available, there were 3,600 localities in Poland where residents had no internet access, either through fixed or mobile operators, according to the Office of Electronic Communications, a government agency. The number of such “white spots” actually increased from 2017.

One for all

Bogusława Olkowska is a mother of two. Her children – Oliwia, a 15-year-old primary school pupil, and Patryk, an 18-year-old high school student – have only one laptop to share.

“My husband works in Germany, and because of the pandemic his workplace is closed,” says Olkowska. “Of course I thought about buying one more laptop, but since my husband is not earning any money now, I am not sure if we can afford that.”

Her family is not alone in facing such problems. In Poland many parents cannot afford to buy multiple devices for themselves and their children. According to Centrum Cyfrowe, a think tank, there are at least a million students who have to share their equipment with siblings or parents. And 10% of households with children have only one computer or tablet to use. With many parents now also working remotely, that can severely limit the time available for students’ online education.

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“The school gave out computers to families that don’t have devices, but it’s not enough for everyone,” says Teresa Fierkowicz, a primary school teacher from Świeradów-Zdrój in southwestern Poland.

The government eventually reacted to the problem of digitally excluded students. On 27 March, two days after online learning had become compulsory, the Ministry of Digital Affairs announced a programme that will allocate 180 million zloty for computer equipment and internet access for students and teachers. Each administrative municipality (gmina) can receive at least 40,000 zloty from the grant, but the final amount depends on the number of students.

Joanna Dębek, a communications officer at the Ministry of Digital Affairs, recommends that administrative municipalities start buying the equipment on their own, as it can take a few days to release the ministerial grant. “We guarantee that all the municipalities which applied for the grant will receive the money as soon as possible,” says Dębek.

Lubań, a town in the Lower Silesian Province, will receive 70,000 zloty. “This is less than the actual need,” says Mariusz Tomiczek, the external funds specialist of the town council. “We asked for 80 computers and 116 routers, which obviously cost more.”

The council plans to release more money from the city budget to buy further equipment for schools. Asked about the date when students will receive the equipment, Tomiczek said that it would the end of April at the earliest.

“We estimate that the equipment might arrive even in mid-May,” he says. By that stage, the students would already have been learning online without sufficient equipment for around seven weeks (assuming that school closures are extended beyond the current date of 14 April, as appears probable). The final decision on who qualifies to receive the new equipment depends on the school administration. 

Not the only problem

Digital exclusion is not the issue. One Polish high school principal, who asked to remain anonymous, notes that many students have parents working abroad and therefore now have to look after younger siblings or elderly grandparents, meaning more responsibilities and less time to study.

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In extreme cases, being stuck at home can mean exposure to domestic violence. “The father of one of my students had a stroke and cannot control himself,” says the principal. “He recently aggressively ripped the cables from his son’s computer, because he didn’t like the noise of a video conference with the teacher.”

Some parents find that limited space prevents them from providing their children with a comfortable working environment. “Finding a place just for yourself is unimaginable in my house,” says Joanna Pełszyk, a mother of three school-age children. The only desk at home is in her eldest son’s room.

Pełszyk’s two younger sons, who are eight years old, previously did not need desks because most of their work was done at school. She and her husband did not need one either, but now their office has moved to their flat. “We are packed in like sardines,” says Pełszyk.

Parents become teachers

Parents now working remotely are having to juggle their jobs with their children’s schooling. With the lack of methods and digital competences, teachers rely on parents to help their children with schoolwork.

Barbara Hejne, a mother of an 8-year-old daughter, is afraid that not all of the parents are capable of doing so. “I don’t have any problem with helping my daughter with English, but I know there are parents who don’t know the language at all,” she says.

Her daughter is in second grade so her learning material is relatively easy. The bigger problem comes with older children. “My husband needed to learn how to explain to my son the multiplication of negative fractions. This wasn’t easy,” says Joanna Pełszyk. She complains that most of her children’s teachers just send the list of tasks without any further explanation, transferring responsibility onto parents.

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Servers overloaded

The transition to online learning has also been a challenge for many teachers, as many as 30% of whom might not have the necessary competences for distance teaching and the use of digital tools, estimates Centrum Cyfrowe.

According to Marcin Kędzierski, an expert from the Jagiellonian Club think tank, most teachers find it difficult to maintain educational quality as they are not versed in e-learning methods.

“Changing the format, i.e. abandoning grading, or even suspending classes might be necessary in this situation,” says Kędzierski. Copying regular school education into a remote learning setup has proved to be inefficient, he explains. “Online classes should be at least shorter and more interactive.” 

With no common standards for such teaching, teachers have been experimenting with different applications and formats. Wiesława Stasik, a primary-school maths teacher in Świeradów-Zdrój, uses Vulcan, an online gradebook, to set her pupils daily tasks.

“I am not able to conduct classes using my laptop, but even if I could, there are many children who don’t have appropriate equipment for video conferences,” says Stasik. She communicates with her students via Vulcan only in the morning. After that she prefers emails; later in the day the activity on the platform is so high that the servers are inefficient and the system freezes.

Vulcan and Librus, the most popular online gradebook systems, both went down due to server overload during the first day of mandatory remote learning.

When announcing the obligation to teach online, Education Minister Dariusz Piontkowski said that over 92% of schools are already prepared for remote learning. He also promised that the vast majority of pupils and teachers have the technical capabilities for distance learning. 

Working round the clock

Those teachers who have started to adapt to e-learning have moved to platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Zoom and Discord.

“My school hosted one week of training sessions for teachers before we could go online,” says Natalia Klonowska, a music teacher from a private school in Warsaw. The school started preparing for online classes from the first day of closure. It set up a group of supervisors who check if teachers follow the guidelines.

Some schools implemented a set of rules for online classes not only for teachers but also for students, including eating and even verbal violence. “When one student was wearing pyjamas during online classes, the teacher told her off and asked to change the outfit for an appropriate one,” explains Renata Czuj, a high school principal and Polish teacher.

The students appreciate the effort that teachers have made to go online. “The school smoothly jumped from the 19th century to the 21st,” says Szymon Leszczyński, who is in his final year at high school in Lubań. He enjoys the e-learning, but says it is much more tiring than physical classes.

Teachers also often feel overwhelmed by the distance learning. As well as teaching online, they are often spending more time than usual preparing for the video conference, as well as checking homework, marking and communicating with parents. “It’s round-the-clock work,” says Renata Czuj.

According to experts, additional pressure on teachers, students and parents from the education ministry can be counterproductive because they are already facing stresses relating to the lockdown. “Imposing strict restrictions is neither good for psychological well-being nor for education effectiveness”, says Kędzierski.

Schools are provisionally due to reopen after Easter. But as the number of coronavirus infections continues to grow, the chances are that they will remain closed. That means the challenges for teachers and students will only intensify, as will the negative effects of education inequality.

Main image credit: Jakub Orzechowski/Agencja Gazeta

Barbara Erling is a multimedia journalist. She joined Gazeta Wyborcza as a Google News Initiative fellow, and has worked for CNN Indonesia, Polish Television and Thomson Reuters.


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