Rapid Assessment of COVID-19 impact on education in Bulgaria
Deepening learning loss and increasing inequalities
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of all kindergartens and schools in Bulgaria, as of March 2020. This had an impact on the over 700,000 pre-school and school aged children and their parents. To study the impact, UNICEF commissioned a nationally representative research exploring economic, social, educational, psychological and organizational aspects of the effects of COVID-19 on education. The methodology included: questionnaires for students, parents and teaching staff in pre-schools and schools; interviews with education experts from municipalities and education mediators; and, case studies on good practices to support the most vulnerable children, aiming to improve and enhancing innovation in online teaching.
The most severely affected by school closures were children from families living in poverty, and children whose parents have been unemployed long-term and/or economically inactive. This UNICEF research reveals the overwhelming impact for disadvantaged children and families, as 3.5% of parents have difficulty covering the daily cost of food, and 40% need help raising their child so they can go to work.
At least 50 000 school-aged children were left behind
Although Bulgarian schools switched to remote learning right after the pandemic-related school closures were announced, many vulnerable children could not take advantage of it. For every third student, the main barrier to access is the lack of devices or internet. 8.3% of students did not participate in distance learning, or did not participate regularly, and 57.9% of parents expect that more children will not participate in the next school year. Only 35% of pre-schools continued the interaction with children through parents and caregivers, as no alternatives were developed. Only 63% of inclusive education specialists worked with children with disabilities during the state of emergency on a regular basis, supporting only less than half of the children with disabilities they normally support.
Every fifth student performing worse
The learning crisis has deepened, as every fifth student reports worse educational outcomes than before. During the pandemic, monitoring of attendance was insufficient, and important tests and activities canceled. Every second teacher was concerned that students will lose desire and motivation to learn, and 45% of teachers thought the number of children who will not participate in school activities will increase. Another 40% of teachers were concerned that distance learning will have a negative effect on students` educational outcomes.
During the lockdown parents were the main resource for children, particularly for children with disabilities. However, only 20% of all parents felt fully prepared to support their children during distance learning, while 50% of parents shared their failure to support their children in education.
Half of all students felt lonely, insecure and angry
In addition to learning loss, another key aspect of the negative impact of the pandemic on education is the social-emotional one toll. Half of students reported experiencing negative feelings, such as loneliness, insecurity, irritability, and anxiety due to reduced social contacts. Over 35% of parents assess their children`s mental health as worse than before the pandemic. Likewise, 60 % of teachers share that their work commitments increased significantly during distance learning, and 44% of them reported their mental health to be worse than before. This clearly indicates the need for phyco-social support in education, for students and teachers, in the coming years.
How do we use this evidence
Evidence from the research influenced the development of the National Framework for the re-opening of schools. To further strengthen the resilience of the education system and support the Ministry of Education in developing innovative measures to fulfil the gaps and address the increasing inequalities, the evidence was used to develop a Guide for education provision in situation of COVID-19 pandemic, with practical checklists, tools, and promising practices to build-back better schools. Special attention is paid to the social-emotional wellbeing of students and teachers, also incorporated in the UNICEF and MoES joint program for creating a safe school environment.
UNICEF data also indicates the need for financial and flexible employability measures for families, so that they better support their children at home, especially now with an increase in online studying. The research validates the need for specially designed online learning resources, tailored to the needs of children with disabilities. These and other recommendations are reflected in the development of an interactive platform in support of children with disabilities, a joint intervention of UNICEF and the MoES. Last, but not least, the evidence will support the discussion on the need for a blended learning national strategy, in Bulgaria.