Education in times of pandemic and economic crisis

UNICEF and USAID reach out to educational institutions so that no child is left without protection during the back to school process

Leonora Aliu
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
18 November 2020

The children are lined up carefully. Everyone has taken their place in one of the red colored spots in their school yard. Keeping distance has become a necessity. Arbëresha Beka - teacher at the primary school "Naim Frashëri" in Prishtina- is distributing new masks and is constantly instructing students to keep their distance and wear the mask.

The first graders are the newest students of this school, so the patience not to hug and play with each other may not last long. But caution is at maximum. Everyone knows it's a pandemic. "Social distance is the hardest" - says a little girl with yellow curls, while she can hardly refrain from hugging her friend who has already put on the mask carefully.

“NaimFrashëri” Primary School in Prishtina is just one of the 660 schools supported by the UNICEF office in Kosovo, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development in Kosovo – USAID/Kosovo, with hygiene kits, and COVID - 19 protection equipment for both first graders and teachers.

In Kosovo, as in many places around the world, the pandemic caused by COVID - 19 has affected life in all spheres. The crisis with COVID - 19 turns out to be not only a public health crisis, but also a crisis for the normal functioning of the education process of children - who surely have been affected by the consequences of the pandemic.

Many countries have decided to close schools as a precautionary measure against the further spread of the deadly virus and the infection of children and their families. The same happened with Kosovo. Kosovo decision-making institutions decided to close all educational institutions from March 2020. . Until the reopening of school institutions that took place only on September 14 this year, children have undergone online learning. However, not all children have been involved in this type of learning. Ministry of Education and Science reports indicate that children have been left out of the learning process as a result of the poor economic conditions, respectively, the lack of technological devices to participate in the learning process.

Adaptation to the situation created, as well as the decrease in the number of the infected during early September 2020 resulted with Kosovo institutions deciding to reopen the schools, and start the new school year.  This process required special attention and preparation. To facilitate the process of returning to school, for all children, but also for teachers, UNICEF together with USAID, launched the initiative "Back to School". This initiative aimed to prepare pre-university and primary education institutions with protection measures against the COVID-19. The entire initiative involved 38 municipalities in Kosovo.

Supporting the institutions in charge

The crisis with COVID–19 has extremely challenged public institutions and Kosovo, has not been spared at all. The lack of budget for crises management and the lack of experience in managing health crises -- according to the director of Education in the Municipality of Prishtina, Shpresa Shala -- has been very challenging for the education system as well.

Shpresa Shala
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu
Director of Education at the Municipality of Prishtina, Shpresa Shala told us that Prishtina has a total of 44 thousand students enrolled in 63 schools in the whole territory, including the villages. This year, on September 14, 3,441 students have enrolled as first graders.

"There have been difficulties and it has been very challenging, because it is something that we have never experienced and something that we have never practiced earlier, and in fact this division of classes has been quite challenging", says for UNICEF the director of education in Prishtina, Mrs. Shpresa Shala. A very useful aid, according to her, was the Guide to Reopening Schools, which was drafted with the global recommendations of UNICEF, and launched by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology in Kosovo as a guide for the management of educational institutions and teachers to reopen schools in time of pandemic. Teachers have also undergone training to follow certain instructions. Then, the process of equipping schools with the necessary hygienic tools and protective equipment began.

“It was very difficult. We did not have a set budget because the budget for the year is planned and allocated a year earlier, and it was very difficult. We had to decide with municipal assemblies about a set budget to buy hand sanitizers, but fortunately, partners like UNICEF, helped us, and without their help we would not be able to reopen schools,” director Shala said.

She highlighted that the focus was on children of the first grades. “Everyone focused on the first graders, considering their first days and experience in schools, however this does not mean that there is no need for additional support for other students as well.  Additionally, there is a psychological burden for teachers as well to raise awareness and remind students on protection measures during the learning process,” she said.

About 10 thousand kits with protection equipment for students and teachers were distributed

One of the biggest challenges in ensuring the educational process for all children continued to be poverty during the period of the pandemic, which continues to be significantly high in Kosovo. The situation analysis report on children and mothers in Kosovo, published in February 2020 by UNICEF, shows that the percentage of poverty in children is 23 percent, while 7 percent of which live in extreme poverty.

Ensuring school equipment, and protective equipment against COVID-19, is an additional challenge for these children. Thus, it was necessary to establish a sustainable partnership to reach out the children in need.

To prevent the spread of the infections among general population and especially in schools, UNICEF and USAID responded by distributing about 10 thousand kits consisting of masks, hand sanitizers and other necessary protection tools for children and teachers. The assistance aimed to also support families as much as possible in providing conditions to protect their children throughout the essential education process.

“UNICEF is a strategic partner of the Municipality of Gjilan, supporting in many processes. We are grateful that they are making it possible to reach all children with packages,” stated the Mayor of Gjilan municipality, Mr. Lutfi Haziri, during the distribution of hygiene and protection equipment kits for children and teachers in this municipality.

UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu

The Minister of Education in Kosovo, Rame Likaj, at the launching of the “Back to School” campaign - organized by UNICEF through the support of USAID in Kosovo, expressed his gratitude for the assistance provided, which he considered essential. “In times like these you understand who your real friends are, and we are happy to partner with UNICEF and USAID in overcoming challenges during back to school process,” he said. Meanwhile, the USAID/Kosovo Mission Director, Lisa Magno said that “Fighting COVID-19 will help make the return of students to their schools much safer. We are in this together”.

A helping hand for teachers and school managers

Teachers and school managers undoubtedly are carrying a great burden during this time. Further protection measures were carried by many schools in Kosovo. Considering that many schools operate in old facilities, the renovations of their sanitary spaces took place before the schools reopend in mid-September.  
Teachers and school managers, on the other hand, received trainings on providing accurate instructions of the World Health Organizations and MES Guidelines to students.

The Deputy Director of “Naim Frasheri” elementary school in Podujeva, Bajram Hasani, who has been working in education sector for 34 years, says that he never faced such a situation. “I never experienced a health crisis, and it was challenging because we have many teachers with chronic diseases,” he tells UNICEF, highlighting that the assistance with hygiene kits and protection equipments were more than welcome. “We have 1,100 students, 74 academic workers, and 130 first-graders this year. This assistance supported the personnel of the school to ensure that protection measures are in place” - he says.

The Head of UNICEF Kosovo Office, Murat Sahin, continuously emphasized that all the efforts are being made to protect children and their families. “Over the past month, my team visited more than 100 schools across Kosovo, observing the ownership and rigorous effort of school staff and students in meeting necessary COVID-19 prevention measures. Together with our partners, we are committed to continue and expand our support to schools so that they are the last to close and first to reopen”.

Hygiene Kits
UNICEF/2020/L. Aliu