Keeping education on track in North Macedonia during the COVID-19 pandemic
Rapidly expanded remote learning programmes give children a ‘learning lifeline’ and a sense of normalcy.
Question: How do you move education from the classroom to the living room in just two weeks to protect the public against COVID-19?
Answer: By repurposing tools that are ready to go.
Question: How do you balance the right to health with the right to education?
Answer: By safeguarding both at the same time, using a mix of national broadcasting and e-learning to keep children at home and keep them learning, and by using health messages – including on handwashing – to help them protect their health and the health of others.
As UNICEF’s experience over many decades has shown, education is vital for a sense of normalcy – for parents as well as children – and particularly in times that are anything but normal. UNICEF-supported education initiatives in North Macedonia are demonstrating what is possible in the face of COVID-19, based on the heroic efforts of teachers and the expansion of existing programmes.
Seven-year old twin girls Ana and Kaja, and their cousin Stela, aged 3, know nothing of the monumental effort that has been made in North Macedonia by the Government, with UNICEF support, to bring them the lesson they are now watching on TV. They are simply listening to the teacher and concentrating as intently as they would at school.
Like all children in North Macedonia, Ana and Kaja have been at home since 10 March, when the Government closed schools and kindergartens as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Within days of the closures, however, UNICEF and the Government had mounted an extraordinary response, shifting lessons from the country’s classrooms to its living rooms to keep education going. And just weeks after the closures, children across North Macedonia now have access to a vast array of live broadcast and on-line lessons tailored to different grades and subjects.
Not surprisingly, teachers, parents and children all over the country have welcomed this much-needed injection of ‘normalcy’, and there are reports of some children hugging their TV screens as a way to express how much they miss their teachers.
As the school closures became inevitable, UNICEF contacted the Ministry of Education and Science with two workable solutions, the TV-Classroom and the E-Classroom.
The TV-Classroom is a collaboration between the Ministry, the Bureau for the Development of Education, UNICEF, children’s television producers OXO and national broadcaster Macedonian Radio and Television, and provides programmes for younger children. On 16 March, less than one week after kindergartens closed, volunteer teachers were already on TV, demonstrating a whole range of activities that parents and teachers can use to ease stress, including exercise routines, with classes running in all five of languages of instruction used in North Macedonia: Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Serbian and Bosnian. Many of the teachers the children see on their TV screens are already part of a UNICEF and UK Government-funded programme to introduce social-emotional learning in pre-schools, which aims to help children cope with stress and trauma, manage their emotions and develop skill such as empathy, resilience, kindness and self-confidence.
For Aleksandra Simova Klincharova, aged 39, the TV-Classroom provides a rare chance to relax just a little during a stressful time for all families. Like billions of parents worldwide, she has watched the spread of COVID-19 across countries and continents, forcing lockdowns, social distancing, and, of course, the closures of schools and kindergartens. Ever since the local kindergarten closed, she has been trying to keep her five-year old twin boys Maksim and Jan happy and occupied, while also caring for her 15-month old daughter, Stela.
“It’s a challenge to balance and entertain three kids at home,” says Aleksandra. “Fortunately, the TV-Classroom can keep the twins busy enough so that I can focus a bit more on the baby. With the kindergarten closed, I’m glad it also provides age-appropriate education for them.”
The E-Classroom builds on the UNICEF-supported Eduino online learning platform: a platform that was already in place in North Macedonia to support early learning and that was due to be launched later in 2020. Instead, UNICEF and implementing partner SmartUp - Social Innovation Lab mobilized every available resource to make the platform available immediately, expanding the scope of this one-stop-shop for educational content to cover lower primary, primary, lower-secondary education for all children aged 6 to 14.
Just three days after the school closures, the Ministry and UNICEF issued a joint call for teachers to volunteer to film lessons for the platform. The response was astounding: around 1,000 teachers stepped up. To date, 500 have already been received and more are being uploaded to the Youtube-based platform each day, sorted by topic and grade, with lessons available in Macedonian and Albanian and plans to expand to include other languages.
This is a real help for children like 10-year-old Lea. To keep herself busy, she had been spending her time reading novels, catching up on her school textbooks and staying connected with her friends by phone. But now she can use the new E-classroom platform to give her day a proper structure.
Among the hundreds of video already available to her, she can hear from Ana Boshkova – just one of the 1,000 teachers who have responded – who will tell her about calculus, using a gaming approach based on shopping at a store – or Jovanka Spaseska, whose math lesson features colourful, animated equations.
The E-Classroom platform can be accessed by up to 100,000 users at the same time and aims to cover all the education content that should be covered before the end of the school year. It is being improved continuously in response to feedback from students, parents and educators and is registered with the domain name of the Bureau for Development of Education, which is responsible for the country’s curriculum and the professional development of teachers.
First principles: expand what already works
Moving fast is so much easier when the starting blocks are already in place – and this has been true for North Macedonia. The rapid progress made to date is no accident: it is based on having a cadre of teachers in place who already know how to cater for the emotional well-being of children, on having strong partnerships across Government departments and broadcasters, and on having an online platform already in place that could be accelerated and expanded.
As Patrizia Di Giovani, Representative of UNICEF North Macedonia explains: “The pre-school teachers we have worked with have already been trained to develop the emotional health and well-being of children, and to help them handle stressful situations by strengthening their resilience. Their training is just one part of our work to build resilience into every aspect of our programming, including – but not limited to – education, so that children are better able to cope in times of crisis.”
Given the popularity of the E-Classroom with parents, teachers and children, plans are underway to expand the content still further to cover children of pre-primary and upper-secondary age. An ever-changing situation demands flexibility, and rather than channeling all content through one platform,
UNICEF is also working with teachers across the country to explore ways they can use other free on-line teaching platforms (such as Google Classroom, Facebook, Viber/WhatsApp) to start their own online classes.
Meanwhile, UNICEF is also offering a list of play-based learning tools for children aged 3 to 10 which feature story books on socio-emotional development; and a list of free and open digital tools to support remote learning while schools are closed.
Looking beyond COVID-19
The expansion of the E-Classroom initiative will help to position it as the go-to resource for e-learning far beyond the current crisis. The Ministry of Education and Science plans to promote the platform as a new and sustainable tool to support remote learning whenever it is needed.
While none of these initiatives can fully replace formal education or classes – where children learn so much from their personal interaction with their friends and teachers – they are providing a ‘learning lifeline’ for students until the threat of COVID-19 passes, and a vital sense of routine at this difficult time.