If you can’t go to school, the school will come to you
“Dunja is one happy child. Different, but still happy.”
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Belgrade, February 2022 – “We read a fairy-tale about a white horse. I made a relief map.” This is how thirteen-year-old Dunja explains, during a Zoom interview, what she’s learning in school and what she had for homework.
“Dunja is one happy child. Different, but still happy.” This is how her mom begins Dunja’s story, about a little girl who is always smiling. Dunja has cerebral palsy. She spends a few hours every day at the Outpatient Clinic for Polio and Developmental Neurology. There, Jelena and Andrijana, teachers from the Dr Dragan Hercog Primary School, help her to learn. But during the COVID-19 lockdown, and when there were infected children in her class, Dunja and four other children attended their classes online.
“Dunja spends as much time with her family as she spends at school with her teachers and friends, so for her, they’re family as well. I’m very grateful that these online classes were made possible. I’m especially grateful to the teachers who organized them, because Dunja was looking forward to every Tuesday and Thursday and being able to see her friends. It wasn’t just remote learning, but also remote love,” says Zorana, Dunja’s mom.
Dunja is just one of around 200 children attending classes from the hospital, their homes or online, which are organized by the Dr Dragan Hercog Primary School. When it was founded in 1969, the school focused on students who missed school due to prolonged hospital stay or home treatment. The teachers used to go to 3 hospitals, but organized very few home-based classes. Today, when thousands of children are absent from school due to illness, the school works in 12 hospitals in Belgrade and has over 47 home-based classes. In the wider territory of Belgrade, as many as 78 teachers and special educators teach children every day – classes are held in hospitals, at the students’ homes or online.
“Our mission is – if the child can’t come to school, the school will come to the student. For children who are at home, who are ill, who are in the hospital, the school was always coming to them, opening the door for them, being that link with the outside world,” explains Zoran Aleksic, the Dr Dragan Hercog School Principal. He also says that online classes have been a pressing need for students at this school for a long time.
“Back in 2010, we realized that we’re losing some children, that some students simply disappear from the system after their hospital stays, that they’re not included in classes in their original schools, nor are they included in home-based classes,” explains Zoran.
It is precisely because of them that the school launched its Distance Learning Programme. “With the outbreak of COVID-19, there was drama everywhere, but it was very easy for us to regroup. We could immediately put students in that system and continue just like before. We had online classes in real time, all the time,” says Zoran.
Maja Bajagic Baranj, a biology teacher, is teaching an online class with Lazar, Masa, another Lazar and Aleksa. They are in sixth grade and have been in home treatment for a long time.
Twelve-year-old Lazar loves nature and fishing and that’s why his favourite subjects are biology and geography.
“It’s important for me to have friends like this because they help me and because I can call them when I don’t have anyone to talk to,” Lazar says.
His namesake and best friend, often reminds Lazar to do his homework, agrees, and says:
“When we return to school, we won’t have to catch up [on our work]”.
It also means a lot to twelve-year-old Masa that she won’t miss any classes.
“I like English the most because I like languages. And chemistry because it’s interesting.”
Her friend Aleksa, on the other hand, prefers art and painting.
“Children attending classes remotely are mostly those who have completed oncological treatment or are still in treatment. They’re mostly staying at home and occasionally going for follow-up appointments. There are cases when children are being treated abroad, and they’re joining our classes while at the hospital. Classes are organized just like in a regular school, including the duration of classes, which is 45 minutes. Different subjects are taught by different teachers, in real time, both when working directly one on one and in these classes where we have group work. It means a lot to them, having their friends just like in regular school. I think this is hugely beneficial for their healing,” explains Maja, the biology teacher.
She believes that it is important that the children have classes every day from 9 to 2, that they have their own group, that they form friendships, exchange experiences, and communicate with each other. Digital and assistive technology also plays an important role here.
“Having this type of class for one group of children in our school means everything. School is available to them in this very sensitive period in their lives,” says Maja.
Within the Horizontal learning, exchange of knowledge and support to teachers from schools for the education of students with disabilities for the development of methods and approaches for teaching children with disabilities in the digital environment project, implemented with the support of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development and UNICEF, support is provided to teachers working with students with disabilities, to help them use digital and assistive technologies, digital tools and the online environment to a greater extent in their work, for the better inclusion of children with disabilities in the education process.
“Over time, as digital technology and ICT developed, we started using it and implementing it in our work. We used various platforms, and then we made films and educational and didactic materials ourselves for children working according to IEP 2 (individualized education plans) or those coming from other schools,” explains Zoran, the school principal.
Digital tools are used for learning, but also for developing the digital capacities of every child. It is tailor-made to their developmental, cognitive and motor abilities.
“Digital and assistive technologies are helpful in education, but they’re not of primary importance. They should be used just for personality development and to keep up with developments in technology. But talking in person, the teacher-student and student-student communication, can’t be replaced. It’s crucial,” Zoran is certain.
He is proud of the teachers who have been successfully teaching classes in hospitals, students’ homes or online for years.
“There is this horizontal connection between them – what I know, I pass on to others. We simply learn from each other and improve ourselves through that learning. We are always ready to share our knowledge, and with the support of UNICEF and the Ministry of Education, 10 of our teachers held 10 workshops for 60 teachers from 12 schools in Serbia,” says Zoran.
On its website, the school also has an Online digital technology library which was developed within the project and is a significant source of information, knowledge, and examples of good practice for all teachers in Serbia.