New school year will expose socioeconomic disparities among students

Education is one of the areas paralysed by the pandemic in Turkey. The school year will start on Sept. 21, but everything is still unclear. According to the Education Ministry, all precautions have been taken. However, teachers and parents think otherwise. 

Some 64 percent of Turks are not in favour of schools opening again for in-person education as the coronavirus pandemic still troubles the country, a survey by leading pollster Metropoll found.

Only 26.5 percent of participants said they believed opening the schools, shut down in mid-March as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, was safe.

Turkey launched a system of remote education via online live streams and television broadcasts on March 23 and Turkish Education Minister Ziya Selçuk claimed that some teachers want remote education to continue after Turkey’s post-pandemic normalisation.

The school year will start with in-person attendance being mandatory for pre-school and first-grade students only for one day of the week. These youngest students will have five 30-minute classes for the first week, with 10-minute breaks alternating among different classes to avoid crowding and contact. And schools will continue as a mixture of in-person and remote education.

But what is the situation really?

Eğitim-Sen, a union for people working in education and academia, opposes the ministry, saying that the necessary measures have not been taken so far. 

“Schools could be physically prepared for education. Or, if it was to continue with distance education, the needs of students' for access to distance education could be met and the course contents and all technical infrastructure could be prepared accordingly. But unfortunately, none of them has been done," Eğitim-Sen Secretary-General Özgür Bozdoğan told Ahval.

Meanwhile, the ministry let parents of first graders have the option to continue remote education if they so choose. But, Bozdoğan said leaving the decision to families poses a severe problem because this choice is strongly linked to families' economic situation.

He said many families cannot afford computers and internet connections necessary for remote education and poor children will suffer from "economic inequality twice".

A majority of students from rural areas and low-income families receive education in crowded classes, a young teacher from the eastern province of Diyarbakır told Ahval, speaking on the condition of anonymity. 

He also said many children in rural areas lack equipment for remote education and they are usually forced to help their families to make a living. “

"For example, in a village school, let's say you will do the distance education at 3 pm. You inform the students. You start the live lesson, but you don't have students. When we ask why you weren't connected to the lesson, the students or their parents say we were working in fields. So while one child is in the field, the other is educated," the teacher said. 

"Thus, a situation will arise in which students with low socioeconomic status will be exposed to discrimination," the teacher said.

"Families with low socioeconomic status should be supported. Things like tablets and computers should be provided. Despite this, there are too many children who will have a hard time to receive education properly."

Meanwhile, Bozdoğan added that the ministry had been avoiding collaborating with unions and that's why there is a huge risk that the situation might get worse, giving Israel as an example.

“The schools must be opened after sufficient and extensive measures are taken against the pandemic. After schools opened in Israel, the second wave continued from schools. There are sometimes up to 40 students in the 40-square-meter classroom. Doors and windows are closed. The spread of the virus under these conditions is very probable."

Confident it had beaten the coronavirus and desperate to reboot a devastated economy, the Israeli government invited the entire student body back in late May.

Within days, infections were reported at a Jerusalem high school, which quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world.

Eğitim-Sen also reported the list of schools where coronavirus cases had been observed. According to the data of the union, people, including teachers, students and janitors tested positive in more than 500 schools so far. 

According to the data by the education ministry, some four million students were deprived of education last year because they do not have computers or tablets and some do not have an internet connection. 

"And, the ministry expects the number will drop to 1.5 million for this year. Let's say 1.5 million. We are talking about a huge number," Bozdoğan said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.