Pandemic as a challenge for social dialogue in education

On September 22-24, 2021, a working meeting of the Education Platform was held in Wieliczka, entitled “Pandemic as a challenge for social dialogue in education”. The meeting, organized in a hybrid form by KK NSZZ "Solidarność" (Komisja Krajowa NSZZ "Solidarność"), was attended by 39 representatives of workers’ organisations from Poland, Spain, Slovakia, Portugal, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Hungary. It was organised with the support of EZA and of the European Union.

The aim of the meeting of the working group was an in-depth analysis of system solutions proposed and implemented by several European governments (including e-program proposals and their availability, availability and financing of other support tools for both teachers and students and parents; conditions; type of support for students in learning in new conditions).

Andras Bardocz from KPSZT, Hungary, formulated the problems that had to be and will be faced in the future, i.e. lack of broadband and free Internet access, lack of computer equipment, lack of knowledge of independent learning techniques, lack of preparation of parents of children from younger grades to help in learning, lack of understanding teachers of their new role, which assumes prioritizing students' self-education and the threat of social isolation. The Hungarian government took some actions, including: educational programs were broadcast on public television and students who did not have access to appropriate equipment were provided with assistance by phone or letter. The following IT solutions were used: the Neptun system (used in higher education, used for communication, class attendance control, conducting exams, etc.), the Kreta program (used in public education, having the functions of a journal), the National Educational Portal (including free, generally available textbooks on each subject for 12 years). Thanks to the agreement between the government and MC Software, the free use of MS Windows applications was made possible for every teacher and student. Tablets purchased earlier for the needs of schools were intended for students who did not have adequate equipment at home or whose families had a computer, but their siblings needed it or was a working tool of their parents. Andras emphasized that his country has already developed a digitization strategy for the period 2014-2020, according to which digital transformation is not a matter of choice but an inevitable phenomenon that everyone must prepare for, because no one with 20th century knowledge can be competitive in the 21st century.

Julian Petrov, Podkrepa, Bulgaria then took the floor and presented system solutions proposed and implemented by the Bulgarian government, including: implementation of electronic educational platforms, sharing digital resources for teachers and students, free internet at home. The Ministry of Education and Podkrepa conducted research on occupational burnout among teachers, which shows that each year it affected about 5% of this professional group. The stressors in the pandemic included: on-line education, the risk of COVID-19 infection, the lack of appropriate equipment (only 5% of teachers received new laptops from the Ministry), and the lack of educational platforms. The teachers worked 12 hours a day, daily. Remote learning made it necessary to work with Internet tools, which for people over The age of 50 was a real challenge. Currently, about 60% of them have access to modern technologies. Teachers were provided with digital products such as an electronic library (teaching materials for both teachers and students). The speaker indicated the types of support that students need during distance learning: support for children and students with special educational needs, informing about the educational inequalities, preventing students from "disappearing" from the education system.

The next speaker was Agata Adamek of NSZZ "Solidarity", Poland, who presented the participants of the meeting with recordings of short speeches of teachers teaching in special schools. Similarly to the previous speakers, they pointed to the lack of computer equipment in homes where there are more children learning, computers were not adapted to learning for children with special needs. Many of these children are in boarding schools. The pandemic forced their parents to remove them from the institutions, which prevented them from taking part in additional activities, therapy, going to the swimming pool or excursions. Having to spend time in front of the monitor made him weary and reluctant to talk. For teachers, direct contact with the student is invaluable. During the opening of the centers, it was very difficult to keep distance during meals, and to wear masks, especially for autistic children. Special school teachers felt on their own. Similarly to public school teachers, they indicated emotional problems, work over 8 hours. a day, the need for self-development of IT competences, the need to provide computer hardware and the lack of one remote learning platform for everyone.

In the summary of the first day, Elzbieta Wielg emphasized the need for social partners to initiate the process of monitoring the post-pandemic situation in education, with emphasis on two issues. The first concerns checking and monitoring the differences that occurred during the pandemic (where they occur, what they consist in, what actions should be taken to eliminate these differences). The second issue concerns rebuilding the relationship of children, parents and teachers. Psychological help will be necessary, but also simple activities such as spending time together, joint trips, sports, etc. Focusing all attention on didactic activities only (e.g. how to catch up) without activities enabling the rebuilding of mutual relations and taking care of mental health will not bring the desired results in teaching.

The second day started with the presentation of the situation in Portugal by Maria Reina Martin, Fidestra. Like the previous speakers, she pointed to problems with computer equipment, access to a broadband connection, and insufficient parental competences to help children learn. In addition, families were exposed to a drastic reduction in income, as 66% of their remuneration was paid to parents due to the need to care for younger children up to 12 years of age (and only for full-time employees). The pandemic showed huge inequalities in society, forced the reorganization of school work and the need for teachers to improve their IT competences. Local authorities and offices tried to equip students and teachers with the necessary computer equipment, a website with teaching materials for teachers was created, parents were encouraged to exercise during the PE classes together with their children. The pandemic forced a more efficient use of modern technology and taught self-discipline. Currently, there are 5 platforms that are used by teachers to create interactive content and digital resources (video presentations, etc.). The Portuguese National Board of Education conducted research among teachers, students and parents, as a result of which it identified the following challenges: inequality in access to computer equipment and the Internet, low digital competences among young people (inability to use learning equipment, but only using chats and social media), the need to change the curriculum as not all content provided at school can be transferred online, the need to reorganize the school's work for the future (adapting the process of education to new technologies), "disappearing" students from the education system due to digital exclusion (approx. 15% of students).

Following the lectures, participants defined the greatest challenges in education facing the authorities, schools, teachers, students and parents, indicated how to deal with them, and shared good practices.

The most important challenges include:

  • preparing the school system for the info communication era (the entire system that functions as a source of knowledge should be transformed into a system that supports the learning process);
  • the need for legal regulations regarding the work of a teacher;
  • greater autonomy of school principals (they themselves decide to close the facility),
  • ensuring access to broadband internet;
  • providing the right amount of equipment for both teachers and students;
  • ensuring appropriate working and learning conditions (lack of intimacy);
  • courses to improve competences for teachers;
  • the phenomenon of "disappearing" students from the education system (around 10% in Poland, around 15% in Portugal, around 2.5% in Bulgaria);
  • excessive workload of teachers (in Bulgaria an idea arose that teachers who work remotely should pay EUR 15 per month to their salary);
  • payment of a housing allowance for teachers who have moved to other places (Portugal);
  • deterioration of the mental state of students, isolation, withdrawal, depression (many had problems with daily activities), suicide attempts;
  • fighting obesity among students (weight increase by approx. 5 kg) as a reason for withdrawing from contacts with peers;
  • no eye contact (whether it is compulsory to turn on the cameras or not), no cooperation between the teacher and the student, no non-verbal contact.

Then, the participants presented good practices from their countries.

The following catalogue of good practices was created:

  • introducing solutions used in digital learning to classroom teaching;
  • increased respect for the teaching profession (their work has started to be appreciated);
  • increasing self-confidence among teachers by increasing their digital competences;
  • co-financing of the purchase of equipment for teachers (Poland);
  • free access to their products by commercial providers of educational content;
  • creation of educational platforms for teachers;
  • e-textbooks;
  • lessons on TV;
  • parents' involvement in teaching their children (this is not only about the grades, but most of all about how to help their child learn - they were in close contact with the teachers);
  • paid care for younger children up to 66% or 80% of remuneration;
  • paid annual leave for vaccinated teachers after falling ill with COVID 19 (result of government meetings with trade unions, Bulgaria);
  • two days of leave for teachers receiving the second dose of the vaccine (Bulgaria);
  • permanent introduction of hybrid education (on the basis of the decision of the Pedagogical Council in Bulgaria, each student in the older class (over VI) may participate in online lessons up to 10% of the entire education, e.g. in connection with a long-term illness, if the school has adequate technical background).

Summing up, all participants of the meeting agreed that no distance learning can replace the traditional learning process, remote learning caused greater deficits in terms of mental health, physical health or socialization than in terms of knowledge. Due to the advancement of technology and the pandemic, it is possible and necessary at the same time to include a reasonable part of e-learning in the way it is learned. It is the duty of trade unions to ensure that all possible conclusions are drawn from the pandemic experience (e.g. by monitoring undesirable phenomena), and that EU funds are used to the maximum for equal access to education, regardless of the place of residence and economic status.