BNN ANALYSES | Latvian ministry quietly tries prohibiting distance teaching for 1st-6th graders

Latvia’s Ministry of Education and Science attempted to carry rather fundamental changes to the country’s education system through the «back door». Specifically the ministry wanted to prohibit distance teaching for 1st-6th graders. The proposal was «purely technical» but it would have impacted the lives of many families in the country.
But what of the parents, school principals and the ministry of education?
It should be no surprise that distance teaching is not beneficial for students – both their psycho-emotional state and the level of education suffer from it.
However, it is important to keep in mind there ate two different terms: emergency remote teaching and online learning.
«The only difference from the normal teaching process is that students do not sit together in class. Instead the teaching process is organised using modern communication technologies. Online learning is a method for acquisition of education remotely and it completely relies on teaching principles applied and students planning the speed of learning the education content taught to them as well as which subjects to take on each day,» explains State Service of Education Quality (IKVD) manager Inita Juhņēviča.
This explanation was also stressed by principals of Distance Learning High School Riga Commercial School and Riga School of Commerce at a meeting of the Saeima. Both of these schools have experience with online teaching.
Representatives of the two schools told members of the Saeima that emergency remote teaching was a forced measure as a result of Covid-19 crisis – schools were caught unaware and teachers were forced to lead the teaching process in a new and unfamiliar format.
Online teaching, on the other hand, is used by schools that have a plan and trained teachers with special equipment.
Online teaching programmes are nothing to for Latvia. Some have proved their usefulness with test results of participating students similar to those of students studying normally. This is why online teaching is accepted as a legitimate form of education.
BNN also reached out to the Ministry of Education and Science for an opinion about the planned changes.
The ministry, explaining the need for amendments, wrote: ‘Online teaching is appropriate for children and youngsters who are already computer literate. Online teaching is an intentional and well-planned decision often picked in cases when a child or youngster is actively engaged in sports, for example, and is unable to combine sports training and school life’.
«After looking at different education models and ways of providing quality and inclusive education concept, we have concluded it is not possible to fully ensure learning of compulsory education content or reach the state standard level of education while studying online or through a different distance teaching method between 1st and 6th grade. It is in this period of school life that students require input from their teacher. Quality online teaching in such cases is impossible because children are not sufficiently independent at this stage.»
«It is also highly important to keep in mind that education is as important as socialising for the youngest children. The lack of socialising can create serious risks for those children in the future in the form of problems making friends and communication in general,» the ministry added.
Education experts were very critical about the reasons why younger children should not be allowed to engage in online teaching. Principals and parents who experience remote teaching every day have a different opinion about students’ needs and the ability of schools to satisfy them.
In regards to the main negatives from remote teaching – lack of socialising – principal of Universum private school Andis Apsītis stressed that his school is able to provide quality education and compensate such negatives.
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Principal Apsītis also explains that it is incorrect to compare emergency remote teaching and online learning, because «it is wrong to compare a forced model, which is similar to online learning, because it was implemented in schools that were not ready for it, for teachers who were not ready for it, and families that were not ready for it».
As for the amendments rejection process, the school principal said that once the technical amendment was noticed an active explanation process commenced with members of the Saeima committee. The discussion process resulted with politicians getting a clearer picture of the differences between the emergency remote teaching and online learning. Then the proposed amendments were rejected.
«It’s good that we’ve noticed [this proposal] and reacted to it. Had we been late, it would have been very bad news for families of the diaspora, national minorities, travellers and businessmen,» says the principal.
Yes, there are families for which such education methods are highly important. BNN asked parents about their opinion on online learning.
Riga School of Commerce parent council chairman Inese Mekše, who represented parents’ opinions told the Saeima that her family is forced to travel a lot due to work, which is why it is easier for their children to study remotely. «As businessmen we travel a lot and we often take our children with us, because we believe this is the best way to provide them new experience so that they can choose what they want to do later in life. By going to a normal school, we quickly use up the limit as to how much we can skip school due to ‘family reasons’. When we have an opportunity to learn online, we use it.»
Mekše signed a letter prepared by parents of students attending Riga School of Commerce for Minister of Education and Science Anita Muižniece. The letter mentions amendments detailed education quality indexes that apply only to emergency remote teaching practiced by normal schools due to Covid-19 pandemic, adding that distance teaching results of the 2020/2021 school year indicate that 1st to 6th graders who were engaged in distance teaching failed to learn up to 50% of the education content taught to them when compared to youngsters studying normally at school.
«Inclusion of such data to justify closure of the distance teaching model indicates either a lack of knowledge about Section 1 of the Law on Education or blatant manipulation of data,» the letter to the minister mentions.
Parents also stress they intentionally picked distance teaching programmes as the most appropriate for their children’s skills, needs and health. «Together with school administrations and teachers we have evaluated this form of education. We have picked it as a long-term solution in order to provide our children the right for a normal life or one close to that.»
Mekše says it was a shock at first because the information came not from authorities, but from one of the parents.
«We gathered on Zoom and discussed ideas. Some of the parents are lawyers. They told us what we can do from the legal side of things. We compiled opinions of other parents and asked them why they decided to pick this education method for their children. After putting together the legal side of things and opinions of parents, as well as school test results, we wrote a letter to the Saeima and the minister. We sent it and hoped for a miracle.»
She says parents have different reasons for signing up their children for distance teaching. Some of the children are very talented in sports. It is a talent difficult to develop while going to school normally. Some are also special needs children. There are also children who live outside Latvia but for some reason want to acquire Latvian education.
Parents of these children would have no other alternatives if the government decides to terminate distance teaching for 1st to 6th graders. «According to our surveys, 50% of our children from this age range pick distance teaching because they experience mobbing at school on a regular basis. This includes physical and psychological violence both from their peers and teachers,» says the representative of parents in favour of distance teaching.
«There are also parents who believe this to be the future of education. There are also those who live far away in the countryside.»
Mekše notes Riga School of Commerce has worked with an accredited distance teaching programme from 1st grade for seven years now.
One of the committee members – Raivis Dzintars – said after listening to opinions of school principals that 95% of arguments are against amendments and that the ministry’s justifications are not entirely clear.
The ministry agrees «work on amendments needs to continue».
BNN stresses that most members of the committee voted against. This means the proposal is on ice. It was sent back to the Ministry of Education and Science for a review and corrections.