[WATCH] Some students have ‘disappeared off the radar’ amid schools closure – minister

Education Minister Owen Bonnici says he is worried that, despite the efforts of teachers to communicate with pupils while schools are closed due to COVID-19, some students have seemingly fallen out of reach

Education Minister Owen Bonnici was a guest on last night's extra
Education Minister Owen Bonnici was a guest on last night's extra

In spite of the extensive efforts of teachers to communicate with their pupils while schools are closed due to the coronavirus, a small portion of students have proven impossible to reach, Owen Bonnici said.

The Education Minister said that he was worried about students who have seemingly "disappeared off the radar" and are not responding to teachers' contact requests connected with online learning.

The minister, who was speaking during last night's Xtra on TVM, said that his ministry was trying to reach out to such students, many of whom fall under the government's "Scheme 9", which identifies those children considered to be in need of material assistance.

The discussion on the programme centred around the issue of whether Malta's E-learning programme could have been put in place more rapidly in the past, and whether this would have made the educational system better placed to deal with the unforseen COVID-19 situation.

PN MP and education shadow minister Clyde Puli, who joined the discussion via video conferencing, insisted that while he did not have any criticism for how the government had managed the online education system after the pandemic had arrived, he felt that the country would have been more equipped to manage the situation had it implemented its E-learning framework at a quicker and more determined pace in the past months and years.

PN MP and education shadow minister Clyde Puli joined the programme via video conferencing
PN MP and education shadow minister Clyde Puli joined the programme via video conferencing

"E-learning is providing us with very good solutions - including the recently-launched government portal - but had the system already been in place before COVID-19, we'd have been able to deal with the situation better," Puli said.

But Bonnici dismissed the claim that the system was not prepared to launch an online learning effort.

"It is our students who can best react to [Puli's claims]. Schools closed on 13 March, and we immediately starting provided educational services online. Students and parents have said that the transition was smooth. I can't take the merit for this - it is the teachers, educators and LSEs who immediately responded to the parents' requests for their children to keep learning while schools are closed," the minister said.

Puli responded by casting doubts on the pace at which online learning was put in place when schools closed, saying the government was forced to resort to "management by crisis"

"The minister's answer confirms what I was saying. The E-learning process was not tied to COVID-19. It was being developed step by step throughout the years - we started with giving computers to teachers, offering interactive whiteboards and changing the infrastructure. We also had a proposal to make access to the internet a right entrenched in the Constitution. If the E-learning strategy was already in place, we wouldn't have to resort to management by crisis," the PN MP highlighted.

"The necessary preparations before COVID-19 did not happen. Had it not been teachers and educators who rose to the occasion, we'd be in a much worse place right now," Puli added.

Malta Union of Teachers president Marco Bonnici, also participating through video conferencing, had words of praise for the government's actions in the education sector when the virus hit, however.

"When we requested discussions with the government on the closure of schools, the government's reaction was to immediately close schools. This was a very good and timely decision," Marco Bonnici said.

"What we didn't have was the chance to beforehand discuss the way in which schools would be closed, and what would happen - but this is also down to how the situation transpired. We started discussions with [Owen Bonnici's] ministry right after schools closed, and then we had in place a task force which has been working for the past weeks."

"We are now looking at how online teaching is taking place, how it is affecting students, which students are engaged and which aren't, and what support teachers who aren't yet offering the full online teaching experience need," the teachers' union boss said.

Marco Bonnici also spoke about students who were proving hard to reach, despite teachers' siginificant attempts.

"There were teething problems until teachers found their feet and decided on which platform to use to teach students. On the other hand, students also had to do their part. Some teachers were trying to reach students, but some students were not available. This problem remains to this day, with some students not responding at all to teachers," he said.

Discussions needed on all possible scenarios come time to re-open schools

Asked by presenter Saviour Balzan on whether preparations were already in place for what could happen after summer, Marco Bonnici said that discussions had started on a strategy for the coming months in the educational sector.

"We know that schools are closed till the end of June and the plan is to open them in the next scholastic year. What will happen from this point forward? I think there should now be a discussion on what kind of reality we will have come the next scholastic year, and we have to explore every possibility. This includes that schools starts normally, that teaching is done remotely, and that schools don't open at all," the MUT president underlined.

Students' socialisation needs are just as important as educational ones

Psychotherapist Mariella Dimech, joining the programme virtually, drew attention to he fact that children were encountering problems related not only to their educational requirements, but to the reality whereby their physical contact with schoolmates has been cut.

The situation, she said, was not an easy one for all parties concerned.

"It is obviously not easy since it is a new situation - teachers, parents, and especially children, did not have time to prepare for it. We think that the biggest difficulty children are facing might not be education, but socialisation. Apart from not going to school normally, children are also not meeting their friends. Children need to be helped when it comes to remainig in contact with one another," Dimech underscored.

"I think we should really look at the socialisation process," Dimech emphasised.

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