There is absolutely no doubt the COVID pandemic has been incredibly hard on all of us. As usual, difficult times hit the most vulnerable the hardest…
Over the past 12 months, marginalized people in Slovakia have become even more marginalized due to the pandemic and all phenomena related to it. The outcomes of the pandemic are quite cruel. Many previous achievements and successful work in these communities in the field of early childhood care and education, education of children and young people or parents, health care, and other important fields and areas have come undone. The pandemic pointed to/out the differences and disadvantages that different groups of people in Slovakia face in general and in education in particular.
Almost every day since March 2020, I have watched news, articles, and reports about the impact of the COVID-19 on people’s lives. I heard about children lacking proper education and access to education, struggling with online education, or suffering from the huge workload and lack of social interactions during the pandemic. However, at first, the news mainly focused on the majority population. I assumed the situation would be much worse in Roma communities. Thousands of Roma children from marginalized communities have had very scarce or no access at all to education and care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with the situation being more stable, children have returned to schools. Majority of pupils went through an „adaptation period“ when attention was put on re-creating school and class community, and relationships. Teachers and other school professionals are only now assessing the impact that previous months have had on children, their education and wellbeing. However, there have already been news about lots of children (many from Roma communities) failing their classes.
Many Roma children could not participate in online education since they do not own a computer or/and have no access to the internet. Lack of IT skills necessary for this type of education (and no family member that could help them) and with no space in their homes where they could study made the access and active participation even harder. Community centers were closed, NGO programs focused mostly on delivering material help for communities. Educational and afterschool activities targeting regular work with parents and other important adults in children’s lives stopped completely.
According to the data from the Educational Policy Institute of the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic, 52 000 children did not take part in distance learning during the pandemic. This means 7,5% of all pupils did not utilize any available way of learning. 128 000 children did not have access to online education. This means 18,5% of all pupils were learning by using worksheets, via phone calls with teachers, or TV broadcast in the first wave of the pandemic.
The situation was slightly better in pre-school education. Kindergartens were open almost the whole school year. Still, many parents from Roma communities claimed they were scared to bring their children to the facilities where they could contract the disease from other children or teachers. This situation was probably the most difficult in case the child was older – right before entering primary school. Due to the fact that pre-school education for children aged 5 and older was not compulsory yet, directors of kindergartens were in a very difficult situation when trying to persuade parents to cooperate.
Both state and NGO programs focused on working with families (e.g., home visits) had to stop due to the pandemic and introduced measures. Now the situation is improving, and programs are finally reopening after being in limbo for several months.
Those times, when longer in-person meetings with people from marginalized communities were not possible, and many communities were “sealed in quarantine,” probably also had other implications. To name just a few of them, we have noticed: decreased interest in education, school, cooperation with teachers and other professionals; reduced levels of cooperation with majority population and decreased level of mutual trust; decreased motivation to work towards goals such as finishing school, finding a job, sustaining a job etc.
A couple of years ago, UNICEF started using a claim: “For every child, education. For every child, love.” All child rights must indeed be granted for all children without any exception and under all circumstances in order for children to develop their full and unique potential. These rights are granted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this document basically says that we cannot leave any child behind. In fact, we have left many of them behind. Children from the poorest and most marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia will need years to get back on track with their lives and education after all that has been or – better said – has not been done during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that the restrictions have been somewhat lifted, REYN Slovakia is going to focus on in-person meetings with cooperating organisations and individuals to boost activities in marginalized Roma communities, build mutual trust, provide guidance and support necessary to get ready for possible new lockdowns and restictions. Our overall goal right now is to work as hard as possible to build resilient communities capable of using the resources around them.
Author: Erika Szabóová, REYN Slovakia coordinator, program manager, Open Society Foundation Bratislava