Valbona Feraj lives in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Tirana. Sitting in her modest apartment in Tirana, she talks about her 7-year-old son Albi, who is in the first grade but, like other children in the country, since the pandemic arrived he stopped going to school.
Valbona says that nobody in her family has either a telephone nor any other device to help her son to follow the online classes, and with uncertainty still surrounding the new school year, she is afraid that her son will not be able to continue his education in September.
The mother of three children does not have a job, while her husband works occasionally. Their house has one room and a little garden, their main source of occasional food.
“He was upset [the boy] because he wanted to go to school,” Valbona says while explaining her family’s difficult economic conditions that don’t allow them to meet the necessary conditions for their child’s education.
She claims that no institution has been interested in the condition of her family during the pandemic period.
Out of 2,034 respondents, 61% said their children did not have internet access.
In March this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Albania, the government imposed a lockdown, which included closing schools. The government announced that the school year was to continue online, with the teaching to be conducted through Whatsapp groups, Google Classrooms, Skype and Facebook.
Nevertheless, many families were unable to provide devices or access to the internet for their children.
According to the latest publication by the Institute of Statistics, around 153,000 families in Albania do not have access to the internet.
Roma and Egyptian families such as Valbona’s are particularly likely to be without online connection. Data gathered by TREJA, an organization concerned with the rights of Roma and Egyptian communities, showed that out of 2,034 respondents interviewed in April and May, 61% said their children did not have internet access.
According to Ola Tare, head of TREJA, the main reason why many children had to give up on schooling this year was the difficult economic and social conditions, which were particularly aggravated due to the pandemic because many families in this category provide their income through “informal” working, such as recycling old paper, metal or other materials. Often children accompany their parents, collecting the materials to recycle.
For families that are struggling financially, especially those from minority groups, the pandemic and switch to online learning has left additional uncertainties about the education of their children.
The Feraj family is just one of many Roma and Egyptian parents whose children were not able to access distance education. Valbona says she also could not help her son to learn on his own since, as she said, she does not have enough education.
“I have zero schooling, my husband has zero. At least, could some organization help us?” she asks.
“Neither the Ministry nor the government spent a single cent to purchase equipment for children who did not have access to equipment.”
“The little one is worried about school. ‘Take me to school,’ he says all the time. He enjoys school very much. I do not have a telephone. What would I buy it with?”
Like Valbona, Xhemile Sula’s family lives in Shkoza in the outskirts of Tirana. Her granddaughter, Jasmina, is in the fourth grade, but she had no opportunity to attend online classes during the pandemic.
“I want children to go to school, not like me. I can neither read nor write,” Xhemile says. “I regret that I did not go to school when I was little.”
Altin Hazizaj, head of the Children’s Human Rights Centre of Albania in Albania, says that pre-university public education was unprepared to meet the challenges that have come with offering online classes.
“Neither the Ministry [of Education] nor the government spent a single cent to purchase equipment for children who did not have access to equipment,” Hazizaj claims. “The fact that it did not happen, although the government had sufficient funds, shows how little they value the right to education of children in Albania.”
Hazizaj says that this is a “grave violation of children’s rights” and that the Parliament should establish a special commission of inquiry to investigate the causes that led to this “irreparable catastrophe” for the children.
Help from civil society
In order to try and address the situation, TREJA and other NGOs developed a project that aims to help about 900 Roma, Egyptian and other children in difficult economic conditions to access online education starting from August, in case there is a need for a new lockdown. The project helps children not only to access online education, but also to use archives so that they can catch up with the lessons that they missed.
“The Open Society Foundation for Albania has made electronic devices available to enable children to attend the curriculum according to the respective classes through a platform that offers online learning using animated videos,” Tare says.
“Some children, those who do not have access to the internet and electronic devices, will be able to attend classes with organizations, with the help of mentors and activists. Meanwhile, those who do have electronic devices and internet access, will be able to use the platform for free from home.”
Pupils are currently set to return to school on September 14.
Tare explains that the children who are part of the program were identified in cooperation with schools in the respective areas.
Even though this is a civil society project, they hope it will encourage the Ministry of Education and Sports to ensure the sustainability of such a model in other cities, and access to education for all children.
On Wednesday (August 19), Prime Minister Edi Rama posted on his Facebook that the new school year will start next month with children in the classrooms. Based on the number of children in schools last year, around 380,000 pupils are currently set to return to school on September 14.
Minister of Education Besa Shahini says that this decision was based on parents wishes, citing a poll that suggested 87% of parents agree with re-opening schools.
The Ministry of Education has also announced that the new school year will start from August 31 for those children in grades one to five who couldn’t access school back in spring. The Ministry calls this an “additional program” that will last for around two weeks, focusing on Albanian language and math.
However, it is still not clear if they have a plan in case of a new lockdown. Asked if the Ministry has a plan to provide electronic devices to those children who need it, in case of a need to return to online classes, spokesperson Eridon Kotrri said that it would not be a problem, but could not give details.
With few other solutions in sight, Valbona and Xhemile believe that opening the schools is the only hope their children will get the education they so much want.
Feature image: Courtesy of Isa Myzyraj.