04 SES 03 A, Life In Remote Learning: The Challenges Of COVID To Inclusion
Inclusive education, endorsed worldwide, is the most important mechanism for improving the social and economic status of persons from vulnerable groups, justified on educational, social, and economic ground (UNESCO, 1994). Nevertheless, inclusion remains a challenge that educational systems face all over the world, despite manyfold activities introduced to support it (Mitter, 2000). Children from vulnerable groups face multiple nested obstacles in their educational trajectories (UNICEF, 2014). Barriers can appear already in accessing education, due to a lack of facilities or exclusionary practices, or there can be barriers to attendance mirroring low availability of basic resources for school attendance such as books, food, and clothing. As these bottlenecks are overcome, barriers to achievement can surface due to low expectations of teachers, inadequate pedagogies, or peer rejection, topped up by barriers to advancement to further education levels and progression through the education trajectory (Kovac Cerovic & Vulic, 2016). Sources of these barriers can be different – from systemic disconnects in inter/sectoral cooperation (e.g. Friedman et al, 2015) through school ethos (e.g Kovač Cerović et al, 2016), to teacher competencies, attitudes, beliefs (Avramidis et al., 2000; Forlin, 1995; Kovač Cerović, Jovanović & Pavlović Babić, 2016). The school lockdown during the pandemic could have exacerbated several of these bottlenecks and contributed to new exclusionary practices towards children from vulnerable groups (Burns & Gottschalk, 2020), that call for detailed exploration of the effects of the pandemic, the types of new obstacles, the underlying mechanisms and possibilities to overcome them.
Developing a model of instruction in these pressing circumstances (so-called “Emergency Remote Teaching”; Hodges, Moore, Locke, Trust & Bond, 2020) was visibly stressful since the implementation relied upon many factors. Although there are already some findings and concerns regarding the quality of the teaching process in the past period, the concerns about compensating for the "missed" are equally present (Scleicher, 2020). Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that the pandemic didn’t affect everyone equally - students from families with low socio-economic status, students with Roma background, children with disabilities, and refugees were affected the most.
The aim of this paper is to put the spotlight on the situation of children from the abovementioned vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 related school lockdown, and respond to the research questions: To what extent have the digitally mediated teaching and learning created additional barriers and amplified difficulties for children from vulnerable groups? What are newly developed school practices doing to narrow the equity gap?
The research was conducted in the context of the Serbian education system, where, during the Spring 2020 lockdown, as in many other countries, schooling was carried out online - via digital platforms and applications, and TV instructions - organized via 3 channels of public TV broadcasting and posted on a national platform. In order to ensure inclusion of children from vulnerable groups, schools were instructed to utilize alternative means of learning upon need. Most of the children from vulnerable groups in elementary schools were covered by the digital means of distance schooling: this is the case for 56% of Roma students, 76% of students with disabilities, and 82% of children from other vulnerable groups. For the majority of those who couldn’t be included in the online and TV instructions, schools provided alternative means of learning - this way of learning included 27% of Roma students, around 20% of students with disabilities, and 12% of students from other vulnerable groups. However, 17% of Roma children were not covered by any kind of education during the spring closure of schools, while the other two groups had significantly lower out-of-school rates (less than 5%) (Institut za psihologiju, 2020).
We approached the research questions with a narrative methodology as it bears the potential for untangling meanings in novel, complex and surprising experiences (Bamberg, 2004; Zittoun, 2006) which the sudden and forced introduction of online schooling is. This methodology was previously applied in the context of Roma pedagogical assistants (Daiute & Kovacs Cerovic, 2017) and the inclusion of migrant children into mainstream education (Daiute, Kovács Cerović, Mićić, Sullu, & Vracar, 2020) – the shifts that, like this inevitable transition to online schooling, include elements of novelty and the need for adaptation. The qualitative methodology we utilized consisted of narrative data and narrative analyses. The total of 80 teachers and 80 support personnel: psychologists and pedagogical assistants from 86 elementary schools in Serbia filled out an electronic questionnaire. Participants were instructed to think of a student from a vulnerable group and to describe their schooling in altered schooling conditions due to the pandemics. Data from support personnel were collected in June 2020, and data from teachers were collected in October and December 2020. The sample of materials consisted of 160 narratives. Materials were analyzed on the basis of an inductive methodology (Patton, 2002). The coding was guided by the principles of the theme analysis and values analysis (Daiute, 2013). First, we segmented narratives into thought units, creating a sample of around 750 units for coding. Around 15% of the narratives was used for identifying broader themes and specific values within each theme, leading to a coding manual. In the next phase, we used additional 15% of the materials to fine-tune the coding manual, which in its final form consisted of three big themes and 14 values that organized participants’ narratives. Inter-coder agreement was checked on the additional 15% of the narratives, by using the Fleiss’ Kappa coefficient, which showed adequate reliability (κ = 0.81, p = .000). The coding was carried out in MAXQDA software, and coded units were quantified and further analysed statistically.
Teachers and support personnel mentioned Obstacles most frequently (44% and 54% respectively), followed by Support (34% and 46% respectively), while Empathy expressions surfaced only in teachers’ narratives, although rarely (8% of all codes). Almost half of all obstacles addressed the lack of equipment (43%). Interestingly but not surprisingly, most of the other obstacles mentioned attributed the problem (and hence - the exclusion) to students. In this vein, participants mentioned students’ underdeveloped digital competences (14%), inadequate home conditions for learning (7%), incompetence (12%) and unwillingness (12%) of parents to support the remote learning, and a lack of motivation of children (12%) as major obstacles to engage in distance learning. These attributions are indicative of stereotypes often registered toward Roma (Daiute & Kovač-Cerović, 2017), suggesting that the pandemic created a new niche for their mushrooming, even among those whose role would be their prevention. In referring to support mechanisms, distribution of printed handouts was prevalent (40%), while supplying students with spare equipment (7%) or letting them use school computers (8%) was much less often prominent, especially compared to the frequency of listing the lack of equipment as an obstacle. As an important means of support, school support personnel (but not teachers, interestingly) mentioned communication with both parents (1,5%) and students (2,5%) - which they saw as a critical means to keep the students engaged. Only a marginal proportion of teachers (less than 10%) sympathetically wrote about the hardship these children face and showed understanding and care for their students’ wellbeing, and the willingness to support them, indicating that, in the first phases of the school lockdown, teachers’ and schools’ priorities were not focused to supporting those most in need, but rather on mastering the new demanding reality by themselves and for the majority students first.
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