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Public Advocate asks Ministry of Education to address numerous complaints

Since the 2021-22 school year started with in-person instruction, the Office of the Public Advocate has received increasingly frequent reports by students and parents regarding public health protection protocols being breached in schools.

Skopje, 14 September 2021 (MIA) — Since the 2021-22 school year started with in-person instruction, the Office of the Public Advocate has received increasingly frequent reports by students and parents regarding public health protection protocols being breached in schools.

The Public Advocate has additionally learned of a growing number of new Covid-19 cases in schools, which has sent entire classes into isolation, according to a press release.

“Although the media report daily on specific numbers of newly diagnosed infections in students and teachers across the country, the Education Ministry does not reveal any specific figures but keeps sharing some percentage of 0.02 percent of the total number of students, insisting there is no internal transmission of the virus in schools,” the Office of the Public Advocate says in the release.

Other complaints lodged by parents and students include:

○ Claims of discomfort from wearing masks for up to 5 hours a day, “which causes severe fatigue, accompanied by headaches and a diminished ability to follow teachers’ instructions, with some children even having rashes because of the facial coverings”;

○ Claims of “headaches and other health discomfort students and teachers feel because of the frequent airing out of the classrooms by having the windows and the door open during class, making the students sit in a draft all day, which is a problem now but will be even worse as the temperatures drop”;

○ Claims of “many schools’ restrooms lacking toilets, disinfectants, liquid soaps and other hygiene supplies, which some parents say are being bought at their expense”;

○ Claims of “crowds in front of school entrances created by following the Protocol and the taking of students’ temperature, especially frequent in schools with many students and not many entrances or few non-contact thermometers or available staff to take their temperature, which causes students to also often be late for class”; and

○ Claims of “too many students per class, often more than 30 students in a classroom of ​about 30 square meters on average, making it impossible for them to maintain physical distance.”

According to the Public Advocate, students who have chosen online instruction for medical or non-medical reasons have reported problems as well.

They claimed not enough classes were held, sometimes due to teachers not scheduling online classes at all. They also said technical issues, such as internet connection problems in schools, were frequent. As a result, these students most often have gotten written materials to learn from on their own.

Parents and students have also complained regarding textbooks.

“Many students have no textbooks, and those who do get textbooks often get damaged books with torn-out pages,” the release reads, adding that fourth graders, especially, were faced with problems in downloading and using the digital textbooks developed as part of the Ministry of Education’s new education concept.

“They don’t have paper textbooks, but only e-textbooks that are difficult to install on some electronic devices,” the Public Advocate notes.

Not all students have modern devices, and old ones or devices with insufficient memory don’t support the Ministry of Education’s app containing the pdf versions of the textbooks.

“Because the schools don’t provide printed versions of the fourth grade textbooks,” the Public Advocate continues, “parents claim they are forced to print them on their own.

“The color printing of the pdf versions of these textbooks costs about Mden 1,800 for the entire set, which is a significant problem for many socially vulnerable families.”

Another problem is that printing the pdf versions violates copyright laws, so photocopies of the textbooks cannot be made available for purchase in any copy shop,” the release adds.

In addition, fourth graders have been provided with only four textbooks: for their Native Language; Mathematics; Natural Sciences; and History and Society. No textbooks have been written for any of their other subjects, the Office of the Public Advocate notes.

Complaints have been lodged also regarding the lack of personal assistants for students with disabilities, although they need personal assistance in accordance with the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF).

To provide every child with access to quality education, the Public Advocate advises the authorities to monitor the epidemiological situation and in case it deteriorates, to make sure the Ministry of Education can transition to either online classes or a hybrid model of part in-person, part remote instruction.

This requires, first of all, that schools have a fast, stable internet connection and teachers approach online classes just as seriously as in-person instruction, offering their full support to all students, the Public Advocate notes.

Regarding in-person class duration, the Public Advocate recommends education authorities consider making the classes shorter and introduce more frequent breaks.

The Public Advocate also points out that the Ministry of Education should take steps to provide schools with disinfectants and other hygiene supplies and equipment for school restrooms as well as urgently solve the problem of not supplying textbooks to all students and especially the problem with the fourth graders’ pdf textbooks.

Immediate action should be also taken to provide educational and personal assistants for students with disabilities, the Public Advocate says.

In closing, the release adds the Ministry of Education and Science should reaffirm its commitment to equitable, accessible, and quality education for every child by carefully considering the remarks given by the Public Advocate and responding to them, in accordance with Article 34 of the Law on the Ombudsman, within the next 10 days. mr/

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