As with other countries around the world, Greece has faced two main challenges in its response to the coronavirus pandemic: delivering distance education and managing the postponement of examinations. Other challenges have also appeared, which show that no one approach will suit all countries. Covid-19 has all policy makers thinking on their feet.
Distance education as a challenge and an opportunity
In some parts of the country, school closures began as early as March 5, one of the measures credited with the relatively slow rise in infection rates. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs has responded to the crisis calling it an opportunity to bring forward long-awaited reforms for the development of the education community’s digital skills. The crisis has in fact coincided with the provision of a wide range of long overdue online services to citizens, beyond education.
Interventions were staggered in the immediate aftermath of the closures, and the last grade of secondary school was prioritized. All secondary schools had made distance learning arrangements by March 23, the date when implementation began in primary schools.
However, this task was complicated by the legacy of the great financial crisis, which has delayed necessary investments in ICT and has deepened poverty: according to OECD data based on the 2018 PISA, 1 in 5 students attending the poorest quartile of Greek schools do not have access to a computer they can use for schoolwork, while 1 in 10 do not have access to the internet. More than 1 in 3 students attended schools whose head teachers maintained that their teachers did not have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices in instruction. Altogether 4 in 10 students attended schools whose head teachers acknowledged that an effective online learning support platform was not available.
Since 2011, European Union structural funds have helped Greece to establish basic infrastructure for the digital school. These were implemented by the Computer Technology Institute and Press, the Ministry’s arm promoting ICT in education. All schools and teachers – but only one in five students – were registered in the School Network before Covid-19 arrived. With the arrival of the pandemic, the Ministry then also issued instructions for the use of both asynchronous and synchronous teaching.
Asynchronous teaching, which is not in real time, is compulsory, with every teacher expected to upload their lessons and assignments, supported by:
- resources, such as interactive textbooks (e-books) and other learning materials (Photodendro) as well as digital lesson plans (Aesop); and
- two digital education platforms, e-me and e-class for students and teachers.
Synchronous, real-time teaching is supported:
- through Webex services; to address inequalities, the Ministry has ensured access through landlines and through mobile phones free of charge following a deal with the three mobile phone providers
- through the School Network’s sch.gr platform, which uses Big Blue Button open software and can operate on smartphones and tablets
Despite a proactive stance to address the challenge of distance learning, several challenges had to be overcome along the way. For starters, during the implementation phase, there were network overload problems, which required the Ministry to engage with service providers to identify ways to release the pressure. Education television was also re-activated on March 30 for primary education, adjusted to current needs; it has been estimated that 100,000 students have been following its programmes.
Not all teachers and students had the necessary equipment. The government passed an emergency law regulating issues related to the education system’s response, which will enable public procurement of goods (e.g. laptops, devices and software) and services (e.g. communication with teachers and students) without competition. In the context of a rigidly centralized system, the law also allowed universities to spend up to €60,000 without prior permission for procuring equipment to deliver distance learning.
In addition, while all 166,000 teachers were registered with the School Network, the uptake of primary and secondary school students initially lagged behind and is still not complete: out of 1.3 million students, 460,000 were registered by March 24 and 913,000 by April 9. In terms of synchronous teaching, 72,000 teachers had carried out 114,000 simultaneous classes since the school closed – the pace having picked up with 23,000 classes per day reported last week.
Teacher preparedness has been another challenge. IT teachers, in particular, are concerned about the time they spend supporting colleagues, in addition to delivering their own classes. Various teachers expressed concerns over privacy, data protection and even copyright for the lessons they upload. Some have questioned the choice between centrally-imposed and teacher-selected platforms. The primary school teachers’ union has called for freedom of choice in the use of platforms and has opposed making the use of synchronous distance learning compulsory on the grounds that it is not possible to ensure implementation for all students.
Solving the examinations conundrum
Another debated issue has been the duration of the school year and the timing of Greece’s high-stakes, centralized university entry examination. Initially, it was anticipated that the examinations would only be delayed by a few days, but, as the optimism about an early reopening of schools receded, three possible responses were explored: extend the school year, including operating schools on Saturdays or shortening lesson periods; reduce the curriculum to be examined; and/or postpone the date of the examinations by a month to the end of June or beginning of July. Students and families pressed for them not to be postponed to September to avoid the additional financial costs of supplementary private tuition, which many families pay for.
The decision was taken to restrict the examination curriculum to what had been taught until mid-March. The examinations will have to take place in schools but the precise modality and the transfer of students and supervisors to examination centres will be taken in consultation with the health authorities. By contrast, graduation examinations are expected to be cancelled.
The crisis has also generated other problems
Among the peculiarities of the coronavirus crisis in the country has been the closure of hotels, which often host temporary teachers in islands outside the summer months. A special regulation was issued requesting for hotels to be exempted from closures so that they could still house teachers. These hotels have also been requested to accommodate students whose residences were forced to close.
In higher education, students have the right to free textbooks. As distribution points have been closed because of the lockdown, arrangements have been made for printed textbooks to be delivered at home, a cost to be covered by the publishers. However, the Ministry has also expanded the availability of online textbooks.
Finally, there has also been controversy over the obligation of parents to pay fees in private and shadow schools. The Ministry of Education ruled that parents should not be expected to pay any fees for services not provided, such as school meals, transport or extracurricular activities. No private school teachers can be fired during this period.
As everywhere in the world, the pandemic forces the Greek public education system to address issues that were previously intractable. The political leadership sees an opportunity in the crisis to grant teachers more autonomy, promote public-private partnerships and teach soft skills, such as flexibility, adaptability, social empathy and responsibility. On the other hand, as the health crisis puts the need to invest in education under the spotlight, an impending financial downturn will make this task even more difficult in the coming years.