Back to school? Not so quickly!

Turkey’s Ministry of Education has finally announced that it will delay face-to-face education until September 21. But dilemmas and questions remain.

After weeks of heated arguments between parents, educators and health officials, Ankara has backpedaled from its earlier announcement that students will go back to classrooms on Aug. 31, opting instead for remote education until Sept. 21. This means that schools will start online on Aug. 31 but will have online education for the next three weeks. Private schools may even open their virtual doors as early as August 17.

The delay in reverting to face-to-face education does not come as a complete surprise. Two weeks ago, Turkey’s Education Minister Ziya Selçuk announced that the ministry was considering four different scenarios for the 2020-2021 education term. These ranged from fully opening schools to full distance learning, as well as a combination of physical classes and distance learning and/or deciding which schools to open on a city basis. The expectation was that the decision would be made at the cabinet meeting earlier this week and announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but the president’s final statement made no reference to schools, further fueling the suspense of parents until Selcuk’s announcement on Aug. 12.

The minister clarified the details of the decision the next day, saying that there would be a gradual return to classrooms following Sept. 21, with lessons shortened to half an hour, students only attending face-to-face courses once a week and for primary courses. He also pledged tight controls, on teachers and non-teaching personnel of schools, as well as free masks for students. Patience to teachers who will try to ensure an active pre-schooler or first grader to keep a mask on!

Like most issues in Turkey, the question of whether or not to send the kids back to school is highly polarized. A Metropoll Survey has shown that 64 percent of Turks do not think it would be safe to send their children to school on Aug. 31. Breaking down this survey group to party affiliations, 53 percent of AKP voters believe it is unsafe to send their kids back to school - the same number increases to 83 percent amongst Good Party (İYİ Party) voters and 75 percent amongst Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters – both opposition parties.

On the one hand, both doctors and pedagogues warn that even the most basic measures for classrooms that we foreseen by the Ministry of Education (such as distance between students in classrooms or hygiene in school toilets) are simply impossible to impose in many of the public schools that cram too many students in the same class or have recourse to donations to buy soap for its toilets. On the other hand, distance learning only exacerbates the unequal access to education that already prevails in Turkey, where private school students, whose parents pay a small fortune for their education, have a clear advantage against those in public schools.

As schools closed down on March 23 and 18 million students were sent home to pursue their education online, virtual classrooms have become the litmus test of the socio-economic inequalities and growing poverty in the country. While middle-class kids with their own room, computer and free access to the internet or a screen were able to follow distance learning, it was an uphill battle for those in crowded households with no acccess to computers. 

A report from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on Turkey indicated that 67 percent of students reported having a computer they could use for schoolwork, which is lower than the OECD average of 89 percent. For those from the bottom quartile of the socioeconomic distribution, 36 percent of the students reported having a computer they could use for schoolwork, which is less than half the OECD average of 78 percent. Moreover, they would be likely to share its use with other members of the household. 

Aware of difficulties in carrying out and grading in this hastily-concocted distance learning system, the Ministry of Education announced that all students would be allowed to pass their courses and continue onto the next year.  Theoretically, this would have signaled a student’s dream of a perfect world where failing does not happen. In reality, it has been a small consolation for three-months of incertitude and attempts at trying to focus and adapt.

The three-week delay in “physical schools” is largely welcomed by health officials who have warned that Turkey, like other countries, may be forced to close down schools shortly after opening them, as it would inevitably lead to a flare-up. Critics, on the other hand, say it is unfair to keep the schools closed while other risk factors - such as malls, restaurants and even bars - are kept open. The other objection comes from women’s groups - they say the longer kids stay home, the less likely the female workforce is to go back - or go back fully- to the office, which, in the short to medium run, spur female unemployment.

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