Online school casts long shadow on Azerbaijan’s children

Journalist: Gular Mehdizade

Illustrator: Aydan Hasanova

22.09.21

Today, for the first time since the pandemic started, Azerbaijani schools are reopening. While school-aged children started on September 22, older grades are returning in stages.

While the news is welcome for many, families that struggled to access online schools warn the three semesters without education have had a devastating effect on their children’s future.

Taleh Bagirov, 37, was doing well before the pandemic: he had his own shoe factory and his two children, aged 7 and 8, were enjoying school in the capital Baku.

But then Covid-19 hit. Bagirov watched the economy shut down with increasing apprehension. As a result of the lockdown, he had to close his factory. Eventually, he declared bankruptcy and sent his family to his native village, Agsu, to live while he looked for work.

It didn’t seem like things could get much worse for the family. Then school moved online. 

The family didn’t have a computer or smartphone to connect to the classes so the girls started to fall behind their peers. 

“When I was in the village, I could see they were worried,” Bagirov said. “They wanted to join the classes like everyone else. I got a loan and bought a tablet and a phone. Believe me, I couldn't pay this loan either, it was another burden.”

He adds that even with the tablet and phone, the girls often missed classes over the course of the three semesters school because the internet connection is weak in the village. 

Other families are facing similar dilemmas after their children missed months of school. 

When the 2020  lockdown cost Khatira Agayeva, 63, her job in the central Azerbaijani town of Shamakhi, her daughter was in the 11th grade and her son was in the 10th grade. She says prior to the pandemic, “in addition to school, they both had to go to private classes.”

“The last years of education in Azerbaijan are like this, everyone is attending these classes. Secondary education is not enough to be admitted to the university,” she added.

Without Agayeva’s salary, the family could no longer afford private classes or purchase a phone or tablet so the children could attend regular classes online. 

“We did not have the means to buy them a phone so they could join classes. As a result, they were unable to attend private classes or attend online classes,” she said, adding that they both studied for the university entrance exams at home, without tutors.

Agayeva says that her son's score was too low for him to get into university at all, while her daughter passed the exam but her score was too low to qualify for a scholarship. 

“If she goes to study without a scholarship, then our situation will be deplorable,” Agayeva said.

“I really do not know what to do. If her education is free, at least we will sacrifice and send the boy to private classes in the future, but if it is not free, it will be difficult. He will be left without an education.”

Economist Togrul Mashalli believes the Azerbaijani approach to distance education over the course of 2020 and the first half of 2021 was “discriminatory” for scores of children.

He noted that the State Statistics Committee found that only 18 percent of the population had a personal computer in 2020 and just 63 percent of the population had access to the internet. 

“In many areas, the internet is either non-existent or weak. Mobile internet is very expensive to use. First, the Ministry of Education had to solve these problems, and only then transfer to online classes,” he said. “The fact is that those who do not have a strong Internet or equipment to access the Internet were left out of education. This situation is discrimination against a large number of students.”

The Azerbaijani Ministry of Education noted that a special tele-school was created for families without access to computers or the internet. Children could watch lectures regularly from March 11, 2020 to June 14, 2021, according to the ministry. 

The televised schooling was not enough for teenagers preparing for the state exams, argued Agayeva, who said her children tried to keep up with their coursework through the TV lectures.

"They simply were not able to ask a question. It was not effective in this regard,” she said. “They were children preparing for university, they had to ask questions and get answers. For example, those who go to school or join online classes have the opportunity to ask questions, but children who watch lessons on television do not have this chance."

Bagirov says his children did not watch TV lessons because he and his wife were not aware of the program.

In response to questions from Chai Khana about the impact of the online school on children’s overall education, the ministry responded that three national assessment surveys showed the level of education dropped compared to previous years. “The difference was not significant,” the ministry added. 

“In the new school year, in addition to general supportive measures, differentiated approaches will be applied at the school/class level for students with special needs.”

But parents fear those measures will not be enough to help children make up for the lost semesters. 

“My children fell behind in their classes,” Bagirov said, adding that he is determined to send them to private tutors so they can catch up with their peers. After months of looking for work, he finally got a job cleaning a fast-food restaurant in Baku. The salary is so low he hasn’t brought his family back to the city yet and is saving money by living in an inexpensive hostel.

“I don’t buy the medicine I need; I save all my money [to pay for tutors],” he said. “I can’t think of another way out.”

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