When coronavirus (COVID-19) first appeared in Croatia on February 25, the country responded swiftly, introducing measures such as travel and public assembly bans, restriction of working hours of grocery stores, closing of non-essential services, and canceling sporting and cultural events. In order to ensure transparency and provide support to its citizens the Government set up a website koronavirus.hr with detailed instructions on public safety, daily updates on the spread of infection, and the implementation of economic measures. It seems that stringent measures introduced by the Civil Protection Directorate, early detection of spread routes, and extensive media coverage have contributed to successful containment of the pandemic in the country.
Among the early measures introduced by the authorities was also the school closure - first in the region of Istria, which is very close to Italy – and soon after nationwide.
Digitalization of schools and curricular reform created conditions for easier transition to distance learning (DL)
In 2015, Croatia launched the pilot of the e-Schools project, providing digital equipment and support tools to 150 schools. The pilot was followed by a nation-wide roll-out that will encompass all schools by 2022. Next, in September 2018 the Ministry of Science and Education (MSE) started the pilot project ‘School for Life’ as part of a comprehensive curricular reform in 74 primary and secondary schools throughout Croatia. The pilot was a precursor to a full introduction of the curricular reform in all schools from September 2019. The reform focused heavily on providing schools with digital technology and equipment and improving digital competences of students and teachers. More than 50 000 teachers participated in these trainings over the course of two years. This experience proved crucial in enabling Croatia’s swift transition to DL.
Only two weeks before Government announcement that schools might be closing the Ministry started preparations DL, with a successful launch on the very day that schools closed nation-wide - March 16. The virtual classrooms previously used for teacher trainings now became venues for communication with students, information sharing with fellow teachers, and a direct channel to the Ministry.
In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Croatian capital, Zagreb, was struck by a very strong (5.5 magnitude) earthquake on March 22, the strongest earthquake to hit the capital in the past 140 years, causing substantial damage to the historical city center and damaging, among others, many schools, kindergartens, universities, and other educational facilities. However, the Ministry was able to resume DL activities immediately after the earthquake, thus preventing further disruption to student learning.
Organization, guiding principles, and available platforms for distance learning
In order to provide appropriate modes of DL, the Ministry utilized multiple resources –cooperating with public television to reach the youngest children who cannot use online resources independently. For secondary students, both teachers and the Ministry created 15-minute videos covering the curriculum and schedule in order to enable all students to realize planned learning outcomes by the end of the school year. While preparing for DL, the Ministry published instructions for schools - Instructions to all primary and secondary schools for the organization of distance learning and Guidelines for distance learning for primary and secondary schools.
The Ministry based the DL concept on two key principles:
- “Access has to be provided for every student, taking into account student age;
- Backup for every solution needs to be prepared.”
In practice, this meant that multiple channels should be used to reach students and parents, with backup solutions. Various venues used for DL include TV channels, YouTube, email, messaging apps, social networks, and different digital platforms (e.g. Moodle, Teams, Yammer).
In order to maintain a balanced student workload and support teachers in preparing teaching plans the Ministry published Recommendations for organizing a students work day in distance teaching and learning. Next, Guidelines for assessment and grading in a virtual environment considered various scenarios for the implementation of the State Matura national exam for secondary school graduates.
Monitoring student participation
When it comes to younger students (grades 1-4) who participate in DL through a television channel, teachers have been instructed to connect with their parents virtually – through e-mail, Viber, WhatsApp, etc. Secondary students log in and connect to their virtual classrooms through digital platforms, which makes it easier to monitor their participation. There are specific rules in place to facilitate this monitoring process in case students fail to join their classes – first, the class teacher should contact the parents to gather information about the possible reason for student's absence and offer assistance if needed. If there are students who, despite messages and calls from the teacher, have not yet responded and registered for DL, the teacher should contact the social welfare center – it is considered a red flag when parents do not support their child’s learning and do not cooperate with the school.
Plans and guidelines for reopening of schools and kindergartens
On May 7, the Croatian government adopted a decision defining conditions for the normalization of school classes as of Monday, May 11. Under this decision most students will continue with DL for the time being, only kindergarten and primary school students (grades 1-4) will have an option to return to school. The rationale behind this partial reopening is an economic one, aiming to secure continued student learning and childcare for parents of young children who will need to go back to work. However, the Croatian Institute of Public Health encouraged parents to keep children at home whenever possible, since the number of children in kindergartens and schools may be such that the physical distance measures will be difficult to maintain. Children with chronic illnesses or in contact with chronic patients should also not go back to schools, according to the guidance.
Distance learning going forward: Making use of the DL experience and resources to provide added value to traditional teaching and learning
In addition to making use of DL in the time of crisis, the ministry of education sees it as an opportunity to add value to traditional teaching and learning in the classroom. With that in mind, the Ministry is currently developing an Action Plan that will also regulate the use of DL in “normal” circumstances. Some suggestions for using DL during regular school year include:
- Widening access for students who are (i) temporarily unable to attend regular classes – e.g. students in hospitals or at home due to illness; (ii) talented students with substantial additional commitments – e.g. in sports or music; (iii) students in isolated areas (islands or rural areas);
- Temporary bridging the shortage of teachers in some areas - e.g. math teacher on an island; and
- Participating in international communities of practice and knowledge sharing – e.g. eTwinning.
As Croatia is entering its 8th week of DL, we have seen tremendous engagement and dedication of all stakeholders involved – teachers, parents, students, and the government – to ensure the continuation of student learning and their overall well-being. At the same time we are reminded, now more than ever, of the crucial importance of close human and social interaction, peer learning, relationship building, and other benefits of physical school attendance for ensuring a successful and fruitful educational process at all levels.