The entire globe has faced unprecedented circumstances over the past few months with the outbreak of Covid-19. Although our personal and professional lives have changed in all aspects and levels, we have to admit that the real heroes are the children. Their whole world changed within hours and things that were simple and taken for granted for them suddenly became impossible.
They were unable to school and play with their friends for many months. Attending birthday parties or going to the cinema was forbidden. The essence of school as all children around the globe knew it, took a completely new meaning and form. The classroom and the teachers became the screen of the computer at home with the parents becoming the assistants to the teachers.
Distance Learning is now part of our lives and children adapted very quickly to the new reality. We have to mention, though, that for all children living in Cyprus, their parents are obliged to make sure they attend primary school based on the Primary and Secondary Education Law (Obligatory Attendance and Provision of Free Education) Laws24 (Ι) of 1993 and 220 (I) of 2004. Any parent who does not abide with the law will be prosecuted.
Nowadays, distance learning has become the new norm and millions of students around the globe are attending online lessons so as to pursue their studies. The question, though, due to the new reality of the pandemic, is whether the virus can actually hinder education.
As a European country we have a duty to comply with all the necessary restrictions in regard to our legislation so as to achieve the continuity of education for all children, making it possible for them all to have access to it.
Any lack of legislation which obstructs/does not allow, online education, must not become an obstacle in the education of our children. I believe that the placement of cameras and other advanced and technological systems which can enhance online education is an absolute must for all children who have the basic right to education.
Allow me to use the statement of Mrs Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, who mentioned that we are in a state of emergency due to the outbreak of the pandemic. There are many countries in the world which had to shut down schools, causing one third of the children to lose their right to education whereas 463 million children did not have the opportunity to continue their education through distance learning because they did not have access to either the internet or did not own a computer. Mrs Henrietta pointed that the impact of this pandemic will seriously affect the economies and societies of the next decade.
Bearing all the above in mind, it is clear that no child should be deprived of the right to education of any form and under any circumstances. As a country which is a member of the European Union, we ought to proceed in all relevant regulations so as to ensure that access to education, by any means possible, is available to all students. Schools should consider providing such opportunities under all costs.
With regard to the thoughts of the Commissioner of Data Protection, whose duties include ensuring that children, students and schools are protected, we respect her views and opinions but we must not forget that in relation to the application of any legislation there is always the doctrine of necessity that is recognised by International Law.
Questions with regard to whether the teacher will be able to see the student while delivering online lessons, or if the student will have access to the classroom board, his classmates and the teacher or whether the online lesson will be with the cameras on or off, from a lawyer’s point of view, the answer can only be one. The students must have access to proper education and to their teacher. Nobody can overlook the fact that the teacher has a very important place in the hierarchy of education and he is fulfilling an important mission and not just a job.
Of course, our main concern is to protect the rights of the children following the relevant legislation with regard to personal data. This can be achieved by giving access to each student only to their teacher and not between the students themselves. This suggestion could apply to Public as well as to Private Schools. This measure is easier to adjust to the Private Schools in comparison to the Public Schools as the work contracts between teachers of Private Schools, and the Private Schools themselves, are different compared with the contracts of the Public Schools and their teachers. Although Private Schools have the advantage of being more flexible, such as in amending the contracts of their teachers where feasible, we should not allow any lack of flexibility in Public Schools due to legislation to reflect negatively on the education system and especially towards the Public Schools.
Answering the questions about whether the Private Schools could return to offering Distance Learning, we have to say that ‘yes’ they are ready to do so since the contracts signed between the Private Schools and their employees, allow online lessons. As far as Public Schools are concerned, there should be a relevant amendment so that there is no conflict with any current legislation which unfortunately, is found very often outdated and needs to be amended.
Closing, we need to mention that legal and financial changes do affect the development of educational systems. Let us not forget, however, that there are positive conditions nowadays that new technologies offer and the possibilities of distance learning are improved. That is how online education becomes easier and learning with the help of a computer, during the time of the pandemic, makes the work of each School possible and successful.