The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly shown us that our country has to learn that the planning of investments in education means a lot. The challenge to start the new academic year in this manner, with the resources that the schools have, poses a challenge. This was stated by Mila Carovska, the new Minister for Education and Science, in the interview for Her mandate starts during a pandemic and she is managing a voluminous and complex system that consists of half a million pupils, students, teachers, professors, parents.

Among other issues, in the interview, Carovska discusses the system’s readiness in such outstanding conditions, 20 days before the start of the new academic year, about the possibility of correcting the mistakes from the past, the digital skills that the teachers possess, and the introduction of media literacy in the official curriculum.

For the first time in its history, the Macedonian education system is facing a challenge where the teaching process will be taking place in a combined manner i.e. most of it will be online. In that process, thousands of pupils, teachers, professors, and parents have been involved. Are we ready for such a challenge?

It really is a major challenge to start the new academic year in such a manner, but that is not how we wanted. The Pandemic has hit the whole world. With the resources we have, we are trying to organize the best we can in order to achieve good results. The approach will not be the same for every child since as a country we have no conditions for that. I want for us to have the best digital education. If in the past 10 years high capacity investments were made in the education system, but this is not the situation in which we find the education system right now. Neither the previous minister nor the one before him are guilty of that as probably the state had no education investments strategy. I want us to create conditions for most of the children to be able to start learning through the national online platform, which will remain in the system as a resource and the students will be using it whenever they start going to school. COVID forces us to speed things up and gives us the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with the developed countries.

At the schools these days, there are intense preparations for the facilities for the start of the new academic year. Have any of the school managements requested any help? What are some of the problems they are facing?

I sent a message to all school directors that we all should be up to the task. We cannot expect extra resources since there aren’t any and therefore the schools should get ready with what they have. We are trying to help them, but they should manage with what they have at the moment. They requested an increase in funds, IT equipment, where even though we have 30.000 children without any devices, we should know that in a period of 30 days we will not be able to procure them. Our country should learn from this that the planning of investments in education means a lot. This system, along with the health system, should be fully ready and that is what we strive for, and this we shall practice.

What is your assessment of the current level of the digital skills that teachers and professors have?

The levels are very different. They are the main link in the system. In the past, we didn’t invest that much in training teachers. They can now be divided into two groups – one group is proactive and invest in themselves and the teaching process, and the others didn’t follow the developments in the education system and they find it more difficult. But, all of us with strong motivation will be able to succeed to get the maximum of the potential we possess. It is less likely that the elderly have had any access to digital tools, but they certainly have shown an initiative. There shall be resistance to novelties. Each of us is showing resistance to something novel, but slowly and surely we shall be changing the direction and we’ll adapt to the new times.

Is there a chance for this situation to be used as a possibility to promote certain conditions in the education that have been neglected for years i.e. when the education was systematically destroyed?

This is a great opportunity to see why we need a solid education system that is in a good condition. I am certain that we shall be able to correct the mistakes. Because the next time we shall say that we should have digital tools included in classrooms and that we should have access to the Internet in every classroom regardless if it is a rural environment or not and that each teacher should know how to use these tools, no one is going to ask you, but why do they use this, the kids are again in their classrooms, still 50% of the population lives in rural areas. But, everyone should be aware that maybe a situation such as this one might arise again and that we should be ready. Therefore, this will definitely provide another level of intensity in the process of modernizing the education system.

Is MOI able to provide computers for children and families that can’t afford them so they can be able to follow the distance learning process?

What we put into the plan is that they will be able to follow the learning process. We are trying to get the television to screen those classes in a length of 15 minutes. Secondly, they may be provided with printed materials on part of the school and to attend the school physically, if the parent agrees. We offer several options. The quality will not be the same for each child, because we have no conditions, but we are trying to have an alternative for each child and to provide access to education.

How real it is to expect that the first to third-grade elementary school children who will be attending classes will be able to keep a physical distance?

I think that can be done because we are creating educational materials for them as well. It depends on how it will be presented to them on part of the teachers. I have a small child, and when they are washing their hands or are wearing masks, they will look upon that as something new and interesting. Hence, it really depends on the parent and the teacher i.e. how they will be able to explain to them this situation and how they will be able to overcome this problem. Thus, it will be up to them to provide discipline in the classrooms and the hallways. But they are experienced pedagogues and will be able to deal with the situation.

For pupils with disabilities there were announcements that the pupils from the first three school grades will have personal and educational assistants, but about the pupils from higher grades that will be attending online education? How will they be assisted?

The Law on Elementary Education states that special schools will be transformed into resource centers and will offer services to elementary schools that are inclusive and will enroll pupils with disabilities. It hasn’t been done as an institutional system and therefore I am trying to secure for all parents’ requests for an education assistant that will be present either at their homes or school, regardless of the learning process is attended online or with a physical presence. In 2021, as MOI we shall have an institutional system for providing support for the education of persons with different types of disabilities.

What steps will be taken if either a child or a teacher, test positive to COVID-19?

The algorithm was prepared by the Commission for Infectious Diseases. It states that when we have suspicions or evidence that a certain person is positive, in that case, we will have to inform the Public Health Center, and an epidemiological survey will have to be made and this way it will be determined what will be the next step. Maybe the class will be isolated as a whole, or the school will be closed, maybe someone will self-isolate themselves. We will leave that to the health commission do decide.

We are facing an influx of disinformation against which certain organizations are doing something but that is not enough. Is there a chance for the media literacy to be introduced as a school subject or, to be dispersed thematically both in elementary and secondary education?  

This ministry has a plan to produce a new concept for the elementary education. Regarding this issue, I think it is too late to invest in secondary or high education, but all future generations, starting from 1st grade, to learn what false news is. This is being introduced worldwide as well as part of the digital literacy. The recognition of what is false and what is true. I think that media literacy should be included in this conception. Maybe not as a separate school subject, but it should be present across all school subjects. It is simple to introduce that as a document, but after that with the help of the civic sector, we should train the teaching personnel that will be able to pass that on to the pupils.