In this three-part interview, Jacek Pyżalski draws on his practical experiences and research on his own and with colleagues to discuss the current state of education in Poland after the school closures of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Part 1, Pyżalski describes the initial effects of the school closures in Poland and how the education system responded. In Part 2, Pyżalski highlights the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of students and teachers and discusses some specific steps that teachers and schools could take to support their students. Part 3 focuses on how the Polish education system has responded to the influx of refugees caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Jacek Pyżalski is the Professor in the Faculty of Educational Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. He is an experienced project coordinator and member of national and international scientific project teams. He is experienced in researching the problems connected to social and educational aspects of ICT usage by children and adolescents. He was a pioneer in Poland in the field of cyberbullying research and has studied the impact of crisis remote education on the wellbeing of students, teachers, and parents.
Thomas Hatch: Let’s focus first on how the Polish education system responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve discussed the school closures in several recents chapters (Mental Health and Well-being During Covid-19 Forced Distance Learning Period & Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Emergency Remote Education) where you said that the Polish schools had been closed for perhaps the longest time of any schools in Europe, and they closed in March of 2020?
Jacek Pyżalski: The schools closed around March the 11th. This was a rapid decision, like in all other European countries, it was a decision that was almost made overnight. One day it was just announced by the Ministry that schools would close. Nobody was prepared. And then they did not open normally again until May, 2021. But even then there were some schools with specific problems due to pandemic situations, staff illness or students illnesses that closed at times. There were some exceptions [during the closures], so it was not a total lockdown for all the schools, but mainstream education from kindergarten to university level was closed. It was really for a long time from March 2020 to May 2021.
Thomas Hatch: This was a nationwide decision? The policymakers made this decision for March 2020 through May 2021 for all schools?
Jacek Pyżalski: Yes, this was an administrative decision. It was connected to some other decisions. So, for example, in the first part of the pandemic, there were also really strict decisions on things like the movement of young people and at the beginning of the pandemic they were not allowed to meet outside without adults. It was really strict. It was based on the pandemic rationale. In the beginning, nobody could assess how serious it was, how dangerous it was, to meet physically.
Thomas Hatch: That really was significant – more than a year of school closures. Why was Poland so much more severe in terms of the length of the school closures than many other countries?
Jacek Pyżalski: It was based on the statistics. There were some differences in the way countries collected and used statistics about how many people got infected or were quarantined at home, but in Poland, it was mostly justified by policy makers who referred to the infection statistics and by information that it could be dangerous for people to gather physically. They were afraid of potential deaths also concerning older family members (grandmothers/fathers) and everyone was forced to stay at home and was checked. For example, if some staff got infected, by law, they had to be quarantined. So if they had opened schools, very quickly there would be situations where there would be nobody to teach because people would be excluded from the day’s duties due to infection. There were big discussions, emotional discussions and public discussions about whether this was okay, if this closure is justified or not: maybe we gain something, let’s say safety from infection, but maybe there are consequences we could have in terms of mental health for all involved or substantial degree in quality of education. Even medical experts and social science experts were not always in line on those decisions. Epidemiologists were having radically contrary positions on things like the school closures and closing shops and things like this. Due to the rapid decisions, they did not always justify why they were doing something. To really develop the rationale for all of this was not an easy task.
We did research including surveys in thirty-two schools (Edukacja zdalna: co stało się z uczniami, ich rodzicami i nauczycielami) where we explored the mental health of all the actors. This at least partially confirms the high cost in terms of mental health issues, social relationships, and emotional costs (at least in some part of the population) More than half of those three populations (students, teachers, parents) self-assessed their mental health as worse the before the pandemic.
More than half of those three populations (students, teachers, parents) self-assessed their mental health as worse the before the pandemic.
Thomas Hatch: How did the policymakers and schools handle the school closures? For example, in South Africa, because of all the broadband and hardware issues, they just focused on trying to support remote learning through other avenues like phones, for example. But in New Zealand and Finland, where most kids had access and equipment, they focused quickly on remote curriculum over the Internet or student well-being. What was the initial focus for schools in Poland? Were they told to put in place a particular remote curriculum, or to work on Internet access?
Jacek Pyżalski: There were a few measures put in place at the same time. The first thing that people attended to, and it was the starting point, were the basic hardware, software, and broadband inequalities. It was really a bottom-up approach from both commercial institutions and private people who got together to do something. They simply recognized the students with no equipment. There were some commercial institutions repairing second hand equipment and people were collecting things like laptops, and they were repairing them, but there was also some support from the Government to provide families with equipment and give them the opportunity to have the right to learn by paying for broadband connection.
It turns out there was also a problem with teachers, maybe not that the teachers had no equipment or no internet at home, but when the teacher was at the same time the parent of three children who should have the equipment to connect to their lessons?
when the teacher was at the same time the parent of three children who should have the equipment to connect to their lessons?
It’s the question of how to really connect an entire family? It’s the number of devices you have for everybody, but also the quality of this equipment and the internet. Was the internet good enough for everyone to really connect? In some parts of Poland there were problems. Normally we are covered with the internet across the country. But in a few places, it is okay for normal usage, but when everyone was using it all at once there was an issue. Out of all of this, these kinds of issues were the easiest to combat because they are easy to identify and easy to solve. It costs money and it takes organization, but as a country I think we really passed this exam. It was done quickly, and even before this we had the equipment for the most part. For example, surveys show we have the similar or a little bit less in terms of equipment and internet, than in Norway. And really, it’s similar in other European countries. In fact, the number of children at home is a bigger predictor of internet access than the financial status of the family even before the pandemic. Even if your socioeconomic status was not very high, when you had young people at home you had an internet connection for mobile situations. Just before the pandemic a big European project, EU Kids Online, on the risk and opportunities of ICT usage, showed that young people without the internet is less than 1% in Poland. At the same time, the mobile Internet is really taking over. For young Polish people, almost 1 in 5 are only mobile and never use a plug in computer.
Thomas Hatch: That was the technical part of it, but you said there were several measures put in place. What were the other parts of the response?
Jacek Pyżalski: Another part is technical but it is not connected to the equipment. The other part is how you deal with technical things as a teacher and also as a student. The biggest myth about young people is that they are digital natives, and they are all equal in usage and skills with ICT. It’s a myth that young people as born with a smartphone in their palm and they are so competent as a whole population. There are actually big inequalities. The skills you need for using ICT for education are really very low in a big proportion of this population. So the second issue is ICT skills or competencies — on the one hand for young people, because they have to take part in remote education, but on the other hand, for the educators who provide the curriculum and organize remote instruction. We learned that in Poland a lot of the teachers, almost 90%, indicated in the research that for them it was the first time, not for ICT usage, but for remote education. Things like Zoom and Google Meet, anything related to connecting with your learners remotely. We had some programs for digitalization of schools, and there were some big programs before, so it was not like all the teachers were not great. They were using ICT to some extent, and some of them to a very high extent before. But for some teachers it was a shock. Again, it was a bottom-up approach. People were organizing webinars and so were commercial companies. They provided some educational materials, webinars, and also recorded webinars on how to do basic things like how to connect, how to make breakout rooms, how to divide into groups, and how to record. There were some main actors on this market that really wanted schools and people to buy their products, and use their products. At the same time there was some governmental help, but that was criticized.
Education in the time of Covid-19: What we are doing now with distance education as teachers
Then there is the third level – one step beyond. It’s the level of didactic skills. What do you use in education when it comes to connecting with your students, when it comes to group work, when it comes to engaging your students? This is where I was involved. It took me only nineteen days from the school closure. I gathered Polish professionals, and we prepared – it was even peer reviewed – a handbook with the title, Education in the time of Covid-19: What we are doing now with distance education as teachers. We wanted people to think what were we really doing? What were the priorities? The handbook dealt with many things like wellbeing, like interpersonal contacts in the digital environment, motivation of the student, didactics, it was really practical with 13 authors. It wasn’t like you could use materials from the normal situation because it was a crisis situation. You needed something specific: not remote education for peace time, but remote education for a time of crisis. This was free and downloaded by teachers (we have about half a million teachers in Poland) around 80,000 times. I will never write anything that will be so successful, we got a lot of feedback like, “I’m the teacher for a small village, and we were really lost. What you did really gave us some scaffolds, some foundation for what we should do now.”
It wasn’t like you could use materials from the normal situation because it was a crisis situation. You needed something specific: not remote education for peace time, but remote education for a time of crisis.
Thomas Hatch: What was the national or municipal response to the school closures?
Jacek Pyżalski: There were some initiatives, legislative things like allowing lessons to be shorter to limit screen time, for example. [Policymakers] tried to adjust legislation really rapidly. Then they spent a lot of money afterwards supporting students when they were coming back to the classroom. Some money was for psychological help and some for additional extracurricular activities.
Thomas Hatch: Were there any other policy changes like that? Did they suspend testing?
Jacek Pyżalski: At the University level, we were allowed to conduct Master’s degree exams remotely. I was on the commission where we were preparing for this. There were some teachers who were saying things like “before you write the test, show me with the camera the whole room, what is around you,” things like that. We interviewed sixty students about their experiences, and a lot of them were saying that things like this were an unacceptable breach of trust between the teachers and students. But then at the same time others were saying that teachers should do this because people would cheat. There were divided opinions on this.
Thomas Hatch: But did they suspend national testing, or was it done remotely?
Jacek Pyżalski: They did it normally, they did it physically (as the exception to closures, with all safety measures like masks secured) but some things like competitions for the students, like competitions in history, I mean the outside competitions, were done remotely. For example, my son took part in a history competition, so it was remote.
Ptaszek, G., Stunża, G. D., Pyżalski, J., Dębski, M., & Bigaj, M. (2020). Edukacja zdalna: co stało się z uczniami, ich rodzicami i nauczycielami. Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne Sp. z oo.
Pyżalski, J., & Walter, N. (2022). Mental Health and Well-being During Covid-19 Forced Distance Learning Period: Good and Bad News from Polish Studies. In The Unequal Costs of Covid-19 on Well-being in Europe (pp. 115-131). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Walter, N., Pyżalski, J. (2022). Lessons Learned from COVID-19 Emergency Remote Education. Adaptation to Crisis Distance Education of Teachers by Developing New or Modified Digital Competences. In Tomczyk, Ł., Fedeli, L. (eds) Digital Literacy for Teachers. Lecture Notes in Educational Technology. (pp 7–23) Springer, Singapore.
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