First online debate over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemics on the quality and accessibility of education.

The “SDGs For All” society-wide dialogue platform, in partnership with civil society organizations, has launched a series of online debates to discuss the Government’s response to the current pandemics within a range of critical societal issues and with particular reference to the sustainable development objectives (SDGs) and 2030 Agenda implementation in Serbia.

The first such online panel, with more than 100 participants, was held on May 22 on MS Teams web platform, on the topic “Quality and Accessibility of Education” and in cooperation with the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation. The event’s keynote speakers included Dr. Milan Pašić, Assistant Minister for Education, Prof. Ana Pešikan from the Education Forum Belgrade, Prof. Miloš Bajčetić from the European Distance and E-learning Network, Stefan Djordjević from the Serbian Youth Umbrella Organization – KOMS and Edi Sinani from the Roma Education Forum.

With active participation from the representatives of civil society organizations, state institutions, educational associations and institutions and international organizations, the panelists exchanged their experiences and advice on the measures taken by the Government of Serbia to provide available education during pandemic and the effects of distance learning on various vulnerable groups, with specific reference to one of the key principles of the 2030 Agenda  – “Leave No One Behind”.

A number of issues were addressed during the panel, including airing of the national education system’s school lessons, also available online, trying to reach more students who may lack computers, tablets and smartphones. In addition, the discussion addressed the issue of many households, especially those with the most vulnerable background, lacking enough screens and reliable internet connections, and with parents without sufficient IT and digital know-how needed to make sure children keep up on various school assignments sent via email and various messaging platforms.

A general assessment of the Government’s response to the pandemics in the area of education was rather on the positive side, but the panelists also pointed to a multitude of challenges, related to the most disadvantaged social groups, and included children from rural communities, children with disabilities and children from Roma ethic community. The impact of the pandemics on these groups was more severe than on children from other social categories, causing interrupted learning, childcare problems, and consequent economic cost to families who could not work.

With the start of the new schooling year, social distancing may still remain an important pattern of social behavior and will require the development of different work methodologies to replace conventional methods of education. Going forward, it will be important for all relevant institutions, in collaboration with CSOs and other relevant stakeholders, to create space for youth engagement and youth participation to analyze this new environment and design some new, alternative ways of education and youth engagement and participation.

The participants also exchanged their different views of the content quality, accessibility and the effectiveness of online learning but have generally agreed that the future education space will not remain the same. What today is offered as a short-term response to a crisis may well become an enduring digital transformation of education (including building of digital competencies) in the future.

The “SDGs for All” platform enables a broad discussion among Serbia’s most non-state actors, including civil society, corporate sector, academic and research community, media and citizens on aligning Serbia’s development priorities within the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The platform is directly coordinated by six prominent Serbian civil society organizations: the Foundation Ana and Vlade Divac in partnership with the Center for Democracy Foundation (CDF); the Center for Advanced Economic Studies (CEVES) in partnership with the Timok Youth Center (TYC), and the Belgrade Open School (BOS) in partnership with the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE).