The Digital Divide: How the Pandemic Has Exposed Inequalities in the Georgian Education System
Author: Tata Burduli, Senior Researcher at GeoWel Research
In March 2020, in response to the pandemic, Georgia’s 2000 schools closed their doors, and the country’s 600,000 students switched to online classes. Many of those schools remained closed for a whole academic year. While COVID-19’s effect on the economy, on politics and on individual rights is a subject of fierce debate in Georgia, its huge impact on the education system is often overlooked. This is in spite of the fact that ordinary Georgians say in all aspects of Georgian life, education (along with the economy) has suffered the most.
Rural and disadvantaged communities were already left behind by Georgia’s educational system. PISA scores consistently show rural schools falling far behind their urban counterparts. Rural schools are often unsustainably small. Buildings are dilapidated, lacking ICT infrastructure and even heating and plumbing. As a result, only around 10% of the students in rural areas achieve the Unified National Exam score required to gain financial support for university, compared to 27% in Tbilisi.
Rural and disadvantaged communities were already left behind by Georgia’s education system. COVID pandemic made things worse.
As part of the U.S. Embassy-funded Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, we looked at a huge range of data and conducted focus groups across the country examining the impact of the COVID pandemic. The results showed that for many of Georgia’s most disadvantaged students, the pandemic further deepened the problems they were already facing accessing quality education.
With classes going online for much of the year, the most pressing issue afflicting students has been internet access and access to equipment. Without a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and without a decent internet connection, distance learning is a non-starter. Despite internet penetration in Georgia being at a relatively high 88%, during the pandemic around 90,000 pupils, or some 15% of Georgia’s school-age children, did not have internet access at home, according to a UNICEF study. Moreover, many students who could access the internet struggled with connectivity and speed issues.
90 thousand pupils, or 15% of Georgia’s school-age children, do not have internet access at home, UNICEF study found
For the most disadvantaged children, the situation is even worse. Poor families are of course less likely to own the devices needed for accessing online classes and struggle to pay internet bills. Making matters worse is the fact that for families who get by on Georgia’s meager social assistance benefits, owning a computer or similar device results in them receiving a lower “vulnerability score” and can mean they no longer qualify for social assistance.
Families living in remote rural and mountainous areas, places with poor digital infrastructure and patchy internet reception, are also at a digital disadvantage.
Such problems were compounded by the fact that teachers often lack the ICT skills to conduct lessons online and this is also a bigger problem in more isolated communities with older, poorer teachers. According to one teacher from Mestia district,
“There are some subjects that did not conduct a single lesson during the pandemic. Some teachers and students did not have technology, some did not have relevant skills. Nine out of fifteen students in the class did not have these resources and were completely unable to access online classes. This had a very negative impact on the students.”
Our research uncovered dozens of similar examples: of families whose old Nokia phones were unable to accommodate the switch to online classes, of families who live outside the coverage area for cellphone reception, and of students missing almost an entire year of school due to the digital divide.
Even in families with access to the internet, siblings often have to share resources. Many households with multiple children did not have enough devices for each child to access online classes, so they had to prioritize one child’s education over another. “My 12th grader was at the greatest disadvantage,” a mother of three from Dmanisi municipality told us. “I made sure my youngest child in primary school always attended online classes, then the 10th grader, then the 12th grader. We did not have a separate heated room where they could study, or a device for all three of them.”
Many households had to prioritize one child’s education over another, as they did not have enough connected devices.
This was a pattern repeated across the country. Some students were forced to borrow devices from neighbors or relatives or communicate with teachers by phone, deeply undermining equal access to and quality of education. Georgia’s already strained education system will have to try to redress this digital divide in the year ahead, or leave whole swaths of students behind. According to teachers we spoke to, education in art, music and the sciences—subjects where practical classes are essential—has suffered the most. Maths has also proved more difficult to teach online.
Some Georgian educators are not optimistic about covering the ground lost in the last year. “I don’t see any perspective of allocating any extra resources, not even human resources, for the children left out of online education,” one teacher from Gori district told us.
“The material they were unable to learn is now hanging in the air. For every subject, if they do not have basic knowledge, they will struggle a lot to progress. This has had a very negative impact. I already see problems with these children in the classroom, especially in maths and technical subjects… I don’t see any perspective for moving forward.”
In order to tackle the issue of unequal access to the internet, in January 2021—nine months into the pandemic—the Georgian government signed an agreement with mobile operators on cheaper mobile internet packages for students and teachers. This was a measure seen by teachers and parents across the country as too little too late. One respondent called the measure “completely irrelevant” as the package only came about after almost a full academic year of online schooling and right before children went back to their classrooms. Furthermore, while internet packages became cheaper for students and teachers, the very poorest were still left behind.
While, as per a UNICEF study, around 90,000 children could not attend online classes because they lacked internet access, other students simply lacked the motivation to attend online school. Many of our respondents told us that the government official attendance estimates were exaggerated.
According to government figures, compiled from teacher testimony, attendance of online classes was a relatively healthy 94%. However, several teachers told us that the official figure was inflated by school representatives “because they wanted to maintain a good reputation in the eyes of the school administration.”
The government says 94% of students attended online classes. Teachers locally say this figure seems greatly exaggerated.
“The official figure of 94% is ridiculous,” said one Teacher from Gori. There were whole villages where online classes were never conducted. There is no internet, no Silknet, no Magti [internet providers]. And then there is the poor socio-economic condition. How could the families from, say, high mountainous regions have bought megabytes? The online school completely failed there.”
As Georgia enters the third wave of the pandemic there is a real chance that schools across the country will have to close yet again. Although subsidized internet packages for teachers and students will help some students left behind during the previous year, the inequalities in access to education exposed by COVID 19 will take long-term structural planning and reforms to overcome. In the next article in this series, we will deal with another issue that exposes inequalities in Georgia’s education system: the inclusion of children from ethnic minorities.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)