Blog: Impact of COVID-19 on Slovak children from marginalized Roma communities

There is absolutely no doubt the COVID pandemic has been incredibly hard on all of us. As usual, difficult times hit the most vulnerable the hardest…

Over the past 12 months, marginalized people in Slovakia have become even more marginalized due to the pandemic and all phenomena related to it. The outcomes of the pandemic are quite cruel. Many previous achievements and successful work in these communities in the field of early childhood care and education, education of children and young people or parents, health care, and other important fields and areas have come undone. The pandemic pointed to/out the differences and disadvantages that different groups of people in Slovakia face in general and in education in particular.

Almost every day since March 2020, I have watched news, articles, and reports about the impact of the COVID-19 on people’s lives. I heard about children lacking proper education and access to education, struggling with online education, or suffering from the huge workload and lack of social interactions during the pandemic. However, at first, the news mainly focused on the majority population. I assumed the situation would be much worse in Roma communities. Thousands of Roma children from marginalized communities have had very scarce or no access at all to education and care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, with the situation being more stable, children have returned to schools. Majority of pupils went through an „adaptation period“ when attention was put on re-creating school and class community, and relationships. Teachers and other school professionals are only now assessing the impact that previous months have had on children, their education and wellbeing. However, there have already been news about lots of children (many from Roma communities) failing their classes.

Many Roma children could not participate in online education since they do not own a computer or/and have no access to the internet. Lack of IT skills necessary for this type of education (and no family member that could help them) and with no space in their homes where they could study made the access and active participation even harder. Community centers were closed, NGO programs focused mostly on delivering material help for communities. Educational and afterschool activities targeting regular work with parents and other important adults in children’s lives stopped completely.

According to the data from the Educational Policy Institute of the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport of the Slovak Republic, 52 000 children did not take part in distance learning during the pandemic. This means 7,5% of all pupils did not utilize any available way of learning. 128 000 children did not have access to online education. This means 18,5% of all pupils were learning by using worksheets, via phone calls with teachers, or TV broadcast in the first wave of the pandemic.

The situation was slightly better in pre-school education. Kindergartens were open almost the whole school year. Still, many parents from Roma communities claimed they were scared to bring their children to the facilities where they could contract the disease from other children or teachers. This situation was probably the most difficult in case the child was older – right before entering primary school. Due to the fact that pre-school education for children aged 5 and older was not compulsory yet, directors of kindergartens were in a very difficult situation when trying to persuade parents to cooperate.

Both state and NGO programs focused on working with families (e.g., home visits) had to stop due to the pandemic and introduced measures. Now the situation is improving, and programs are finally reopening after being in limbo for several months.

Those times, when longer in-person meetings with people from marginalized communities were not possible, and many communities were “sealed in quarantine,” probably also had other implications. To name just a few of them, we have noticed: decreased interest in education, school, cooperation with teachers and other professionals; reduced levels of cooperation with majority population and decreased level of mutual trust; decreased motivation to work towards goals such as finishing school, finding a job, sustaining a job etc.

A couple of years ago, UNICEF started using a claim: “For every child, education. For every child, love.” All child rights must indeed be granted for all children without any exception and under all circumstances in order for children to develop their full and unique potential. These rights are granted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and this document basically says that we cannot leave any child behind. In fact, we have left many of them behind. Children from the poorest and most marginalized Roma communities in Slovakia will need years to get back on track with their lives and education after all that has been or – better said – has not been done during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that the restrictions have been somewhat lifted, REYN Slovakia is going to focus on in-person meetings with cooperating organisations and individuals to boost activities in marginalized Roma communities, build mutual trust, provide guidance and support necessary to get ready for possible new lockdowns and restictions. Our overall goal right now is to work as hard as possible to build resilient communities capable of using the resources around them.

Author: Erika Szabóová, REYN Slovakia coordinator, program manager, Open Society Foundation Bratislava

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TOY for Inclusion Conversations: Play Hub Coordinators from Italy

As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers and activities continue to occur in online spaces, TOY for Inclusion is taking advantage of this movement online to showcase some of the most influential and crucial voices of the TOY for Inclusion project.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve shared updates on the work of partners involved in the project. We’ve also highlighted insights from municipalities about the TOY for Inclusion Play Hubs’ unparalleled importance in communities.

Now, we’re handing the microphone to those who are working in the Play Hubs. Listen to hear what Manuela and Martina, two Local Action Team (LAT) Coordinators want you to know about their work.

Interview with Manuela Tedesco

Role in TOY for Inclusion: LAT Coordinator
Where: Casa di TOY” Play Hub, Mazara del Vallo, Italy
Job title: Social worker in the field of education
Years as LAT Coordinator:
Almost 2 years

Q: What do you think makes the TOY for Inclusion approach unique or different from other initiatives for young children and their families?
A: Play Hubs are places where different cultures can meet and feel welcome; they are places of exchange between generations and where the experience of the older adults are a treasure for the children and the community.

Q: We know that one of the most important features of the TOY for Inclusion approach is flexibility. Can you explain how your Play Hub adapted during the pandemic?
A: We reached out to the children through chat and social media, keeping their moods up with digital activities and ideas for new games. Parents were also happy because they could have funny moments too.

Q: Can you tell us about one reaction, feedback, or comment from a family or child attending your Play Hub that had an impact on you personally or that ‘touched your heart’?
A: Two sisters asked to put their drawings on the wall to decorate the “Casa di TOY” Play Hub; this touched my heart. It helped me understand how attached they are to this place and how it feels like their own home.

Q: What are two things you want policy makers to know about TOY for Inclusion?
A: I want policy makers to understand how important playing is to overcome cultural barriers from an early age and the importance of playing between caregivers and children, which is often underestimated.

Q: Can you share in a few words what makes you proud to be a Local Action Team coordinator?
A: I am happy to participate in a good initiative to promote inclusion in my local community and coordinate the Local Action Team because it is composed of qualified professionals, who are the fundamental support for the project itself.

Interview with Martina Sciamplicotti

Role in TOY for Inclusion: LAT Coordinator
Where: Ex Fienile” Play Hub, Rome, Italy
Job title: Pedagogist
Years as LAT Coordinator:
1.5 years

Q: What do you think makes the TOY for Inclusion approach unique or different from other initiatives for young children and their families?
A: In my opinion, the TOY For Inclusion approach’s merit is its ability to adapt itself to the context and the opportunity this leaves to build the project with the Local Action Team (LAT) and the people benefiting from the project itself, such as families.

Q: We know that one of the most important features of the TOY for Inclusion approach is flexibility. Can you explain how your Play Hub adapted during the pandemic?
A: First of all, we tried to maintain the relationships because they were a point of reference with the children who attended the Play Hub, and for this reason, the Hub became digital.
We also tried to respond to the families’ needs by delivering food parcels and clothes for children. I want to emphasize that we could to respond to the community’s needs, thanks to a constant exchange with LAT members

Q: Can you tell us about one reaction, feedback, or comment from a family or child attending your Play Hub that had an impact on you personally or that ‘touched your heart’?
A: I come here with my children because they don’t go to kindergarten. In the Play Hub, they have the opportunity to play with other children and learn; it’s very good for them to come here. I can also make friends and talk to other moms.

Q: What are two things you want policy makers to know about TOY for Inclusion?
A: First, I would like policy makers to know that the Play Hub can be a crucial meeting point, a place that brings together many different local actors who usually do not have the opportunity to meet.
Second, TOY for Inclusion is a model of local action that has an echo internationally.

Q: Can you share in a few words what makes you proud to be a Local Action Team coordinator?
A: I’m proud to be the coordinator of a team with different professions, skills, and points of view, which always try to meet and dialogue for a common goal — building something that is really significant for the community.

Migration and Inclusion in Slovakia

In the last decade, Slovakia has witnessed a massive outflow of primary school pupils from schools that provide education not only to the majority but also to Roma pupils. The quarantine because of COVID-19 virus left children, pupils, students, and teachers at home. Unfortunately, teaching from home did not reach all the children, as although we live in 2020, not every family has an Internet connection. Most Slovak families are connected to the Internet, but in Roma families, an Internet connection is still rare.

Migration: maintaining the quality of education or a tool of segregation?

Migration happens mainly in areas of eastern Slovakia with a large representation of marginalized Roma communities, or in schools that have Roma settlements in their catchment areas. In response to greater representation of Roma pupils in the classroom, Slovak parents are seeking ways to place their children in schools with exclusively Slovak pupils, or with a minimum number of pupils of Roma origin. This logically leads to the creation of segregated schools, with either children exclusively from the majority population, or purely Roma schools, or not to sound racist, schools attended only by Roma children. So what about inclusion?

Due to the increasing population curve of Roma in specific localities, it is nearly impossible to find an ideal pattern of an inclusive school, where the differences and variety are beneficial. Can we say that one group suffers because of the other? Where to find the ideal solution? How to meet the needs of the parents, students, politicians, critics, and activists? If Slovak parents are saying they notice a declining quality of education in mixed classrooms, because the teacher devotes more time to Roma children who are lacking pre-school preparation, they are probably right. But the tendency to segregate the two concerned groups can lead to catastrophic consequences for the society. Let’s try to bear that in mind.

COVID-19 and a compromised inclusion

The course of the pandemic around the world has harmed the social and economic situation. All countries are reporting economic downturns, a rise of unemployment, a decline in investment rates, and negative prospects for the future. Unfortunately, teaching from home did not reach all the children, as although we live in 2020, not every family has an Internet connection. Most Slovak families are connected to the Internet, but in Roma families, an Internet connection is still rare. Through various online teaching applications, the teachers were able to fully explain the new curriculum, revise, prepare tests, communicate with students, and get their feedback. Social field assistants in many municipalities were helping Roma pupils with the distribution of teaching materials during the pandemic. However, without the support of their less-educated parents, Roma pupils often did not manage to work at home. Without their parents’ understanding and their families being motivated, they were not able to do much. Of course, even in this excluded environment, there were families with parents with at least secondary education, who willingly dedicated their time to help their children prepare for online classes.

These new aspects of education brought to our attention during the pandemic are recreating the space for controversy and criticism of the Roma issue not only in Slovakia. The parents from the majority are asking whether the Roma are not obliged to attend classes, whether the same rules don’t apply to them as apply to Slovak children. Why do we grant them benefits that do not apply to everyone? Why are the Roma abusing the system again? These and other similar questions are again emerging and starting to undermine the process of inclusion that took many years of effort to become successful in Slovakia.

Written by Peter Strážik, School Principal

Staying mentally sane – supporting EC Professionals during and after lockdown

Budapest – An online workshop series for early childhood educators working with Roma and poor children was launched in April and in June, in response to the struggle during and after the lockdown in Hungary. The main focus of the workshops was how to function and keep mentally healthy during and after COVID-19, and how to maintain Roma and poor children mentally stable. The success of the first event called for a repetition in June, and a recorded online webinar collection available for REYN members any time for the future.

The event was supposed to be an offline workshop day followed by a round-table, but after the first shock at COVID-19 the organizers realized this is a time when they have to focus on the situation and the mental wellbeing of the EC workforce. During the lockdown EC professionals had no professional support, no supervision and at the same time extreme workload that made them very extremely tired and burned out.

There was an amazing energy coming from the trainers, and immediately respond to the need of participants. In a few weeks, new and innovative workshops were born, like “Helping Roma parents in need during the times of trauma.” “Using Persona Doll to work on COVID-19 related fears with children” or “Change management for EC workforce.” The same energy arrived from participants, thriving for a day of “relax” and mental support during the very hard days of the lockdown.

As it was predicted, a never seen number, more than 50 applicants were registered to the online event. For many of the members this was the first Zoom event in their life, and organizers made time available for learning Zoom, for being together in a virtual “café” and gave plenty of space for small talks in between the workshops. There were many moments of revelation and community, belonging to a professional network meant a lot to REYN members during these times.

The next innovative step was to repeat the workshops, record it, and make it available for other professionals in the future. This was again, a new milestone in the life of REYN, starting to build a collection of videos and webinars.

To give a switch to the story, trainers realized that they also need mental support, being able to support REYN members. They had to develop new content, while simultaneously learn a new online platform, and also to support REYN members online, a very unusual situation for many. So trainers decided to have a small support circle, helping each other, so they can support the participants. In this was, supporting loops were developed, that made the day so special.

There is a proverb in Hungarian “You know your friends in trouble.” This was more than true for REYN community, during the troubled times. Hope this will not repeat itself, but in case of a second wave, we already know where to start.  

Read more about REYN Hungary

By Zsuzsa Laszlo, REYN at Partners Hungary Foundation

The Dream to Grow Campaign promotes diversity in the early childhood workforce

When it comes to policies, strategies, and programs that support the inclusion of the most vulnerable and marginalized children, we cannot fail to consider the early childhood development (ECD) professionals with the same cultural and ethnic backgrounds as the children with whom they work.

Meet Loli 

Loli is a Roma girl from Europe. Her story begins with a red ribbon placed on her wrist on the day she was born as a sign of deeply ingrained cultural values. We can quickly realize the importance of her early years spent in preschool. It is there, she is encouraged to develop. Loli has a teacher she can relate to. She is not afraid to speak the Romani language because there is somebody who can understand her mother tongue and her family culture, values, and beliefs. Moreover, Loli’s teacher understands the difficulties that Loli faces as a Roma child, the prejudices held against her by other children, and even professionals who don’t speak the same language and who don’t share the same culture, values, and beliefs.   

Stories of diversity

Loli’s story is different than most. Many Roma children around Europe don’t have the same opportunities and conditions as Loli had. That’s why the Romani Early Years Network (REYN) is joining forces at the national and international level to raise awareness about the importance of diversity in the early childhood workforce and advocate for more Roma professionals in the early childhood development field. 

With 12 advocacy stories, we share the successes of Roma ECD professionals who are supporting Roma children and families in their countries – celebrating the example they are setting for future generations. 

These inspiring stories highlight Roma ECD professionals’ different pathways to become who they are today, following Roma standing with dignity and pride, ready to shape Europe’s future, and rewrite the current narrative.

REYN aims to contribute to creating more inclusive and equitable societies by advocating for increasing diversity in the ECD workforce, strengthening professionalism, and giving more recognition to the Roma ECD professionals for their invaluable work. In the quest to shape a better future for the new generations, there is a dire need to work closely with Roma professionals. Positive role models, such as Roma ECD professionals, break negative stereotypes in society in general, and for the children, they do that from the early years. They demonstrate that, with the right support and a nurtured belief in oneself, it is possible to break the vicious circle that has entrapped the Roma minority in Europe for centuries.

Dreaming to Grow

In Loli’s story, and in the stories of the 11 Roma ECD professionals that REYN will launch later week, the encouragement and commitment of the adults around them played a crucial role in their success. So, how can we challenge the current paradigm and build a better society through engagement together? How can we #DreamToGrow?

Recognize each child’s unique potential, encouraging their dreams, and helping them blossom. 

Ensure equity for Roma students in access to all levels of education and entering early childhood professions.  

Yield inclusive work environments that embrace diversity and create opportunities for professionals to grow and make their voices heard.  

Nurture professionalism and a sense of belonging among all Roma early childhood professionals valuing their contribution to the field.

I want to share my story!

Read the 12 #DreamToGrow stories below.

Image: (c) ISSA / J. McConnico

Roma ECD professionals success stories | #DreamToGrow

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Read Dajana’s story

The lessons a trainer learns 6: the challenges and solutions of the COVID lockdown

The spring of 2020 was tough on everyone in Hungary. Especially it was tough on the most vulnerable groups, including poor Roma families. Many people who were already living in poverty lost their jobs and lots of families did not have any digital devices or the digital skills to help their children with distance learning. In my final blogpost, I would like to talk about three exemplary Roma professionals – all women – who really made a difference in the lives of poor Roma communities.

The first two professionals – Szilvia and Erzsébet – work for Partners Hungary Foundation, where we managed to continue our Roma programs online and find extra projects/support for Roma communities despite the lockdown. This became possible because in the programs that were already running, we had already managed to build trustful relationships which helped us get past the challenges of learning the usage of new online platforms. The transition to the online world was highly supported by our management who trusted their professionals with flexibility and autonomy and encouraged us to find alternative paths to maintain relationships with the vulnerable communities. Besides, our Roma professionals, both with rich intercultural mediation, leadership and field experience were relentlessly looking for funding opportunities within and outside of our foundation and who were in continuous contact with the Roma communities in need.

Szilvia and Erzsébet managed to provide support to more than 250 deprived Roma families in six villages altogether, either by themselves as individuals or with the help of the intercultural mediators trained by Partners Hungary or through their relationships with other formal and non-formal Roma communities/associations. These families were either provided with laptops or tablets and workshops in digital literacy so that their children do not drop out from school or food, sanitary and cleaning products. They were also involved in workshops, chat groups where they could exchange experience and learn about the new opportunities.

The third professional is a REYN mentee who was trained to become a kindergarten assistant – Laura, about whom you could read in the previous blog post. A strong-willed woman who calls a spade a spade, and who is willing to advocate for the basic human rights of being treated respctfully, no matter one’s background. She had been long dreaming of working with children in a kindergarten, but her ultimate goal was to get a further certificate which would enable her to work in a foster home. Most of the children living in foster homes are Roma, and Laura’s mission is to empower Roma children, to boost their poor self-esteem through love and attention. Through the past months, the lack of professionals working in foster homes became so big that application for a caregiver’s position was not restricted for those who have already completed the necessary training but positions were open for those who have any kind of qualification related to child care and those who would be admitted after the interview would receive the necessary training on the job. Laura applied for a caregiver position and was immediately admitted due to her interpersonal skills and also to her certification as a kindergarten assistant she earned during the REYN program. She started working in April, in the middle of the lockdown period, with no fear towards the virus. She felt that children needed attention and love more than ever since they could not meet their family due to the restrictions. The fact that she is Roma herself was very well received. Since most of the children were Roma too, they treated her as their aunt. Laura says she has a good relationship with her colleagues and her superior as well. She is looking forward to the official caregiver training which will be paid by the foster home.

These Roma professionals’ strong vision, stamina and their ability to find ways in the darkest times give hope to many of us for surviving a possible second wave. While it was not possible to help everyone in need and there is nothing that can compensate for this injustice, there were and are still ways to help many people. The more of us are inspired by such examples, the more of us can find the momentum and the possibility to help get vulnerable groups through tough times. I feel proud and honoured to get to work with such powerful Roma professionals. I hope to tell you further great stories soon. Until then: take care!

The lessons a trainer learns 5: how can we manage biases towards the Roma in teacher training?

Bias is present everywhere towards the Roma, from the earliest years on. If it is hard to cooperate with the family, if the parents don’t attend teacher-parent meetings, if the child displays challenging behaviour, kindergarten staff might say: „It’s because they are Roma.”

It’s so much easier to say then to say that it is hard to cooperate or communicate with them because it takes longer to build trust. But when someone has been living in deprivation for so long with the stigma that it is their fault, then shame builds up. And shame stops us from asking for help, from trusting the other person.

Methods for conflict resolution and building bridges with Roma parents in creches, kindergartens and schools are not part of teacher training curriculum. There are great university initiatives and programs but they are not supported by the state education system in Hungary. This is why it was so important when Laura, a mentee in REYN 4 asked for help when she encountered teacher bias towards the Roma during her training to become a kindergarten assistant. 

She called me and told me that she got in a conflict with one of her teachers at her training the previous week. The teacher was telling a story about a family where the parents did not notice that their child got hold of his dad’s phone where a porn video was open and after that he started to make sexual moves towards the children in his kindergarten group. The teacher said that it is a ”cultural thing with Roma”, this kind of neglect. Laura was deeply shocked and angered by this statement and had the courage to stand up and tell the teacher that this generalisation is shameful. The teacher said she didn’t mean to offend her, this is just her experience but didn’t apologise. Laura got even angrier, raised her voice and started to cry. They argued in front of the class. The lesson ended without the conflict being resolved.

Laura was ashamed that she raised her voice but also outraged by the teacher’s attitude. She wanted to apologise but also wanted the teacher to apologise. Now what? I was afraid to get involved in a conflict between an educational institution and an individual but I felt I had no choice. This was the time to make a difference. I called the principal of the educational institution, told her what happened and asked for an extra hour where I could facilitate a discussion about what happened. Our association, Partners Hungary Foundation has been working with alternative conflict resolution methods for many years. As a trainer and facilitator of Restorative Practices, I realised that this is an important occasion where participants can talk about what happened, how they were affected by the situation and what can be done to make things right. I explained the method of a facilitated Restorative circle, the questions that could be discussed and that everything said by the participants will be kept confidential. To my suprise, the principal said that it sounds great and that he will arrage that extra hour for me. We agreed that he would let the teacer and the whole class know about that discussion ahead. Kudos to his open-mindedness, flexibility and sensitivity.

When I entered the classroom that Saturday, I was very nervous and felt like I was considered as an enemy by many of the people in the room. I asked Laura, who was also present, why some of the people were looking at me like that. She told me that the principal only told about the discussion to the teacher who interpreted that this would be a scolding from a stranger and this is what she passed on to the group. Great start – I thought. I introduced myself to the teacher and explained what is going to happen. That I am not here to judge who is a good or bad person, that we will only discuss how the people in the room were affected by last week’s open conflict and what can be done to make things better in this learning community . I told her that the content of this discussion will be kept confidential. I talked about my role as a mentor for Laura. The teacher’s face started to change – she didn’t look angry any more but rather curious and said she was up for it and we can start. I explained the same things to the students in the room and I also said that participation is voluntary. Some of the students in the room stood up to leave because they said they were still not convinced that this was going to serve their community and that it won’t have a negative effect on their teacher – whom they like a lot for her experience and kindness. It was hard for me to let them leave but could not force them. I told them how sorry I was about it but that I understood their decision.

I sighed. I smiled at the other participants, thanked them for their open-mindedness and asked them to arrange the chairs into a circle. I looked around and searched for eye contact. What I saw was twelve faces, some of them smiling, some of them looking curious and excited. What happened in those 60 minutes that followed exceeded my expectations. Simply sharing how situations affect us emotionally – in a safe space brings such a sense of community and cohesion. Let me share the details with you in the next post, keeping the participants’ anonymity.