ORAL, Kazakhstan -- Tatiana Kaimashnikova was surprised when her 12-year-old son Roman suddenly began getting high marks on his homework and tests after his school in the northwestern Kazakh city of Oral switched to online classes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Kaimashnikova says she then discovered that Roman merely searches online for ready-made homework and test answers and copies everything instead of actually doing the work himself or studying properly for exams.
"I noticed that Roman gets high marks even for the subjects he found very difficult before, such as algebra," she says. "He doesn’t do any algebra equations. He doesn’t remember the lessons. He has only learned how to quickly search and find responses online.”
The working mother isn't always able to stay home and monitor her son’s activities.
Kaimashnikova and many other parents in Kazakhstan believe their children aren’t progressing properly in school through distance learning.
In the era of COVID-19, Kazakhstan -- like rest of the world -- is trying to strike a balance between providing quality education and upholding health and sanitary norms to keep people from getting infected.
With more than 70 percent of its schoolchildren getting educated online, Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia to move the majority of its educational institutions to remote learning.
In the first semester of this school year -- from September 1 through November 4 -- some 2.4 million students from a total of 3.4 million are studying in virtual classrooms.
Remote learning in Kazakhstan began earlier this year when the country was in a strict lockdown shortly after the pandemic struck the country.
The distance-learning programs have been significantly improved since the start of the school year in September. An updated education site, BilimLand Online Mektep (Knowledge Land Online School), was launched with access to complete school programs and libraries.
The government says some 500,000 computers or laptops were distributed to students in low-income families by August 25 and officials have pledged to provide 300,000 more.
But the Education Ministry acknowledges that many children who should be studying online still don't have access to computers.
Other problems children are experiencing include a weak Internet signal, an unstable Internet connection, and occasional power outages in some areas.
The shift to online education has also created an enormous challenge for teachers, who had to adapt overnight to a completely new method of teaching.
"Not all teachers know how to use all the programs and platforms that are now needed for teaching," says Gulmira, a computer technician, who didn’t want to give her last name. "Especially the [older] teachers frequently call me to ask questions because they’re afraid that if they press the wrong button everything will be lost or broken."
Gulmira says teachers at her school have ended up with a huge number of additional tasks.
“In the morning, they teach online from home, then go to school to teach in person to those groups [of students] who still study in 'real' schools. They need to upload homework to those who study online. Then they have to check the homework from both groups,” Gulmira says.
She adds that some teachers complain that they have to work late hours in order to get everything accomplished.
Maria Kabakova, the director of School No. 16 in Oral says it took several weeks of hard work and cooperation among the school and parents to finally to put in place a system that works for everyone.
“I start my working day by checking the students’ performance,” Kabakova says. “The daily work can be checked at any time at the Kundelik (Diary) online site where you can see the topics that were covered in each subject. You can see the grades and the feedback. Parents also have access to the site,” she explains.
Kabakova said that each student at her school has access to a computer. Some received their laptops from the state, while others borrowed them from the school, she said.
In August, the Kazakh government said 1,934 schools in remote villages with a relatively low number of coronavirus infections were allowed to remain open with social-distancing measures in place. Those schools have about 127,000 students in total, according to official figures.
Kazakh schools also offer mixed-education classes -- for primary schools -- where students study some of the subjects online while others are taught in actual schools, the government said. The classrooms are not allowed to hold more than 15 students at a time.
Such classes have since been extended to the fourth and fifth grades, too.
The government says schools will gradually move back to in-person instruction depending on the coronavirus situation in different regions.
In the second semester of this school year, which starts on November 16, some 200,000 more students will go back to real schools, the Education Ministry says.