Hungary's poor Roma children struggle with digital education

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Mihaly Kovacs, a 12 year-old Hungarian boy, works on his homework outside his home in Bodvaszilas, Hungary, Monday, April 12,2021. Many students from Hungary's Roma minority do not have access to computers or the internet and are struggling to keep up with online education during the pandemic. Surveys show that less than half of Roma families in Hungary have cable and mobile internet and 13% have no internet at all. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)

BODVASZILAS – Mihaly Horvath, a 12-year-old in a village in northeastern Hungary, can't wait for his school to reopen.

As a devastating COVID-19 surge swept Hungary in the spring, classes were suspended and students were ordered to study online. But Mihaly's family, part of Hungary's large Roma minority, doesn't have a computer or internet access at their home in Bodvaszilas, and he says he's falling behind in his lessons as a result.

“Some students have telephones, some have computers. But there are others like me who don’t have either,” he said from the yard of a dilapidated house where he lives with nine other family members. “It’s more difficult for Gypsy kids like us. Some don't even have writing utensils or anything else.”

His is one of thousands of Roma families in Hungary that have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Many already marginalized Roma adults lost work as Hungary's economy buckled under coronavirus lockdowns, pushing their families deeper into poverty. Some have reported selling their belongings, like mobile phones, to make ends meet.

Karmen Bastyur, Mihaly's great aunt, said most of the Roma children in Bodvaszilas don’t have access to digital devices and aren’t completing printed homework assignments given out by the school.

“There’s no help for them. (Mihaly) can’t take advantage of online education since we don’t have a computer,” she said. “It would be easier because he could talk with his teacher who could help him with homework that he doesn’t understand.”

According to an August 2020 survey by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, only 41% of Roma households in Hungary have access to both cable and mobile internet and 13% report no access to the internet at all.

A November 2020 report from Hungary’s deputy ombudsperson for national minorities acknowledged that for Roma children from poor families, “the transition to digital education multiplied their already existing disadvantages."