As the new school year draws near, policy makers, practitioners, parents and children are likely to be worried not only about the recent local spike in COVID-19 cases but also concerned about the effects of this crisis upon our educational system. Of paramount importance is the fact that the effects of this pandemic is not detrimental to only Jamaica, but have been responsible for forcing more than one billion children out of school buildings across the globe.
Developing countries, like ours, can face negative side effects with reopening schools too soon. Many of our households, living spaces and communities are big and comprise children 18 years and under who cohabitate with adults, some of whom are considered elderly. While COVID-19 can be less harsh on children, their domestic situations can make the spread and threats of transmission to the adults they live with, who are at greater risk because of their age and underlying medical issues, more serious. This becomes an even bigger peril with existing testing backlogs and difficulties enforcing physical distancing.
Notwithstanding, schools, if reopening remains on schedule for October 2020, will see significant learning loss coupled with a need for improved programmes geared towards social emotional development in and amongst all our children who have been out of school physically, many for approximately seven months. Children, especially the majority who are enrolled in the public school system, will require support in achieving learning outcomes and developmental milestones. This is only after they have been comforted and assured that their emotional needs as they try to process sickness, death, loss of livelihood nationally and internationally are met and they receive guidance on how to learn to navigate spaces and situations, to begin to pick up where things had been put on pause and start to feel assured enough to move forward.
The pandemic has undoubtedly exposed the need for schools but has also showcased the frailty of our school systems. This is reinforced when schools are the safe ecosystems that protect children against physical, sexual and emotional abuse; that provide opportunities for meals and subsequent nutrition; that offer support for children with an array of needs and disabilities; and that remain a source of needed childcare for working parents.
The need for evidence to drive decisions is critical but not easily available due to the nature of this pandemic. Sierra Leone, another developing country, after it’s lock down because of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 saw an increase in pregnancies and a major surge in school dropouts among its female population. This excludes the many children who were unable to return to school after their families lost their livelihoods. In Jamaica our adolescent girls are also at risk as protective lockdowns force them into staying within their communities and falling prey to the respective “dons” who continue to sexually exploit them leading to another likely increase in teenage pregnancies. It is improbably that these girls will ever return to school.
Island wide, schools are citing decreases in student numbers as parents, some with younger children, are less inclined for them to start in September and are debating spending on tuition and auxiliary fees that they will need to invest in child care should school closure be extended. This is unfortunate and worrisome for the economic survival of schools but also because the early childhood years are considered the most formidable. In 2019, Jamaica boasted a rate of almost 100% of children ages 3-5 enrolled in some form of “organized learning.” Strong foundations are critical to not only higher literacy and numeracy rates but also to our youth being able to achieve and sustain success, growth and economic empowerment.
In Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, when children were eventually able to return to school and assessed some four years later, they were notably 1.5 years academically behind. It is therefore important for our national policy makers to assess our situation and examine the potential possibilities of closing schools for another prolonged period.
Pre the pandemic, education was not perfect. There were 258 million children across the globe out of school. Educators acknowledged that more time was needed in order to reach the high academic skills required to survive in our economy and society. There is not enough time in a regular face-to-face classroom for a student to receive a well-rounded education, especially not with the mismatch between family obligations and school schedules. In Jamaica, many households have had their livelihoods disrupted and there exists the possibility that the statistics showing 190,000 children who live in poverty will increase making many of our children less likely to attend school.
The rapidly evolving need for continued remote learning continues because of the fundamental uncertainty that haunts our local landscape suggesting an ideal time for a “smart ramp” into the new school year where conventional schedules are replaced with innovative developments and high intensity interventions. It is time to react to our current situation and reimagine how we do education. The United States based Association of Support & Curriculum Development (ASCD) iterates this need and argues that interruptions will continue that include school closures not only as a result of pandemics but also due to severe weather events as a result of major climate change. As such, online tools and videoconference-enabled groupings of learning circles can undoubtedly allow for more flexible approaches that should now be examined and discussed in greater details. Of course this works in countries where mobile phone and device penetration is great and there exists easier access to broadband connectivity.
New York Governor Cuomo has connected with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine the future of schools. We too can use this disruption to collaborate across sectors innovatively and once and for all address education inequities that exist, to enable access to ‘high quality’ education and to support educators through this transition. Perhaps the time is now to roll out more practical remote learning opportunities and through these prioritize individualized learning.
Pioneering this 4th Industrial Revolution, children need to embrace the 4Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity & communication) in order to become skilled in self-directed learning. Our policy makers should prioritize inquiry-based learning through STEM, encourage access to the foundational literacies and embrace values and attitudes. The coronavirus has brought attention to the variety of ways that learning can take place. Teachers, parents and children now acknowledge that learning is no longer limited to a particular space or place and children can learn continually.
Educational theorist, John Dewey identified that “we always live at the time and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future.” Education has always been a force for change and its primary role to empower people is closely tied to the creation of jobs, prosperity and improved health. If we are to work towards successful sustainability, the time is now for to us rethink, redesign and come together stronger to achieve our Vision 2030 goal of ensuring that all Jamaicans are empowered to achieve their fullest potential.