Schools enter uncharted waters today


Schools enter uncharted waters today

Monday, October 05, 2020

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We can't argue with Education Minister Ms Fayval Williams' assertion that the novel coronavirus has confronted Jamaica with “the most challenging threat we have faced since our independence”.

Starting today that challenge takes on added dimension with the formal opening of 'virtual' school for tens of thousands of students.

The sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the need to reduce infection spread, scuttled previous plans for a blended reopening with staggered attendance at physical school.

Instead, there will be online interaction between teachers and students, as well as audio-visual broadcasts and the physical delivery of printed material to students.

Regarding the online option, issues of unstable connectivity and the inability of many parents to afford digital gadgets are already well ventilated.

The Government says it is acquiring 40,000 tablets for students in poor families, specifically those signed up to the social welfare Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH).

We note special consideration for others who are not on PATH but are also struggling to make ends meet.

Says Ms Williams: “For non-PATH needy families, the ministry will make available a subsidy of $20,000 to 36,000 students towards the purchase of a tablet or laptop. There will be a registration process and criteria for... selection...”

This newspaper welcomes the initiative to partner with business operators and other private groups and individuals at home and abroad in helping students to get the now indispensable, but increasingly expensive and scarce, laptops and tablets.

All who can help should.

In all of this, the psychological/emotional pressures on students in these strange times should be very much to the fore.

Ms Williams assures us that her ministry “has prioritised psychosocial programmes for the first three days of school...”

That's good. Crucially, it should be borne in mind that teachers, parents, guardians, not just students, are under extreme stress.

Clearly, too, much will depend on our telecoms and Internet servers to ensure online strategies work with a fair degree of efficiency.

For all that, we know that the longer 'virtual' school lasts the more extreme the disparities and inequalities within the school system will become.

It's not just the economic realities which dictate that many students will be short-changed. The harsh truth is that many from those poorest families have long been left behind academically. Some children — even at high school level — can barely read, if at all, though they suffer from no intellectual disabilities.

We suspect that even the finest, most dedicated teachers will have a hard time making a difference for those students outside of the face-to-face environment.

For the good of all, Jamaicans must do their best to so curtail the spread of the coronavirus that the society can seriously consider return to something approaching normal school within months.

That means all must eschew careless behaviour and follow anti-COVID-19 protocols, including the wearing of face masks everywhere; and all must practise social distancing, avoidance of crowded situations, and so forth.

Experts agree that adherence to established protocols by everyone is the only way to stop the virus.

All Jamaicans — not least those worried about their children's education — must treat anti-COVID-19 protocols as priority going forward.

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