...as new school year begins today with online uncertainty

Senior staff reporter

Monday, October 05, 2020

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THOUSANDS of students will head back to school virtually today but for some groups there is still much uncertainty regarding their access to online classes, which will be the new norm until stakeholders can guarantee the reduced risk of exposure in schools.

These groups, which comprise students from basic to high school, are dealing with the inability to access and/or afford Internet as well as gadgets such as tablets, smartphones and laptops for students to obtain teaching material and instruction.

Added to that, households with more than one child face the situation of resource constraint in trying to figure out how one device will be split between two or three children at different levels within the education system.

Reverend Valin Smith, one of the stakeholders of Green Acres Early Childhood Institution in St Catherine, told the Jamaica Observer that for many of the parents access to the Internet is totally out of the picture as the affordability is just too high and parents are not able to find the funding to maintain the commodity.

Subsequently, the institution has had to employ an alternative approach which is to prepare the work, copy it and have the parents collect it, administer it to their child and return to the school in a two-day cycle.

In addition, Rev Smith said the school has also faced challenges with paying teachers as they do not receive a subsidy from the Government. He said there is also the challenge of some parents deciding not to engage the school, and the engaging of basic school-aged children.

“There was some promise made, based on what my principal was saying to me, by representatives from the Ministry of Education that schools will be getting money, but no one in our cluster has received anything as yet. That's a setback because now we have to go and find the money from elsewhere and that has to be repaid. Some parents have decided not to send out their children until January [while] others say they are going to send them out, so that's the challenge we are facing. We are thinking of creative ways to get some funding to offset the teachers' salaries and so on,” Rev Smith said. “We had 74 children on roll before COVID, now, the principal has been calling around to find out who will be coming to school. The technology is also a big thing. Even if we were to have it [tablets] I don't know how we would be able to monitor the younger children to teach them over Google; this is mainly because of the attention span. They are the ones that need face-to-face interaction.”

Like Rev Smith, Monique Jackson, principal of Haddington Basic School in Hanover, is wrestling with how to get across to young children in a virtual space.

“For the three-year-olds it is going to pose a problem as they will not sit in front of a tablet or phone for [an] extended period unless they are watching cartoons or playing a game. For the fours and the fives, I think they will manage, somewhat,” Jackson told the Observer.

Further, she said Internet access and affordability remain major challenges as many cannot afford to pay the monthly costs associated with Internet connectivity.

“Some persons are not hooked up [online and] some are not working, so they can't afford to sign up for it. We will have to mostly do printout — print the work and give it to parents. This Monday we will have a meeting with parents to teach them some of the stuff so they will be able to teach their children. I am going to be at school as I don't have Internet at home, so parents can reach me there,” Jackson said.

Despite availing herself in this way, Jackson said there are still some parents who are just not bothered and it worries her to the point of headaches.

“Some parents say 'Teacha, a likkle pickni dem [so] dem no affi come pon no online class. When dem reach di age we will send dem.' But they don't understand that these are the foundation years, so we are having a challenge as it relates to that too. I am worried about some students. We did the WhatsApp thing from March; I personally went and collected some of the books from some of the parents and gave them back work so they could go back and give to their children. When it was test time I had to go around and give those children their test. Even up until now some children didn't participate in it. Now, they are moving to new classes and I am wondering how am I going to get through to some of them. I was planning to take some of them to my home and teach them there but ministry says that's a no-no, as their parents go different places so I would be putting myself at risk. This Monday we will walk them through the steps as to how to do it but it may come down to some being online, some via WhatsApp, and some getting printouts,” Jackson said.

Tracie Campbell, principal of Ferris Primary School in Westmoreland, said they're still at the preparation stage.

“On Thursday we did a PowerPoint presentation to help parents understand how to log in as the tablets were coming on Friday. I scheduled it for Thursday and Friday because I was told the tablets were coming Friday. A lot of parents don't have it so they rely on the ones coming from the ministry. In the initial sta[g]e I was told to prepare two lists – a PATH [Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education] list and a needy list, so I submitted those. When we had [the] meeting with the ministry we were told only grades four, five and six will be getting now...Unfortunately I didn't get the tablets on Friday, so parents will have to use the PowerPoint and maybe ask a neighbour or high school student to show them how to log in. Once the tablets come I will avail myself for pickup as I know parents and students are depending on them,” Campbell said.

She added: “The need is there. I've been getting the calls to say 'Mrs Campbell, I hope my child is on it,' but I have to say I cannot guarantee that more than one child in a household will get so they may have to do some sharing, which may be challenging. One parent saw me and said, 'Miss, mi a ask you to secure one,' but we have to go by the list. The need is real, some parents...not even the cellphone they have. The printed work will be a challenge as that will have to be distributed, especially in the deep rural part of the community. It will be a challenge.”

Paula Chambers Morris, principal of Mount Ward Primary School in Hanover, said they have been making the preparations and they are about 75 per cent ready for opening on the virtual platform.

“I had taken the initiative to give the parents the book list and also put a tablet on it. Some of our parents started the preparation for that [so] I don't think they were caught off guard. What we have decided as an institution is that parents will log in or come online, so to speak, by at least 8:30 am to get their instructional information — as by 8:30 am most people would be ready and off to work.

“Not everybody has a tablet but most of the parents have a smartphone. The back-up plan for the group of students who really might not understand, we are hoping with instructions from the education officer we can invite them in and within two hours we have some instruction or guided way to help them or parents to understand the information and work independently,” Chambers Morris said.

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