Online learning is here to stay, says JTA president

Online learning is here to stay, says JTA president

Staff reporter

Thursday, October 22, 2020

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — President of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) Jasford Gabriel says the dangers to public health as a result of community spread of the novel coronavirus will pose an extreme challenge as thought is given to a limited return to face-to-face school.

Gabriel was responding to questions from the Jamaica Observer regarding Prime Minister Andrew Holness's recent suggestion that efforts to deal with problems facing the education system as a result of COVID-19 could include having children in low-risk communities return to the classroom.

Face-to-face classes in Jamaica's public education system have been suspended because of the risk posed by the infectious virus.

Initial plans for a blended reopening of physical school following the summer holidays were scrapped following the onset of community spread of the virus in September, and a resulting sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.

Instead, the Ministry of Education opted for online interaction between teachers and students starting early October, as well as audio-visual broadcasts and the physical delivery of printed material to students.

Gabriel, who is the principal of Manchester High School in Mandeville, told the Observer that the JTA is cautious and awaits guidance from the Ministry of Health on face-to-face classes.

“From the very beginning our position has remained constant and consistent. It is a public health issue where we stand to be guided by the ruling of the Ministry of Health, because there are several factors to be considered,” he said by telephone yesterday.

He reiterated that schools had been preparing for face-to-face classes in preparation for resumption in September, when the decision was taken to change tack because of the worsening COVID-19 situation.

“The school itself may be safe. A lot of work went on in terms of getting the schools ready to start for this school year in September. However, now that we are having community spread there are other factors that come into play, not least among which would be the issue of the communities and the vulnerability of the communities from which some of the students and the teachers are coming and also the communities through which they will have to pass, and the fact that they would have to be transported for distances in many cases,” he said.

Speaking at a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) forum recently, Holness said he believed that schools should be held in areas where the number of COVID-19 cases are low.

“I always had the view that we should be able to have schools held in those areas where our surveillance shows that the number of cases are very low, contained, and where our students don't necessarily use public transportation and where the schools are underpopulated. It is not beyond us to figure that out,” he said.

However, Gabriel said timing is important in deciding when face-to-face classes can resume.

“It is a matter of timing as to when is the best time to facilitate some face to face. We are okay once the Ministry of Health has given clearance, because they would have to do all the due diligence and take all the factors into consideration, and we would be guided accordingly, so no issue from the association standpoint once the Ministry of Health has given clearance,” he said.

Observing that the current situation was threatening to worsen inequalities in education, and even as he assured parents that the Government was moving to deal with the problems, Holness, in his address to the recent JLP forum, had also pointed to the need to protect the health of teachers.

Said the prime minister: “I want parents to be assured that the Government is not just sitting idly by believing that everything is fine with online learning. Like yourselves, we are very concerned and we understand your challenge. We are trying to find the solution and I will try to ensure that it is a non-contentious solution. Because we all have to acknowledge that people's lives are at stake and we don't want teachers to fall ill. But we have to be very careful, very strategic, and I believe that there is a solution and we will search hard to find it and implement it,” he added.

Gabriel told the Observer yesterday that the JTA has been assisting its members to adapt to the different learning platforms.

“We are helping in terms of the professional advancement of teachers and to better equip them to manipulate the different learning platforms, helping to provide whatever resources we can offer, you know and just networking with partners and different institutions to provide facilities and resources as much as is possible,” he said.

Gabriel said face-to-face classes will not remedy the challenges facing the education system presently and that there must be greater efforts to have Internet access everywhere in Jamaica.

“We must understand that face to face is not going to be a panacea [remedy] for the crisis that we are in. We must continue to intensify efforts for broadband across the country and to ensure that each child has a device. Make sure that training is continuing simultaneously with all the efforts and just to continue to improve on the processes as we move forward,” Gabriel said.

He believes the education system will improve due to the range of skills that teachers and students are learning.

“The online instruction is not going anywhere. I think we will come out of this period stronger as an education system than we have ever been in our history, because we are adding to the repertoire [range] of skills that the teachers possess as well as the students and we are improving in terms of our online access and the provision of resources,” he stressed.

“These are things we should have dealt with before. If there is one positive that has come out of the pandemic for the education system is the fact that we are moving at pace to make sure that we diversify the methodologies to reach our students,” he added.

He said the association has “joined” for resources to be provided.

“We have joined the call and we are doing our part to see how best we can help to provide resources in the form of gadgets, tablets, laptops and I am so happy to hear the prime minister making the call in terms of broadband Internet across the country and hearing again from the Universal Service Fund and identifying specific areas for Wi-Fi access across the country,” he said.

“I think that in all the discussions sometimes we can get carried away a little bit if we don't understand that online is here to stay and even when we facilitate some kind of face to face, we are going to have a huge percentage of our students still in the online space that need to be learning synchronously, and so we have to make sure that all the things that we are doing now, that we intensify them,” he went on.

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