Rural St Elizabeth schools struggling to reach students

Rural St Elizabeth schools struggling to reach students

Kasey Williams
Staff reporter

Thursday, October 01, 2020

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SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — Poor Internet connectivity and limited access to digital devices for students are causing major headaches for school leaders in deep rural northern St Elizabeth, ahead of the scheduled virtual reopening of schools on Monday.

“The communities that our students come from, you will find that the Internet penetration is very low and the availability of laptops and tablets is a problem... it is very limited,” George Lewis, principal of Roger Clarke High, told the Jamaica Observer by telephone earlier this week.

Leaders of seven other northern St Elizabeth schools — Maggotty High, Aberdeen High, Sydney Pagon Stem Academy, Holland Primary, Balaclava Primary, Thornton Primary, and Appleton Basic — voiced similar concerns.

Face-to-face interactions between teachers and students has been replaced by online strategies since March, because of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, the Ministry of Education's plan amid the alarming surge in COVID-19 cases is to use a cloud-based learning management system as one of the platforms for classes starting Monday. The other methods will be broadcast of lessons on free-to-air television and the delivery of printed material to students.

Lewis emphasised that more than half of the 550 students at Roger Clarke High in Balaclava are without Internet access at home.

“Seventy per cent of our students do not have access to online engagement, so a lot of our students will be reached by the [manual] delivery of lessons to them.

“...We will be going ahead with online teaching using the Google Classroom as well as the delivery of lessons, by utilising our travelling officers, dropping off at points, printed material for students,” he added.

Principal of Maggotty High, Sean Graham, said teachers have been trained to use the learning management system but are concerns about students.

“Most teachers have tablets and other gadgets, but the problem is going to be in the homes. It is not just about Internet access, it is also about parental supervision, it is how you deal with assessments. It's also how you deal with students following a timetable and a pattern for school...

“We keep forgetting that online learning is a subset of the overall set of distance and remote learning, because online learning can only help certain schools and certain types of children in certain types of communities. Where we are in Maggotty, most of our children wouldn't benefit from online learning to the fullest extent,” he said

The principal pointed out that other schools started online classes in September.

“They are able to put Zoom in their platform or Google Meet in their platform, where teachers are able to show videos and be able to see the children… They have a certain type of system in place.

“Even if we have a teacher set up a Zoom platform and have everything nice, in the communities that are around us, most of the homes don't have Wi-Fi access and the parents are going to have to buy data. [The purchased] data will not be able to last to support the type of engagement that you would want,” he explained.

Principal of Aberdeen High Nelissa Brooks and principal of Sydney Pagon Stem Academy, Milbert Miller, said they were also facing similar challenges.

Maria Blair, principal of Thornton Primary, said her team will be printing lessons for delivery to students as one way around Internet connectivity issues.

“The connectivity is a major problem this side. Our parents are complaining about the books that we have, and the tablets are another issue, they don't have the devices,” Blair said.

Principal of Holland Primary, Simone Doctor, said her school is exploring various options.

“Right now we are meeting as a staff, trying to iron out the best way forward so that all students can have access. One of the things we plan to do is that the textbooks from the Government are already at school, so the parents will come in during the course of this week to collect the textbooks for students,” she said.

Meanwhile, Balaclava Primary Principal Nichol Jackson is suggesting a targeted approach to helping children in remote areas.

“If we were able to get devices to those children, loaded with the content, that would help. One of the things that we had, in discussions with the ministry, is to give data to those children and complementary to that, is a teacher checking how the students are using the devices,” she said.

Principal of the Appleton Basic School, Elvie Burton, said teachers have been using WhatsApp to get to students, but the effort is being undermined by unreliable Internet connectivity.

“The teachers are doing what they can via their WhatsApp. Those who have data, put on data, and those who have Wi-Fi at home use it. They are giving them activities, [but] it is not going well,” she said.

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