Schooling at home in the era of COVID-19

Schooling at home in the era of COVID-19

Associate editor — features

Friday, March 20, 2020

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It's Tuesday, and five-year-old Alexandra sits at her desk, her schoolbooks stacked neatly to one side. She is writing a story about her teacher. Later, she will read a poem in her phonics book and answer questions about it; learn ordinal numbers 1-10; discuss modes of transportation using her integrated studies book, Living in Jamaica, and cut out pictures of land, air and sea vehicles from a magazine.

Those are the day's assignments set by her teacher and communicated to her mother via the WhatsApp group that parents routinely use to communicate with teachers.

That's how hundreds of students across the country have been continuing their schooling since last week Friday when schools were ordered closed as a preventative measure in the fight against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Others are using e-mail, a range of online platforms like Google Classroom, Schoology, EasySchool, Zoom, and EduFocal, school websites uploaded with learning kits, or a varied mix of these and other methods.

At Wolmer's Girls' School in Kingston, for example, third form student Dhania Scott explained that some of her teachers are convening classes according to the regular timetable via Zoom group calls, while some send assignments via WhatsApp and others use e-mail.

At McIntosh Memorial Primary in Manchester, grade three students have been armed with diagnostic test preparation booklets loaded with exercises in mathematics, language arts, integrated studies, comprehension and communication task.

And at Cedar Grove Academy in St Catherine, Principal Otis Brown reported that his teachers coordinate daily and conduct classes according to the regular timetable via EasyClass and/or Schoology.

“It has been our practice, long before now, to upload on our website the course outlines and assignment sheets ahead of time so that students can access them and parents can track what the students are supposed to be doing. In term one we explain to new parents the steps to take to create accounts and log in,” Brown explained.

“And yesterday (Monday) we added an e-learning option to our website where we have been uploading content by grade for the students to access,” the principal said.

He added that in instances where students lack Internet access at home, handouts and worksheets are made available.

But not all students are being engaged according to formal or structured methods. In some cases, it's because they don't have ready access to the Internet, or to computers at home. In other cases, some schools have not issued students with assignments. In some cases, too, even when students do have assignments and the requisite access to complete them, many are left unsupervised during the home-school day because their parents are forced to show up for work, which often means the work gets neglected.

At Cumberland High School, for example, Principal Darien Henry told the Jamaica Observer that roughly 40 per cent of his students are not currently being actively engaged as they do not have technological support.

“We are doing tremendously well under the circumstances. We've been able to activate our network of teacher mentors to reach our students through mixed methods. We're using Google Classroom, WhatsApp groups and Schoology, some of which we've been using before now. The challenge though is that while more than 60 per cent are actively engaged, many of my students are from poor families, so they don't have the Internet at home; many don't have smartphones, or data, and their parents don't either,” he said.

“I'm very worried about those we aren't able to engage,” Henry disclosed. “I worry for those students who have difficulty and need face-to-face teaching; difficulty with reading, difficulty with comprehension... And I worry for our boys, who make up 72 per cent of our population. Of the 948 students, 645 are boys and they require tremendous engagement and face-to-face contact.”

The principal said 60 per cent of the students entering Cumberland High School at grade seven read below the grade five level.

“We spend a lot of time on literacy and remedial learning,” he said.

Additionally, Henry said, his teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty and have been using extraordinary means to facilitate engagement in cases where students don't have access. As an example, he said on Tuesday he and one of his vice-principals visited the homes of a few grade 11 boys who are preparing school-based assessments as part of the requirements for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams to “offer some support and make sure the work is being done”.

To its credit, the Ministry of Education announced that in an effort to reach a wider cross section of students, ostensibly those without access to technological platforms, it will be broadcasting educational content on commercial television and radio. Broadcasts were previously arranged for the State-run PBCJ.

It has also circulated a proposed timetable to guide parents and guardians through the home-school day.

The move should soothe parents like Mia Kelsey in Manchester, who told the Observer that her son, a student of Knox College, did not receive any assignments for the lockdown period, and none has been relayed to her by his teacher.

“He didn't take home anything from school but I've been just making him read a lot,” Kelsey said.

In its Education in Emergencies alert system, the Ministry of Education outlined that among the strategies to be implemented during level three when schools are closed is the distribution of tablets, modems and data cards to schools and students without ready access to technology.

The Observer has checked with principals of 10 schools in Kingston and St Andrew, St Catherine, and Manchester, as well as the Association of Principals and Vice-Principals of Secondary Schools and the feedback is that no tablets have so far been distributed.

“We haven't received any tablets, and I didn't expect any tablets; I knew that would be out of the question,” said principal of Central Branch Primary Michael Sutherland.

“But they [the Ministry of Education] have found a way around it. They have opened a site for us to upload worksheets so the parents and the students can access them and for those who don't have computers at home, they have been facilitating printing at the regional offices so parents can pick up the worksheets,” Sutherland told the Observer.

“Also, they have provided phone credit through FLOW and Digicel so the teachers can contact parents. I have to commend them on this, this time around, and give credit where credit is due,” he added.

On Wednesday, the education ministry issued a statement thanking teachers, school administrators and other partners for collaborating with the Government to allow the provision of educational content to students in their homes following the closure of schools for 14 days.

“Students now have access to the necessary educational resources to continue their learning, despite schools being closed. Without your assistance, we would not have been able to provide our students with these resources in such a timely and accessible way,” said Minister Karl Samuda.

The ministry's agreement with RJRGLEANER will see approved teachers delivering live mathematics, information technology, physics and English literature classes at the CSEC level, while live classes will be held in Caribbean studies, physics, sociology and economics at the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) level.

“The lessons will run from 9:00 am to noon, for seven days starting on Thursday, March 19, 2020. TVJ will air two and half hours of live teaching and half an hour of pre-recorded sessions,” the ministry said.

Lessons will also be available on the company's other brands.

The PBCJ broadcasts, meanwhile, which will be in a combination of live and recorded formats, will air from 7:30 am to 10:00 am and 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm each day, with repeats on the weekend. They cater to early childhood, primary and high school students and various exam syllabi, including Primary Exit Profile, CAPE and CSEC, City & Guilds, and NCTVET.

For its part, CXC has uploaded content for both CSEC and CAPE onto its website.

Academics aside, some of the educators with whom the Observer spoke are concerned that the home-school paradigm, which some are already suggesting will extend beyond the initial two weeks, could further expose vulnerable children to unpleasant situations.

“School is a safe haven for many of our students; students who are hungry, students who are being abused, students who are exposed to violence,” Cumberland Principal Henry said.

Central Branch PrimarySutherland added: “For many students the only meal they get for the day is what they get at school.”

Islandwide school closure took effect on March 13 and extends to March 27. The ministry is expected to assess the situation at that point and advise further.

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