A tale of two Jamaicas

A tale of two Jamaicas

Online learning deepening education inequality


Thursday, May 14, 2020

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What a time to be alive! Someday, someone will write about these times and it will be most appropriate to hark back to the words of Charles Dickens in describing these times, because, indeed: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of [COVID-19].”

The novel coronavirus has certainly reshaped the way we work, travel, do business, and learn. With rising numbers of infections across the globe, the Jamaican Government has taken unprecedented steps to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Evidence of this can be seen in the closure of all schools islandwide and the limiting of non-essential work.

In the pursuit of quality education for one category of Jamaicans, it can only be described as the worst of times in the age of foolishness inspired by a posture of incredulity.

On March 13, 2020 all learning institutions were encouraged to begin conducting online teaching with an initial 14-day lockdown of all schools. Currently, we are in our ninth week of “learning from home” and obeying the Government's #tanayuhyard mantra; however, do we spare a thought for those students who are unable to access online learning platforms due to a lack of resources? How are they coping? How are parents ensuring they stay abreast with class assignments? What steps can be implemented to resolve challenges?

On Read Across Jamaica Day I was reading with four young students in the more rural reaches of St Elizabeth North Eastern. None of these young ones had received any lessons via WhatsApp or e-mail since the closure of schools. The mother of three of the children — two of whom are on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), but the third, for some unknown reason, is not — even though she has a 100 per cent school attendance record, she could not afford the phone credit to maintain a data plan. The fourth child remarked that her father, with whom she lives, didn't own and couldn't afford a smartphone.

I've had similar encounters over the past few weeks coordinating relief activities in rural communities. Even if students get their lessons on WhatsApp, many parents and guardians are ill-equipped to provide proper academic guidance.

The celebrated preparatory school Sts Peter and Paul provides an excellent case study in social juxtaposition. There, classes are in session via Zoom and students have access to tablets, smartphones, Wi-Fi, and/or data plans with guardians capable of providing scholarly direction.

There is only one conclusion to be drawn from these disparities. The existing Jamaican educational framework does not provide tens of thousands of poor students with access to online learning materials and technological resources to sustain their academic trajectory.

So what is the impact of the Government of Jamaica's and the acting minister of education's “pretty talk” on the education of poor students from rural communities during COVID-19?

We understand that no one could have anticipated these rapid developments. What is unacceptable is to transmit false statistics, to pretend things are going well, and to neglect treating this situation as the emergency that it is. We should be employing all available measures, resources, and stakeholders in developing and executing a robust restoration plan. Governments are elected to lead, and not just major in glossy public relations.

I agree with Opposition spokesman on education Peter Bunting's position that one painfully obvious outcome of the online learning experience is the raw exposure of, and a deepening of the inequalities in the education system. In a recent article Bunting highlighted the inefficiencies of the current Administration's pandemic plan. He also provided practical solutions that will prove most beneficial to our children. He suggested that the Government should create a task force under the National Council on Education to assess the current and long-term impact of COVID-19 on the education sector. The task force should also determine the changes necessary to make the educational infrastructure more resilient to the impact of future pandemics or similar disruptions. Such changes would include:

i) ensure that all students are media-literate;

ii) accelerate the adoption of technology in schools; and

iii) train teachers to effectively deliver instruction online.

The creation of such a task force, akin to a “war cabinet”, is necessary and urgent.

Just last week the Government announced that schools will remain closed until September 7. This is just a best-case projection, because no one really knows what our situation will be in September. We must therefore prepare for the worst.

I recommend a few things:

1) The Government should invoke emergency procurement mechanisms to secure at least 250,000 tablets and laptops for distribution to students and teachers as needed. Students on PATH should be first in line to receive these resources. The rate of procurement based on the announcement by the acting education minister is significantly less than required, and would inevitably lead to a longer than necessary ramp-up period.

2) This emergency procurement strategy should also secure free data plans for all teachers. Additionally, the cost of these data plans should be significantly reduced for all other students not on PATH.

Simultaneously, I commend the Government for the decision to provide free data plans to all students on PATH. However, I am concerned about the paltry numbers set to receive this grant in the first phase. I expect that this will be rapidly expanded to all students on PATH, and with sufficient plans for them to access online academic instruction every day, and not a few days per week as has occurred with the PATH lunch programme in most schools where students access lunch, in some cases only two days per week.

3) The Social Development Commission's and the Ministry of Labour's field officers should be mandated to visit the homes of students who are now without access to online learning platforms. These field officers must ascertain the litany of challenges being faced by students and provide them with smartphones (or tablets) if necessary because the problem may be as simple as that.

4) The Jamaica Teachers' Association must be consulted in an effort to implement a robust online learning summer programme, or a comprehensive evening programme in the next academic year to assist students who have fallen behind.

I am fully aware of what may be asked of the teaching community. However, I do not make this suggestion lightly. Teachers have consistently sacrificed a lot for this nation, and I have no doubt, as they are now displaying, that they will be prepared to adapt once more in these unprecedented times to safeguard the minds of our youth.

5) Develop options for schools to be on shift systems and/or students attending school at the physical plant and via online portal on alternate days. The truth is that social distancing may have to be practised well into the short and medium term if we are to control the pace of transmission of the coronavirus. As it now stands, class sizes will not allow for social distancing, so there may have to be two classrooms where there is now one. This will have implications for employment of additional instructors.

6) Undertake efforts to standardise methods of pedagogy and evaluation via these learning platforms. Random home visits to assess compliance may have to become a feature of this new normal.

I am hopeful that for the future of this nation these interventions can improve learning outcomes in our education system during and post-COVID-19 era.

Basil Waite is deputy general secretary of the People's National Party and parliamentary candidate in St Elizabeth North Eastern.

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