MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Educators are worried that the future of Jamaica's children is not only in jeopardy due to significant learning loss caused by setbacks, but that there seems to be no end in sight for the challenges being faced by the sector.
With May being observed as Child Month, the Jamaica Observer spoke with teachers and school administrators in the education ministry's Region Five (Manchester, Clarendon and St Elizabeth) to hear their views on the impact of learning loss suffered by students at the primary and secondary levels since the onset of the coronavirus last year.
A major concern relates to Jamaica's extreme socio-economic inequalities, which some educators say could get much worse because of the current situation, where students are having classes online only.
Principal of the Roger Clarke High School in Balaclava, St Elizabeth George Lewis said the effects of learning loss will be felt for many years to come.
“We are in dire straits. We are in serious problems and these problems are going to redound for years to come. Even when solutions are put in place we are going to suffer from it without question,” he told the Observer in an interview.
Online teaching, he said, has been plagued by continued low attendance by students, which Lewis said is understandable, as he questioned the accessibility to devices.
“ …We utilise the platform that is most suitable – Google Classroom – and we encourage the students to use [it], but [in circumstances where] you have a household with one phone, headed by a single parent and you have four or five children in that household. How do they (children) get online?”
“This is not a one-off case; this is not the odd case in a hundred. In my experience here at the Roger Clarke High School; it is a regular occurrence and the parents have to make a decision between buying a device and buying food,” he declared.
“They might want to buy the device yes, but how many of them can take up $28,000 one time and buy a tablet?” he asked.
Lewis, who has consistently advocated for a repeat of the school year, said the attendance of students in online classes is “worrying”.
“[It] is less than 60 per cent and it is worrying, because I have tried to find some of these students and I'm not able to find them… Many of them have moved on and they have engaged in other activities and it is worrying.
“There are students who have not been online in any classroom,” he stressed.
The principal contended that there is a disparity in the education system with some schools suffering from a lack of support unlike others that have active alumni assisting the institutions.
“... We are looking out for them, as teachers, for their interest, but the pandemic has shown the glaring disparity between one school and the other because some students have access to the resources [provided by stakeholders like alumni associations]. They are heavily involved in their schools, and they help to provide resources for their schools. Some students, their parents are able to provide them with the tools and equipment they need for learning,” said the 30-year veteran educator.
“There is another set of students who do not have these resources and they are at a disadvantage and they will have to go into the same world as those who have the resources,” he added.
A St Elizabeth primary school teacher, who asked not to be identified, said some children don't see home as a place of learning and are struggling to accept the reality of online learning.
“Over the years you were face-to-face so whether children like it or not they are being sent to school… On the online platform it is a sort of frustration because that device that they [students] have gotten for leisure time or relaxation they are now being asked to use it for learning,” she said.
She, too, has been having challenges reaching her students electronically.
“Very few students will log on in the days and those students are [the ones] who have parents behind them and encouraging them. I have 30 odd students on register and sometimes I have at most 18 online.”
Another concern, she said, has been assessing work done by the children online.
“If there is work posted or a test I have no proof that they are the ones doing it. You really do not know unless you are having [live] discussions to see how they express themselves,” she said.
“They are free to use the Internet, and when you give them a question all they have to do is Google it and write the answer, so I will find that two students who lives miles away and don't communicate end up with the same answers (using the same words) and it is not something that you had a discussion with them using those words,” the teacher said.
Another educator, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said less than 50 per cent of students have online access in northern Clarendon.
“... They are not learning as they should as connectivity is very poor in the area,” she said. “Sometimes it is only one student that joins the online class. The submission of assignments is also poor. Some parents are not encouraging their children to attend classes separately from the connectivity issues,” she added.
Principal of Belair High in Mandeville Lawrence Rowe said online learning is still new to some students.
“The educational development of the students has been significantly impacted due to the closure of schools…. What I feel is happening is that although we are engaging some of these students online, this medium is new to the students and also new to the teachers,” said Rowe.
Some educators suggest that students repeat the year because many are “lost”.
“It may have benefits for some students, but I believe it is a disadvantage for them to be learning in this way (online), so there is quite a bit of learning loss that they are experiencing as a result of the closure of schools,” said a teacher who asked not to be identified.
“I think they could repeat the year. Some students are lost,” she added.
The use of textbooks for students who have connectivity issues has been a repeated suggestion. However, a St Elizabeth-based teacher said many parents have not purchased the recommended textbooks.
“We try as much as possible to use the textbooks that are given to them. For those who are not online, we send [printed] activities too… Many parents did not bother to buy the textbooks and that is a problem. “Some parents said, 'school nah keep, a COVID time'. It is sad,” she said.
She is anxiously awaiting the return of face-to-face classes and said some children are only getting “content” to pass exams.
“I wonder if it is really fair to allow these students to move on to another level when they haven't fully completed their grade level… They are not learning anything other than to get content to pass an exam,” she said.
Principal of Appleton Basic School Elvie Burton said her students have continued to use WhatsApp for learning, but only 60 per cent use the platform.
“It is a great loss because at this time of the year we would be preparing those going off to primary school, but some of them are behind. The teachers are working hard with the online situation that we have.”
For Belair's Rowe, “it is a significant loss” in terms of educational attainment for students.
“Normally, in particular the students who are doing exit examinations at this time of the year we, would be wrapping up their teaching doing mock examinations and all of these things. The downturn in terms of school closures, loss of Internet connectivity in some cases [have put] students at a significant disadvantage and as such they would have lost quite a bit of teaching and learning time,” said Rowe.