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Beyond the summer school debate

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

We are not surprised at the response of the teachers' union to the education ministry's summer school proposal, because long before the issue was raised a number of teachers had signalled opposition to any such idea.

It's not that teachers are unsympathetic to the learning loss caused by gathering restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The fact is that they are experiencing burnout after a year of teaching under some of the most trying circumstances.

While we have not conducted a scientific study of COVID-19's impact on online instruction, the anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that this method of teaching has presented many challenges, among them the inability to exercise class control and discipline.

Jamaica Teachers' Association President Jasford Gabriel has also argued that, in addition to burnout, mental and physical health challenges have become prevalent across the teaching profession.

Against that background, Mr Gabriel has posited that teachers, and indeed other stakeholders in the education sector, need to be rested, refreshed and mentally prepared to treat with the inevitable challenges of the new school year which, he suggested, will include extra classes.

While we have long been sceptical of the traditional need for extra classes, we can accept their necessity this time, given the volume of students who have missed out on learning since last year when schools were forced to close because of the pandemic. The reasons, as we all know, are varied, including lack of access to the Internet and the inability to secure devices in order participate in online classes.

The Ministry of Education has estimated that 120,000 students are in that position, and those are the ones it will be targeting under its summer school programme, which, it now says, will be voluntary.

How the ministry goes about operating this voluntary programme is left to be seen. However, if the State offers to fund summer school it will be interesting to see whether the ability to earn extra money will attract teachers who are already suffering fatigue.

Mr Gabriel argued that students also need the break. What cannot be discounted, though, is the education deficit spawned by the pandemic and what must be our response to reducing that shortfall because of the potential impact on skills and services available to the country going forward and on people's lives.

A part of that response, we believe, must be how we accommodate the return of face-to-face classes. Vaccination, we maintain, is the key to getting our lives back to normal. We note that the Ministry of Health and Wellness has given priority to teachers being inoculated.

With that programme already under way, is there a plan to acquire COVID-19 vaccines that are approved for children and to encourage parents and guardians to have students vaccinated?

We are well aware that any such recommendation will encounter resistance, as is the case with the health ministry's push for young girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. However, we cannot allow resistance grounded in ignorance and fear to guide the country's actions for the greater good.

There is a lot of work, including increased and sustained public education, that needs to be done before the next school year. There is, as Jamaicans are wont to say, “No time to le le.”