UNICEF study shows education deficit in Caribbean and Latin America worst worldwideFriday, March 05, 2021
BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
With its latest study showing that children in the Caribbean and Latin America have been out of the classroom longer than their peers across the world, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has warned that the loss will “be more disastrous and far-ranging than in any other region for children, parents, and society at large”.
According to new data published this week by UNICEF, Latin America and the Caribbean account for almost 60 per cent of all children who missed an entire school year due to COVID-19 lockdowns across the world. The entity said many schools in Latin America and the Caribbean have remained fully closed for 158 days from March 2020 to February 2021, longer than the global estimate (95 days). Compared to all the other regions, this is the world's longest school closure, UNICEF has said.
Schools in Jamaica shuttered almost en bloc after the first case was officially reported on March 10. Since then, there have been some instruction online using various platforms, as well as attempts to conduct phased reopening for face-to-face instructions — a move which has faced severe challenges due to the rise in cases. As of last week, all schools conducting face-to-face learning were once again ordered closed for non-exit exam cohorts as cases continue to spiral adding pressure on the island's public health system.
Up to Wednesday this week Jamaica had recorded 24,444 positive COVID-19 cases since March 10 last year. Of that number, 13,869 patients have recovered, while 436 have died.
The impact of the lengthy school closures could be felt for years to come, UNICEF is warning, pointing to devastating consequences not just on children's learning, but also in developing social skills, overall well-being, and psycho-emotional development. The agency said the most disadvantaged — those with no access to online learning — are at a higher risk of never returning to school, entering the workforce instead.
According to UNICEF's regional education advisor Margarete Sachs-Israel, “When schools are not open, children cannot develop transferable skills, such as the ability to work in a team, to communicate, to have empathy, to respect diversity, and other key skills for active citizenship”.
Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) President Jasford Gabriel, commenting on the data, said just how crushing the pandemic has been will become even more clear when children return to classrooms. He further said efforts will have to be concentrated on tailoring the curriculum to spotlight not just the academics but the psycho-social.
“Clearly the consequences will be quite devastating, because we have to treat with not only the intellectual loss and the learning loss, but schools have always been that place for social, emotional and spiritual development, and it is all that we have known in our lifetime. It is going to require now a lot of strategic thinking. I think the learning loss we can catch up with,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
He however noted that it will not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Such are the inequities in our system, though, that I don't think we can have a general kind of approach; it has to be school-specific, because each school, I think, will have to do the analysis in terms of their particular students, to what extent they would have been impacted by the pandemic, to what extent some of them will have to repeat a grade, those who are able to move on, and all this analysis has to be factored into the mix as we look at how best we are going to be able to get our students back on track,” argued Gabriel, who is also principal of Manchester High School in the island's south-central region.
“We are not just talking about book learning, we are also talking about the psycho-social. We have to take a new look, I think, at the curriculum, and in terms of the way we emphasise some aspects of the curriculum. We have to spend a lot of time now building social positive values and the social fibre in our society again, treating with emotional issues and all the issues I am sure will come out of the pandemic when our students begin to return to school in numbers,” he told the Observer.
UNICEF's observation that it will be an arduous task is not unfounded, the JTA head noted.
“It will be a difficult task, but it is possible. It is going to require strategic thinking at the level of each school; that information be fed into the Ministry of Education, and then we can always strategise in terms of where the areas of greatest need are and how we are going to get our students back on track in the fastest possible time. Along with that we must continue to improve on our connectivity across the country — devices for our students and teachers as well, because the blended kind of learning we now know... we can engage our students without them being in the physical plant,” he said.
At the same time, Gabriel posited that the pandemic has not all been bad news for the sector.
“The truth is, we have experiences where some of our parents and students are quite happy with the online instruction and desire to remain in the online space when we return to normal, with the option of coming in to interact and fellowship with their colleagues,” he explained.
“Despite the pandemic and the challenges, we also will come out of this a stronger and better education system with more trained personnel, more resources technologically, and more options of enhancing our learners in terms of reaching them with a multiplicity of strategies,” Gabriel said.
“Obviously, we are not in this by ourselves; it is something the entire world has to grapple with. It is a little more challenging in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the possibility exists where we can actually strategise and get back on track,” he added.
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