Stop COVID-related learning gap from becoming generational crisis — UNESCOSaturday, August 15, 2020
BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
A programme specialist for education in the Caribbean, Dr Faryal Khan, says one of the most significant lessons from the COVID-19 crisis is that the barriers to Internet connectivity must be removed in order to enable equal opportunity for students.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) programme specialist said failure to do so will further widen the learning divide among students, and that closing the gap is especially critical for those who are at risk of becoming drop outs.
Dr Khan was one of the presenters at a Ministry of Education-hosted seminar on the management of the education system during the COVID-19 pandemic, from the planning stage to implementation.
She noted that approximately 627,000 learners — 317,588 females and 309,568 males — have been affected by COVID-19 in Jamaica, with the hardest hit being students at the secondary level, followed by those at the primary level. An estimated 31,656 teachers have also been impacted by the virus.
The UNESCO official advised that preventing the learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe calls for urgent action from all stakeholders, recognising that education is a fundamental human right that directly impacts all other rights. She said that the first and most significant step to protecting this right is ensuring the safety of all for the reopening of schools, being inclusive in consultations, and coordinating with key players.
At the same time, World Bank educational economist Shawn Powers outlined the potential learning losses from COVID-19 and the overall economic impact. He pointed to a new World Bank paper which simulates learning losses in 157 countries based on assumptions about the length of time schools remain closed, school closures, and the effectiveness of efforts such as providing access to information technology and distance learning.
According to the study, the average annual reduction in future earnings per student in Jamaica, if they are not in attendance for half of the school year, is estimated at $71,445 if there are no strong mitigation efforts.
“That's from the lost opportunities in the classroom, the lower quality of distance education classroom relative to in person education, and potentially an increase in dropouts,” he explained.
Therefore, Powers pointed out that the goal of mitigation efforts should be a better and more inclusive system, greater attention to health and safety of students and staff, targeted professional development of teachers, and a curriculum that is streamlined and relevant.
Powers said schools must meet students where they are, in terms of learning, or losses will accumulate. Schools must also create a catch-up period rather than force a business-as-usual curriculum and expectations on students, use formative assessments to measure learning lags, and guide teachers on curriculum prioritisation.
In the context of COVID-19, he noted that the children likely to suffer most are those at the early childhood level and, therefore, it is important to give these students and teachers critical support.
The World Bank also recommends increased technical and vocational education and training which are more adaptive to changing labour market conditions or opportunities and, in the short run, targeted training in areas needed for pandemic coping and recovery such as in the health profession and digital skills area. The World Bank also recommends effective use of technology.
Powers said there should be early warning systems to prevent students from dropping out, ongoing remedial services, and socio-emotional support for parents, teachers and students.
Meanwhile, Chief Education Officer Dr Kasan Troupe, in detailing the measures the ministry has taken in preparation for the reopening of schools on September 7 — despite public fears of a COVID-19 outbreak, especially among small children — said there is no definitive or static approach to returning children to school safely.
“We have to be dynamic; we have to be ready for what this new normal will cause. We can't think about how schools would operate normally, we have to think differently and we have to be flexible...we are looking at a multifaceted approach,” she insisted.
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