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COVID taught lessons but caused great dislocation in the education sector


This is part of a series by Jamaica Observer reporters and editors looking at the impact of the novel coronavirus on various sectors of the economy since the first case was reported locally on March 10, 2020.

STAKEHOLDERS in the education sector say the country should take stock of the lessons taught by the pandemic brought on by COVID-19 , notwithstanding the significant learning loss that has resulted over the past year.

Attempts by the Government to restart face-to-face learning have been beaten back by the persistent onslaught of an increasing number of COVID-19 cases, relegating students and educators to the virtual learning space, where the gap in broadband coverage has made the digital divide more apparent than ever.President of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) Jasford Gabriel says it has not all been gloom and doom: “Undoubtedly the COVID pandemic has caused some of the greatest dislocation in the education sector, but amidst the challenges there are some things that I think will help transform our education system going forward,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

Gabriel noted that these include the improved pedagogical skills of educators, more than 20,000 of whom are receiving ongoing training. “So each teacher regardless of age, subject, or category would have improved in the repertoire that they bring to the table in terms of their pedagogical skills to the extent now that they are able to manipulate so much of the learning management system and bring that kind of teaching to the process,” he said.The JTA president pointed out that some students have in fact been thriving in the virtual space, despite the void in the social advantages of face-to-face learning and interaction.

Gabriel said there is also the opportunity for blended modality going forward, which will further benefit the education system, by, among other things, reducing class sizes in public schools.“Once we are able to offer synchronous learning then not all the students will have to come into the physical space to benefit. We have always had challenges with overcrowded classrooms, now you’re able to split those numbers. The imperative now is to continue to improve on our online platforms,” he said, noting that a number of schools have acquired additional technology over the past year.“We still have a long way to go but it has provided the opportunity for us to think differently, budget differently and provide technological resources to support this modality going forward,” he stated.He said this new paradigm of knowledge sharing stretches beyond the country’s shores, as educators now have the opportunity to collaborate on effective practices on a global platform, and by extension students are able to benefit from the best teachers, within and outside of Jamaica across various subject areas.The JTA president noted that there is still room for improvement as about 30 per cent of teachers are without a reliable device, and broadband access remains problematic.He said there are also challenges with carrying out assessments effectively on a virtual platform, across the wide range of student characteristics. “But there are learning management systems that are geared towards helping our teachers to do this, so it’s a work in progress,” he noted.The Government ordered schools closed on March 10, 2020 as the country recorded its first case of the dreaded viral illness, and has unsuccessfully tried to fully reopen schools twice since last year, but has had to settle for phased reopening, which yet again have been paused as COVID numbers spiked over the past several weeks.With an exploding infection rate, a full return to physical learning does not appear to be on the near horizon. Included in the raft of measures announced over the past month by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, is the discontinuation of face-to-face classes at primary and secondary schools for a prescribed period. This includes students who are to sit exit examinations.

According to a recent UNICEF study, children in the Caribbean and Latin America have been out of the classroom longer than their peers across the world and learning loss will “be more disastrous and far-ranging than in any other region for children, parents, and society at large”.

UNICEF says 60 per cent of all children who missed a full school year because of the pandemic, live in Latin America and the Caribbean with schools having remained fully closed for 158 days from March 2020 to February 2021. Compared to all the other regions, this is the world’s longest school closure.During the year, Jamaica’s education ministry launched a slew of initiatives aimed at giving as many children as possible devices to enable them to join classes virtually. This includes the Own Your Own device initiative, which was launched late last year, targeting 36,000 families not covered under PATH, to assist needy students with buying devices.

Private schools, which are mainly funded through fees, have also taken a major hit, as they, too, were included the no face-to-face order, having previously been granted concessions to resume physical learning, conditionally.Opposition spokesman on education Angela Brown Burke agrees that the shift in the teaching and learning modality, due to the pandemic, has brought a number of positives to the sector.She said COVID-19 has unmasked the inequalities in the education system, albeit to its benefit to some extent. “In that regard, a number of our educators have really risen to the challenge, and I believe that would have been the greatest positive where educators really sat down and put on their creative cap and have looked at what they need to do to ensure that students have been engaged. We have seen individuals turn their backyards into community schools, or a homework centres. There are schools that, what they have done from they have been closed is engaged students in small groups, to keep the learning going,” she stated.She said the crisis has also proven that students are resilient. “They have been learning how to stay home and work with one another, finding ways to learn,” she remarked. “So I believe that there is the creativity, the ingenuity, and I know for sure the passion is there for our children to learn. What we need to do now is to support that,” the member of parliament said.At the same time, the education spokesperson said this is an opportunity to fix a system that has been broken over many decades. “It is an opportunity to make sure that we resolve the kind of inequality that has existed for years in education,” she said, noting that every effort must be made to move more aggressively on diagnostic testing, and provide psychosocial support.

 

 

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