Stress test for Jamaica’s education system

Undoubtedly, Jamaica like the entire global community has been ravaged by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripples of its consequences will be felt in virtually all facets of life systems and industries for years to come. Nothing seems to have been spared, as COVID-19’s dance upends life as we knew it.

The education infrastructure is one such casualty and is now being stress tested. The core of education systems, on a global scale, has been shaken by the dreaded SARS-CoV-2 virus, the shock of which has reverberated to staggering proportions as school administrators, teachers, and support staff scramble in their push to get their systems “online” so students can continue to be engaged.

Developing economies such as ours could never have been prepared for this dramatic fallout, particularly the education system. More so, even the mighty muscle of the North American economy has buckled, and its education system has creaked under the deadly weight of the pandemic.

Our education system is facing glaring realities as the “new normal” emerges. We are now witnessing the vicious internal workings of, not only the social and economic divide, but also the unsympathetic realities of the digital divide – the affluent who have and the less-fortunate who struggles to have.

Many families lack access to consistent broadband Internet; students lack access to devices, lack the motivation to learn and are confounded by severe learning challenges; and teachers are unfamiliar with the tenets of digital pedagogy while at the same time using their personal resources to bring remote learning to life outside of the classroom.

Many mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts lack the scholastic ability to properly mount a strong and worthwhile environment for children to be continuously involved, as they, themselves, have been shocked into a jobless reality.

My biggest worry though is the lack of engagement of many learners in the online/remote learning space. For example, at Cumberland High School, of the 172 grade seven students received in September 2019, 63 per cent of the cohort or 108 read at below the standard grade 5 level. On closer analysis of the data, 55 (32 per cent) are within close range to their reading level, while 84 (49 per cent) are reading at the grade 3 level and below.

Our preliminary data has revealed that we are only reaching 30 per cent of the entire school cohort and less than 15 per cent of our student cohort between grades 7-9. This is within the first two weeks of school closure. We pray that we can sustain and even improve the access. But, there is a big but.

Our children hail from very humble, socially and economically distant circumstances where parents and family members regularly make the gut-wrenching call of choosing between buying data and buying a pound of rice and a daub of butter. Some of our teachers muster the courage to buy data plans from very meagre resources to supply to our students just to keep them in the “online” environment.

Our internal network of teacher-mentors has been aggressive, purposeful, and active in the remote learning space and the dividends, thus far are very promising.

What is even more deeply troubling is the rate of cognitive regression of our students which will be sparked by the lack of engagement and pedagogical stimulation due simply to lack of access. Modern research has concluded that cognitive regression has far-reaching implications for successful functioning throughout life (for example, in school, social interactions, physical and mental health, and professional careers) and requires, among other things, well-developed executive functions (EFs).

EFs refer to the cognitive processes needed to regulate behaviour, thoughts, and emotions. I am afraid with the mandates of social distancing, we will have a challenge to fix on our hands.

WhatsApp, yes; Google Classroom, yes; Zoom, yes (oh well); Edmodo, yes; YouTube, yes;, but what of many of our children who cannot read while being bedevilled by the lack of access? No child should be left behind in the push for online school and online learning.

On parents’ consultation day which we staged in January 2020, most of the parents of students in grades 7 and 8 expressed grave concerns about their children’s reading abilities. And this is from parents who themselves express frustration at their own inability to read and write their own names. We are concerned that no direct instructions or interventions have been carried out to help the students with severe reading challenges through the lack of available reading specialists.

We have in our inventory 411 GeoTech e-learning tablets for students and 25 tablets configured for teachers. However, nearly all of these tablets, which were received under the e-learning initiative several years ago, are outdated and unstable rendering them useless.

For example, to download or play a four-minute YouTube educational video is next to impossible. So we continue to await promised tablets for teachers. Nevertheless, we continue to rely on our teachers to use their personal resources to at least ensure that some of our students remain in contact and are engaged.

The efforts of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to cauterise the fallout are commendable especially after striking up a deal with the RJR/Gleaner conglomerate to broadcast live and pre-recorded lessons to our students…well some of our students across their media platforms.

A recent bulletin issued by the Ministry of Education made a puzzling reference to the resumption of “distance learning/homeschooling”. I captioned this as puzzling because schools were mandated to be “closed” rather than a strategic migration of the school system to being remote or distant…the system was never built that way. I like the ‘School is not out’ initiative…but many students are not attending.

What we urgently need is a progressive model of education that can withstand the test of time; pandemics; the digital, economic and social divide, while ultimately surviving the stress test. Such a model of education must incorporate the parameters of project-based learning and continuous enrichment modalities in the virtual/remote environment.

Such an educational model has to be multifaceted and multidimensional which, as a consequence, will conflate the digital and social divide not widen it further than it is now. I suggest that such a model must have complementaries of printed study packs, online document download features, text message broadcast, message boards, unique social media postings, pre-recorded phone messages, radio and telephone broadcasts.

But pivoting online/remote/distance learning/engagement strictly speaking can be very difficult to accomplish according to Justin Reich, as assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Strictly speaking, our policymakers need to demonstrate that there is a fundamental difference between “online learning” and “online school” and policy for the way forward must reflect this.

Recent research has brought to the fore what is referred to as “online penalty” with respect to academic performance and drop-out rate when students are migrated to the online learning environment.

In a sobering New York Times article in 2018, Sue Dynarski, a professor of public policy and education posits from her research that in high schools there is mounting evidence that the growth of online education is hurting a critical group: The less proficient students who are precisely those most in need of skilled classroom teachers.

Yet in high schools across the country, students who are struggling in traditional classrooms are increasingly steered into online courses. This is two years ago before the pandemic hit the shores of countries around the world.

The resilience of our educational system is surely now being put to the test, and I dare say policymakers have been caught flat-footed. For school administrators and stakeholders, a gaping hole has been blown into school-improvement planning as we had better take the time to consult with each other and the broader economic and social space so we can plan accordingly to pass the stress test.

The calls for schools to be properly outfitted with updated modern, teaching resources have been deafening, and the distress signals about our model of teaching have now reached alarming proportions. We must now take stock. A year ago, Dr Grace Mclean offered a weighty and thought-provoking presentation about the implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the International Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Conference at which I presented a paper on emerging jobs.

At the time, Dr McLean recommended several areas in which Jamaica is getting ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

These she stated include the introduction of a fully enabled ICT environment within the school system, indoctrinating students at the primary level in coding whereby they will learn how to make apps, and instituting critical thinking and problem solving as essential elements of the Primary Exit Profile.

Can this build the pathway to a resilient education system that can withstand a stress test? Absolutely, yes. But the policy framework, the guts, the political will, a sustained focus on technical and vocational education and training, (TVET), and of course money, lots of it, as well as domestic and global partnerships are the essential ingredients to making our education system resilient!

Futurist Alvin Toffler warned us in his fascinating 1970 book Future Shock that: “…The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Let’s take stock,


Darien G. Henry is the principal of Cumberland High School. Feedback to darienhenry@gmail.com

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