Overcoming lost time away from the classroomTuesday, May 11, 2021
I recently participated in a virtual online forum involving some 217 post-grade 11 (fifth form) high school seniors designed to review their ongoing tertiary educational journey under the restricting and severely altering circumstances of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Since then, I am more than ever convinced that every effort must now be expended by the Government and the movers and shakers in the education sector in not only getting our schools to reopen as soon as possible, but also addressing what is to be done to help students catch up once they are back in school, cum the classroom.
All things considered, since the sudden and unexpected onset of the pandemic, the vast majority of schools in Jamaica have performed reasonably well in their attempt at protecting the educational future of young learners. As such, they deserve the highest commendation. But the fact remains that months of online learning for our young learners is no substitute in the final analysis for months in the classroom.
In light of this, it is going to take more than good intentions and hurriedly conceived policy palliatives by the Government to overcome the negative impact of the pandemic on our children's future. The damage done already — and still being done — will have catastrophic consequences for our future survival as a society. As business analyst Dennis Chung succinctly stated in a recent media interview: “In the last year, there have been no face-to-face classes, and this could significantly impact the labour market and national productivity in the years to come.” If we act swiftly and wisely however, and begin to plan for the post-pandemic era in terms of helping our children to overcome valuable lost time away from the classroom, we can cauterise the problem to a significant degree to avert a national crisis.
I suggest that one of the first things that will need to be urgently addressed is the mental landscape of students. For months spent by young learners confined to living in houses, some under less than suitable conditions and unable to socialise, is bound to have an adverse impact.
Consider, for instance, that many would have experienced the direct bereavement of relatives, suffered serious physical abuse and emotional and psychological harm and neglect. Many more still will have experienced, first-hand, their parents or guardians epic and forlorn struggles with joblessness, all the while missing out on the joys of adolescence.
This, by any measure, portends a dangerous outcome that must be urgently addressed. A way must be found to get mental health experts into our schools and educational establishments on a sustained basis to address the caseloads of mental trauma and suffering of children which, left unchecked, could result in social disrepair such as we have never before experienced in the post-Independence era.
Additionally, the Government and all stakeholders in the public and private education sector must quickly find a way to build back better the trust that previously existed between schools, parents, guardians, and families. Prior to the pandemic, schools and families shared a bond built up through parent and teacher relationships either under the umbrella of parent-teacher associations and other such institutional arrangements, or the use of student counselling. But these matrixes, which are the ways schools often learn of the vulnerabilities of the families of students, have all been broken to some degree.
So, what we are likely to see emerging with the return to something akin to normality is the exacerbated health conditions occasioned by the lockdowns and the real consequences of domestic violence and distress. Here is where social workers and related social work agencies will have a huge role to play in rebuilding the trust factor between schools and families — and they should be fully supported and funded by the Government through the schools to provide support to vulnerable families of students who need help so that those families can avert a crisis. I shudder to report the number of principals of schools who routinely render financial assistance and support to vulnerable families of students from their own meagre resources.
The much larger issue in all of this, of course, speaks to the challenge in which every child and young learner must, at all cost, keep learning in the next school year, even when they cannot physically be in school. Come the next school year, children who fall behind in school to the extent they have in the past year cannot afford to lose any more time in their educational journey. What this means is that the Government and private education interests will have to spare no expenses in equipping and building out schools and educational establishments, especially in the rural areas, with the best online infrastructure available (technical and human) to facilitate and support genuine self-isolating learning. This must become a permanent feature of our education system into the distant future.
In the new normal dispensation, moreso than before, every child can and must learn. What can help tremendously in this endeavour in the next school year is for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information and education administrators all across the island to collaborate in devising a national in-school tutoring programme impacting education establishments nationwide and revolving around small, manageable learning groups in our schools to help young learners catch up on their learning.
I am aware that some private education institutions are already moving in this direction, but the initiative has to have mass appeal if it is to be truly effective. Our major universities combined produce some 5,000 first degree graduates each year, not all of who migrate or readily find employment. They should be incentivised, through fiscal and loan forgiveness measures, to help students catch up on their learning in every school throughout the length and breadth of Jamaica.
Then there is the question of what will be the outcome for the close to 40,000 high school students who will form a new cohort of young people in the labour market this summer. Traditionally, only some 14,000 or 35 per cent of this cohort go on to pursue tertiary education, and numbered among those entering the labour market this summer are undoubtedly students whose education will have been severely disrupted and who will no doubt need seriously focused support to find employment of one sort or another. Here is an opportunity for the Government to revisit the 'Jamaica Employ' initiative spearheaded by the Ministry of Labour and crafted under the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration of 2012-2016. The initiative had sought to make good on a partnership agreement between the Ministry of Labour and the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) to encourage private sector companies to employ at least one additional professionally qualified Jamaican graduate to create close to 40,000 new jobs.
In revisiting this initiative, the Government could consider paying the cost as an incentive for private sector employers to offer university graduates as of this summer a minimum six-month work placement to avoid further build-up, in the short term, in the ranks of the unemployed — which currently stands at 8.9 per cent of the labour force, or 74,300 fewer persons employed in January 2021 compared to January 2020.
In the final analysis, the lives of Jamaica's young learners and their future need not be determined by the novel coronavirus pandemic. We have it within us as a society to make up for lost ground in the educational journey of our children. As such, we cannot and should not allow money and time to be the deciding factors in how we respond to this crisis. For, in the long term, expenditure of money and time to catch up for lost ground in the learning of our children in the education sector due to the pandemic will cost considerably less than having to face an entire generation forced to grow up sans the knowledge and critical skills needed to keep our already fledgling economy and society robust, safe, and civilised.
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