Learning or house arrest?
COVID-19 has changed how we do business, how we relate, and function as a society. Across the world, leaders and people are concerned about the economic, social, and psychological impact this “invisible enemy” will have on our societies and the psyche of our peoples. What is clear as we sojourn through this experience is that life as we know it will never be the same. A new normal has been established in all aspects of human existence.
The suffering and pain associated with this pandemic are real, as people come to terms with the death of loved ones, rise in unemployment, and the psychological impact the lockdown and social distancing policies are having on everyone. We must register our gratitude to the health professionals who are putting their own lives and that of their families at risk to care for those who are infected and affected by this virus.
As we reflect on the present state of affairs we must, as a people and nation, begin to assess the lessons learned and what life will be like after we pull through this valley in the new normal. Our leaders, political and civil, must be congratulated for their handling of the situation to this point and, as a society, we too can be justly proud of the way the majority of us have been following the guidelines given by the authorities to get this virus under control. Those who have been flouting the rules should take heed and let us come together as one nation determined to get through this period of testing and eventually emerge stronger than before.
As an educator, I have been thinking about what steps should be taken now to ensure that we minimise, as much as possible, the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning. The Government announced recently that educational institutions will remain closed until September 2020. In the meantime, teachers and administrators will continue to make efforts to engage students until early July. It is a known fact that the teaching online approach that has been adopted since March has seen pockets of success, but on a larger scale has been very challenging for many. At the heart of the situation are connectivity issues for students and teachers. The story was aired on one of our television stations of a teacher traversing to the top of a hill, through bushes, to get Internet access and to send and receive work from students. Some parents are simply finding it too expensive to purchase data daily for students to access online schooling. For many parents and students, the period has just been stressful.
Despite all these challenges, we must as a nation express gratitude to our educators who are going beyond the call of duty to keep our students engaged. Some teachers would drive and ride through deep-rural communities to deliver work for students and collect completed assignments. These are among the most committed and selfless members of our society.
Central to our recovery from COVID -19 as a country is the resourcefulness and resilience of our education system. As we discuss how we continue the education of our children now and later with the reopening of our physical school plants there are several suggestions and ideas in the public domain. In my opinion, I dare to posit that we should end online teaching by the end of May. Let us face it, learning can only take place in an environment that is conducive, and our present reality is far from that. Our teachers are stressed, and equally so are our students and parents. In many instances, teaching is reduced to teachers carrying out assessment activities by simply sending, receiving, and marking assignments.
The reality is that this pandemic took us by surprise and we were not ready for this new approach to teaching. The month of June should then be used for the training of teachers for this new normal as it relates to teaching online. The Ministry of Education should use the time to work on providing reliable Internet access and organised sessions using the regional structure to treat with the psychosocial health of teachers and students.
One of the arguments that have been posited to keep this minimalist approach to teaching going until the end of early July is the need to keep students occupied during this period and to minimise gaps in their learning. I believe we should release the students from the “house arrest” they are in as of the end of May. Let them go and play and engage in other outdoor activities. We may be surprised that they will be more ready for teaching and learning whenever we can open.
Another major issue with the introduction of this online modality is that it does not facilitate the engagement of all learning styles. For instruction to be effective, it must cater to the diverse learning styles that exist. It is without a doubt that those students who require a diverse modality are unable to receive the full educational experience in this modality.
On the issue of gaps in students learning, the month of June and a section of August should also be used to help teachers plan to bridge curricula of past grades/forms and the new grade levels to which students will be promoted. In other words, developing a revision plan. Students who will enter the high school from the Primary Exit Profile (PEP), for example, must be prepared for. Teachers must plan how to help them with the transition academically, using internal diagnostic tests, something most high schools now do, and teach strategically to address the gaps where they exist. This is necessary, notwithstanding that grade seven, for the most part, is a revision of what students would have done in grade 6.
The Ministry of Education should also consider formalising weekend school and evening classes for a period, and at which time teachers will be paid for this extra time as we seek to fill gaps in learning. Regional core subjects academy could also be established during the school term, wherein we select the most effective teachers to provide instructions for a cluster of schools for students of particular grades.
These are just a few ideas I think policymakers should look at carefully as they seek to treat with the present difficulties we face as we plan to reopen our schools. I want to caution, however, that the solutions cannot be more devastating than the challenges we are now facing. What is clear in all of this is that we must end this frustration of online teaching for the majority of teachers, students, and parents now!
Garth Anderson, EdD, is principal of Church Teachers' College in Mandeville, Manchester, and immediate past president of Jamaica Teachers Association. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.