Remotely learning

Sixteen-year-old Ahyele Rodney has come to a crossroads – if not a dead end – in his pursuit of becoming a doctor and one day taking care of his mom, who is suffering from a mental illness.

At least that’s how the student of Central High in Clarendon sees it after missing more than seven months of classes and after failing to complete much of his school-based assessment (SBA) coursework for his Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams due to COVID-19 setbacks.

Those qualifications are essential to matriculating into university, reasoned young Ahyele, who since last year has been spending much of his schooldays in a nearby welding shop learning the trade instead of online in classes.

The reality upsets him, but not as much as the disappointment he fears will come from not making his mom proud one day.

“I feel sad because my mother sent me to school and I’m not going to turn out to anything,” worried the teenager from rustic Montclair in Clarendon, where Internet connectivity is as scarce as the devices that use it. “She works hard and she is sickly. I want to be a doctor, but it looks like my future is going to mash up. I already lost all of my SBAs.

“During the day, I am trying to learn welding. That way, I can do something good and something that I think can still give me a good amount of money,” he told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

“But I really wanted to be a doctor. Doctors inspire me to help people and maybe save their lives,” continued the Ahyele, once a top performer among his peers, who had passed his Grade Six Achievement Test for Clarendon College, but had to switch schools as Central High was closer to home and thus cheaper in terms of transportation costs.

Ahyele is among hundreds of Jamaican students who continue to suffer silently even as Prime Minister Andrew Holness promises a comprehensive analysis of the number of pupils still disengaged, unable to access classes via the Internet and the efforts to reach them.

A new World Bank report suggests that about 120 million school-aged children had already lost or were under threat of losing a full academic year in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This means that roughly 71 per cent of lower secondary education students may not be able to understand a text of moderate length, a figure which was at 55 per cent prior to the pandemic, the report said.

“In the future, the enormous losses in learning, human capital and productivity may translate into a decline in potential aggregate earnings for the region of US $1.7 trillion, or approximately 10 per cent of total baseline earnings,” noted the international body, predicting that school dropouts could increase by 15 per cent, deepening the impact on students’ physical, mental and emotional health.

“This is the worst educational crisis ever seen, and we are worried that there could be serious and lasting consequences, especially for the most vulnerable sectors,” warned Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, World Bank vice-president for the region.

He urged governments to tighten the digital divide, but despite procuring more than 200,000 tablets, and doling out $20,000 gift vouchers to parents for tablet purchases, there are still Jamaican students who – because of a lack of Internet connectivity, parental support, and general everyday economic challenges – have still not logged on to classes since early last year.

Need for more state support

Since the closure, many schools have bemoaned sub-par participation by students, some of whom teachers have not seen for months. Other teachers have lamented the dire implication for some students for whom school is not only a place of learning, but where they can be free from heartened social realities and abuse rampant within their communities.

“I believe the sector that has been hardest hit is education. I fear it will have the most far-reaching, long-lasting and devastating effect on our society and prospects for faster, stronger and better recovery,” said Holness, outlining the digital divide in an already unequal school system.

“I have asked the minister of education to do a comprehensive study on learning loss in the system and make recommendation to the Cabinet by June 15 on how this could be corrected. We must get our children back to school by September 21,” he stressed, adding that teachers have been added to the list of priority persons to receive vaccination. The sooner this is done, he explained, the sooner the education system and children like Ahyele will be able to catch up on their education.

Having students repeat an entire year creates dire logistic challenges, noted Holness, himself a former education minister, as he invited individuals to continue to assist with providing tablets for needy students, and warned schools not to hog these devices.

Last Thursday, Ahyele received a tablet through the James and Friends Education Foundation, which has been fostering hundreds of needy students within Clarendon. That the Government is still unsure of the extent of tablet distribution in Jamaica is unacceptable, argued Otis James, president of the foundation, last week.

“Just as how there are councillors who, when it is voting time, go around and check off all the names on the voters’ list, even the elderly people, it should also be the job of the councillors to go around and find out the students who are not going to school and who don’t have a tablet for school,” argued James, maintaining that some students are overlooked as they are not registered with the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education, a state welfare initiative.

Since last year, James has purchased and distributed more than 150 tablets in Clarendon, but argued last week that “the problem is that it cost too much for us to clear them”, referring to high customs duties.

“We really need some assistance from the Government with the clearing part of it. We need them to open a door for the school devices,” continued James, whose has seen his pool of sponsors – wholesalers and business operators in Clarendon – drying up since many of them and their customers have been falling ill to COVID-19.

Struggling families, bridging the gap

Still, James said, there are at least 80 more students within his programme who are yet to receive tablets, and are out of school.

Families like that of siblings Tameka, 17, and Odanea Brown, 14, in Farm are also among them. Tameka only months ago received a tablet to attend online classes, while a year after face-to-face classes ended, her brother is still offline with no equipment to log on.

“From the COVID-19, the boy has not been going to school, and we have it really tough with him. He is not staying in the yard, pure running up and down, and that is not right. I feel really bad about it, especially because I don’t have any work right now,” bemoaned father Cecil Brown, who lost his cleaning job after the pandemic hit.

“Sometimes it is very stiff, especially since we have the children who are supposed to be in school. Sometimes we don’t even have dinner to eat,” decried mother Ann-Marie McKenzie, whose main source of income, a small community shop, has been failing under the weight of the pandemic.

Her neighbour, Olive Taylor, is enduring a similar fate after adopting her niece, following the death of her sister last year.

Taylor, “a hustler”, sells masks and other small items to send the girl to school. But business has been slow, she explained, noting the lengthy walks she makes each day in order to make a profit to provide food for them.

Educators across the system have reported varying degrees of absenteeism with online classes, many saying roughly half their pupils had not been engaging in online lessons. Just over a week ago, Haile Selassie High Principal Lorenzo Ellis said that 70 per cent of his 919 registered students were still disengaged.

“Based on our checks, those who are consistently involved in accessing the online platform that we offer from the learning-management system offered by the Ministry of Education is not exceeding 30 per cent. That is what we know because we have checked, and it fluctuates downwards sometimes, so there is a real problem,” the principal disclosed as he accepted a donation of 48 tablets from past students.

As it is, however, Jamaica Teachers’ Association President Jasford Gabriel said an assessment of the education situation is paramount to reducing the impact on students.

“We don’t have anything close to what the situation might be right now. We don’t have the exact numbers (of students not in classes). We are just about to conduct another survey, but things have been changing over time,” he said.

“A lot of devices have been given out and there has been more connectivity in schools. When last we did an assessment, the numbers (for online learning) were about 40 per cent, and that was in December. But this survey is very important because it will guide the kind of interventions that will be necessary to bridge the gaps,” he explained.