Sat | Sep 19, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Distance learning alone won’t suffice

Published:Monday | September 14, 2020 | 12:07 AM

I congratulate Minister Fayval Williams on her appointment to the all-important Ministry of Education and thank Minister Karl Samuda for his openness and fierce dedication during his short tenure.

Because of COVID-19, this is the most difficult of seasons to guide education policy. The measured Mr Jasford Gabriel of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association warned this past week about “losing a generation”. The stakes are that high. Many fear that reopening schools could occasion the spread of the virus. It need not be so, as this article will suggest. The truth is that for many students, the risks of contraction and contagion are higher when they are out of school than when they are in a controllable school environment.

The so-called ‘blended education’ is just not as good as face-to-face interaction, even for those small minority who have fast bandwidth and a laptop or tablet of acceptable quality. The very recent efforts to equip most teachers and some students with equipments will be helpful but entirely insufficient since, at best, a half of the school population will still be ill-equipped and will suffer serious learning deficits.

The money which was available as far back as 2007 to really expand bandwidth to all schools has disappeared to usual sources, and will likely take a long time to be replaced in a tumbling economy.

All indicators suggest that there is likely to be three-quarters of schoolers and as many teachers lack the inclination, tools and training to maximise distance-learning opportunities.

TRANSFORM TV AND RADIO

Also, there appears to be little imagination to transform ordinary radio and free-to-air television to serve emergency teaching and learning. Didn’t we all learn singing and music appreciation with Lloyd Hall on Redifusion? What could be a better purpose for the Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica and Jamaica Information Service?

Many things that happen in school simply cannot happen at a distance. Schools are places of safety, shelter, nutrition, sociability, friendship and correction, for which there is no substitute for most of our children of all classes.

Just consider the CAPRI findings, recently published, showing that a half of our households with children in June were experiencing food shortages – a situation which is bound to have worsened with high unemployment, exhausted savings and rising prices. School feeding – breakfast and lunch – needs to restart at once.

And it’s not only about the children. When parents start work knowing that their children are well protected at school, earnings, productivity and taxes will follow.

The bottom line is that any realistic programme of economic and social recovery must involve the reopening of schools. This is the immediate challenge facing the ministries of Education and Health, and for which they will need everyone’s support.

The direction, then, must not presume continued, even partial closure, or the delusion that virtual learning can suffice. For one, very few of the irreplaceable private schools can survive any further closure.

So the discourse must turn to defining strict but realistic measures to keep school, while ensuring personal safety at the same time. This has to be a moment to impose, teach and reward order and discipline, self-respect, hygiene and community life in an atmosphere more persuasive than ever before.

DECLINE OF SOCIAL CAPITAL

Social capital has declined in our schools. This is the opportunity to restore it. We can make healthy life, improved social respect and excellent learning not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing.

The fallback in learning, always a threatening reality, now worsened by months away from school, cannot be overstated. At one high school with which I am familiar, of 100 entering grade-seven students tested so far, upwards of 60 per cent are reading at or below grade-four level. This is almost as threatening as this pandemic! These children need to be brought into school under the safest conditions possible, to be acculturated and remediated with unrelenting zeal and purpose.

Their predicament cannot be solved by distance learning as we are capable of delivering it now. The spectre of ‘a lost generation’ is silently, aggressively staring in our faces.Let us give Minister Williams, school administrators, churches, teachers, parents and students, full cooperation to safely reopen schools.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney at law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com/