Sun | Nov 29, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | The ‘blending’ of education

Published:Monday | October 26, 2020 | 12:06 AM

The prime minister seems to have got the message, too. He expresses uneasiness at the perhaps half or more of the students who are not grasping what they need from the current efforts at virtual schooling. And working-class and middle-income parents, particularly, are at their wits end as to how to supervise, divide up the small money between food and data, and how to share the one phone or tablet between family members.

This week is the story of a rural high school of nearly 1,000 students. The teachers estimate that their lessons are reaching about one-sixth of their cohort on any day. For the remainder, the equivalent of one or two days’ worth of exposure to teaching and learning is what they are getting each week. Failure looms.

This is their reality. Even if the unlikely were to happen and there was to be a tablet for everyone, connectivity – availability and cost – would be daunting obstacles in their mountainous terrain.

Today, the Cabinet ought to give each school board the permission to work out with local health authorities, modalities for reopening face-to-face teaching on a school-specific basis. It can be done gradually.

Some teachers and parents will be unwilling or unable to come out. Principals and boards can distinguish between the malingerers and those genuinely compromised and arrange for accumulated leave to be taken and limited virtual instruction to take place.

The school I am describing still has not been able to contact a full 20 per cent of their entering class, who uniformly score 50 per cent or less in whichever grade-six test they take. Guess where the missing ones are and what they are learning? Of the 80 per cent who have registered and been evaluated, only one-quarter can read and compute at a level required for grade seven. Can you imagine how this desperate and chronic situation is aggravated by the best-intentioned effort to catch up via some sputtering screen!

Despite these handicaps, just over 60 per cent of their grade-11 students achieved modestly decent CSEC passes last month. The main deficiencies were, predictably, in English, Mathematics and the physical sciences.

REMEDIAL ACTIVITY

This school could be transformed if, immediately after placement, entering students were immersed in remedial activity stretching through the summer and, as long as needed, into the Christmas term. The cost of such a venture would dwarf the wasted money and permanent disappointment which are inevitable if proper foundations are not laid.

In the communities from which young people come to this high school, cancelled classes are not enhancing social distancing. Youths congregate without any of the order that school activity can assure, if properly regulated. It is arguable (and proven in the few private schools which have opened) that students and teachers can be safer in a school setting than on the streets.

Almost half of the students are on PATH (the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education). The money provides for school lunch for three days. Miraculously, they try to stretch the cash to afford a patty on the other two days, though that is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Since pupils come from long distances, a breakfast programme is urgently needed but cannot be afforded.

This school is by no means among the most disadvantaged of secondary institutions. It ranks about midway between the well-enabled and the really disadvantaged. Every effort must be made to raise standards. Complacency with mediocrity does no justice to good teachers and bright students who need relatively few decisive interventions to achieve excellence.

Excluding so many in the well-meaning charade of ‘blending’ is spoiling our chances unless, and until, the health authorities tell us that there is no alternative.

Here is a last word on the early-childhood sector. Government has indicated that crèches, basic and infant schools are permitted to open once they observe the prescribed protocols. This should happen immediately, wherever possible. But with a different curriculum. Spend the pre-primary years showing the little ones how to be disciplined, respectful; to treasure themselves, their racial identity, their appearance and that of all other people. Indoctrinate them to be good citizens. Teach them how, and why, to pray and to play.

Let the letters and numbers become secondary to the civic and social capacities. Do that and watch the virtue cascade upwards through the education system. These are things which we can’t postpone. Neither can they be effectively taught virtually, if at all.

It is time to change course –radically.

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