Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Ronald Thwaites | Urgent need to rescue education

Published:Monday | November 30, 2020 | 12:05 AM

This column is to add some strength to the effort to get our children back to school as quickly and safely as possible. The Government is being too tentative on this subject, deterred as usual by the reactionary leadership of the teachers’ union and deluded by those ‘trumpists’, who insist that distance learning is working.

The sad truth is that most of our children are losing a year or more of effective schooling. I hosted a forum on education last week which yielded the following consensus from a fair mix of informed participants. Despite the commendable gifts of devices and the plan to offer money to some parents to acquire tablets, a conservative one-third of students, especially from the most vulnerable social and economic quintiles, are excluded from all teaching and learning.

The principal of one of the finest high schools acknowledged that she is yet to ‘find’ about 20 per cent of her students up to half-term. Another headmaster affirmed that a third of those who logged in were “sporadic” in attendance, never mind in attentiveness.

The telecoms companies remind us that the country has only 40 per cent Internet penetration and that it will cost tens of billions of dollars, which they say they can’t afford, to extend composite coverage. The Cabinet, up to now, is silent as to how much the public purse will contribute to upgrade the digital capacity in the short run – and that’s the time frame which counts in education. Even with money this will take time, which our children don’t have, to build out the required infrastructure.

‘Blended’ education is a nice mantra; it maybe possible for five per cent of our students, but a cruel deceit for the remainder. And even the blend requires a high level of face-to-face contact to make that concept work.

No one in authority wants to answer the question as to how much learning default has taken place over the last eight months. Has there even been any collation of the results of the assessment exercise which was supposed to have taken place in the first three weeks of October? One experienced teacher told me she estimates having to repeat nearly half of last year’s syllabus in mathematics and science, while trying to cover the current year’s work. This is crazy.

BAIL WATER OUT OF ‘TITANIC’

Look, everybody is trying, but the task is beyond our present and foreseeable capacities. It is as if we are trying to bail water out of the Titanic. And we are proceeding to Christmas ‘holidays’ as if things were as normal as last year. What testing are we putting in place to assess the success or failure of the virtual experiment?

Professor Peter Figueroa gives clear advise. It is least likely that the early-childhood cohort will be vectors for the virus, so, subject to masking, handwashing, staggering and some reasonable transportation arrangements, every basic and infant institution should be open.

My estimate is that a quarter of them are in no financial position to start again. We need truthful data on that and a quick remedy to prevent their closure. Taking up the salary of at least one teacher per 20 pupils and the provision of some food, would be a good and affordable start to rescue this vital sector.

BOARD MEETING

At all levels, every school board should be meeting now, engaging the local health authorities for guidance and preparing their teachers and parents for measured reopening in January. If they are not doing this, they are not up to the task of managing education. Upon reopening, attendance by all teachers and students must be required, except for the most compelling reasons.

And please, let us not make the best the enemy of the good. Having a fully equipped isolation area and a school nurse on every campus are impractical for the majority. The same simple protocols outlined for the basic schools can be adapted for primary and secondary institutions. No, teachers are not health officials. But they are used to exercising common sense and basic training to assess when a child is ill and when outside help is required.

Education needs rescuing. Things were inadequate before COVID-19. The makeshift arrangements now are not working well enough. Let the health officials guide us, but school must start to reopen in January again. The prime minister connects a cautious Christmas with the capacity for classes to resume. He is right. It is a worthy sacrifice – a good trade-off.

FATHERLESS AND GODLESS

Last week’s piece, ‘Crime is a daddy problem’, requires this sequel. The absence of a father’s influence accompanied by the decline of religious belief, education and practice, combine to reduce meaning, purpose and direction among young people just when they are searching for their own identities. Add to that the scant numbers of uniformed groups and the result is a general weakening of strong bonds, and their replacement with toxic associations.

Anger or indifference towards fathers often translates into anger or indifference towards God and disrespect of one’s fellow humans. And most often, this attitude is not overt, but very poisonous. Fatherlessness and secularism are not the socially neutral options that the pseudo-liberal Jamaican ethos makes them out to be. Guess what, too. Without God and father, an unbalanced relationship with mother and grandmother will be likely.

The skills of self-control, negotiation, diligence, delayed gratification, compromise and teamwork are not hardwired in us. They require essential social learning, best inculcated by parents but in addition, and often by default, by a good school, church or wholesome group setting. What comes over a computer screen just doesn’t cut it.

This is another powerful reason for school to resume at the soonest and for a thorough revision of the texture of social learning being imparted there. Who will lead?

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