David Salmon | Need for remedial and mental-health specialists for students
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the chronic deficiencies in our education system while spurring discussions on the need for mental-health and academic support for students. I, for one, applaud the Government’s decision to establish the COVID-19 Mental Health Response Programme and its efforts to train healthcare workers and community volunteers to support this initiative. However, we must recognise that this is a bandage over the cracks of a reservoir ready to burst.
The available information on mental health and students’ academic performance in exams paints a stark picture of the situation in Jamaica. According to the 2017 Global School-based Student Health Survey, 25 per cent of students aged 13-17 in Jamaica considered attempting suicide one or more times in the previous year. Even more alarming is that one in five students actually attempted suicide during that time span. This was before COVID-19.
Over a decade ago, the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2007-8 found that one in five Jamaicans suffered from depression. The survey further revealed that persons from a lower socioeconomic background with less educational attainment suffered from a higher prevalence of depression. Unfortunately, the fallout from the pandemic has battered this group like a sledgehammer.
Yet, even before COVID-19, Jamaican students lagged behind in their performance in crucial CSEC subjects like mathematics. Even if we disregard last year’s pass rate of 55.6 per cent, the results in the previous four years have been a cause for concern.
For example, in 2019, only 54.6 per cent of students passed CSEC Mathematics, which represented an increase from 2018 results of 46.5 per cent. This finding was a decrease from 2017, which saw a pass rate of 50.2 per cent, which was higher than the 47.7 per cent recorded in 2016.
Based on these findings, it is fair to state that our students’ performance in mathematics has largely stagnated over the past five years. If Jamaica is seriously aiming to pursue STEM subjects, then it is imperative to determine why only one in two students are able to pass (not ace) mathematics.
Therefore, the education system must play a crucial role in solving these challenges. To address the Sisyphean task of tackling students’ mental-health issues along with their underperformance, it is important to devise an innovative approach to these issues. November’s National Youth Month theme, RETHINK, focused on the need to approach existing challenges through creative solutions. Thus, we must RETHINK our approach to education, especially during COVID-19.
It is against this backdrop, that I am proposing a four-step strategy:
DETECTION AND MONITORING
The first aspect of this programme focuses on evaluating the mental health and academic progress of all students re-entering the school system. A physiological analysis of these students is essential to note the levels of education regression that is expected with online teaching.
In the context of limited resources, testing every student would be difficult. That is why the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) should prioritise assessing students that display certain risk factors. To achieve this objective, online surveys can be used, with form teachers also surveying students via phone call.
It is commendable that measures have been put in place such as having health and family life education teachers and guidance counsellors provide support through online lessons. Nevertheless, if students are currently experiencing challenges accessing online learning platforms, then these measures would not impact the students that need this support the most.
After determining the extent of the challenge, developing a remedial curriculum to guide teachers on how to get students back on track is required. This curriculum must be tailored for students who are at different stages and progress with their learning.
It is imperative that the MOEYI draft a policy for schools in order to ensure that students achieve an acceptable level of performance before progressing to the next grade level. A transition or catch-up period is necessary to achieve this outcome.
EMPLOYING REMEDIAL PROFESSIONALS
The training and employment of more teachers that focus on special education is needed to provide remedial education. Upon reopening, selected schools should be better equipped with the ability to provide this support. Partnering with institutions that provide special education training, such as The Mico University College, is an important first step in improving the quality of teaching offered within schools.
Additionally, the MOEYI should consider paying for the deployment of additional guidance counsellors per school. Currently, the ratio of counsellors to students is 1 to 500, which is woefully inadequate.
Lastly, introducing community-based teaching for subjects, such as mathematics, should be implemented. Non-governmental organisations such as youth groups, churches, and other stakeholders should lead the way in teaching these subjects. These groups can engage with societies within schools like peer counsellors in order to provide needed support for students.
Utilising community groups is beneficial as they are able to maximise impact at a local level. Secondly, due to their numbers, these groups can improve the overall education situation if properly engaged. The Government can also consider using volunteers from the HOPE programme to support this programme.
Stakeholders such as the Ministry of Health and Wellness are playing an admirable job in the fight against COVID-19. Now, Jamaica’s education system needs to be equipped to address the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Implementing this four-step strategy is vital to preventing the creation of a lost generation of students left behind during this pandemic.
n David Salmon is a commissioner for the Early Childhood Commission. Send feedback to email@example.com or on Twitter @DavidSalmonJA.