Sat | Dec 5, 2020

400,000 may be in cyber limbo - Online deficit could leave students behind

Published:Monday | October 5, 2020 | 12:14 AMCarl Gilchrist/Gleaner Writer
Zenita Brown, a grade five student at Brown’s Town Primary School in St Ann, collects a tablet from Education Minister Fayval Williams on Sunday. In the background is Conroy Ward, chairman of the school board.
Zenita Brown, a grade five student at Brown’s Town Primary School in St Ann, collects a tablet from Education Minister Fayval Williams on Sunday. In the background is Conroy Ward, chairman of the school board.

Hundreds of thousands of Jamaican students may be unable to tap into online learning because of inaccessibility to computers at home as the academic year gets under way today, Education Minister Fayval Williams has said.

The yawning vacuum in access to laptops and tablets – 400,000, according to the minister – forebodes a dire resumption for schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended face-to-face classes and could further marginalise children who are poor or who live in remote, hilly communities. Classes will also be aired on TV and printed materials delivered at drop-off points.

Speaking on Sunday during a two-school tour in St Ann, Williams said that more than 200,000 students had already logged on to the Learning Mangement System (LMS) – a portal that will be key to rigidly following syllabi and engagement with teachers.

That admission dovetails with the narrative of key teachers and principals’ stakeholder groups that have lamented that thousands of schoolchildren are in danger of being left behind.

“We recognise there is another 400,000 or so students across the education sector that may be without a device, and so the Government has put in place a programme to ensure that our students across the education sector get a laptop or a tablet,” Williams said.

The Government has committed to providing a $20,000 voucher for tablets and laptops to 36,000 students who do not subscribe to the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH), a state welfare initiative. But the minister cautioned that the scale of need was perhaps beyond the target set by the Holness administration.

“We will be taking registration because that programme can only extend to 36,000 students, and we’re sure that there are way more than 36,000 students, so we have to have a very transparent way of taking registration and using eligibility criteria in order to distribute the $20,000,” she said.

The vouchers will be redeemable at vendors that would have been vetted by e-Learning Jamaica, a state agency.

Williams delivered 126 tablets to Brown’s Town Primary and 18 to Alva Primary and Infant on Sunday as part of the Government’s programme to roll out 40,000 tablets for students in grades four, five, and six and who are on PATH.

This programme started on Friday, October 2, at the Holy Family Primary School in Kingston.

The ministry will then begin distributing laptops to students in grades 10 to 13 in high school and on the PATH programme.

Sunday’s donations to Alva and Brown’s Town were welcomed by school administrators, but their diagnosis of the problems of access to the Internet and computers offered insight into the gravity of the crisis.

Principal at Alva Primary, Claudine Brown-Bartley, expressed gratitude for the 18 tablets but is “desperately appealing” for more equipment for the rest of her 230 students on roll.

Brown-Bartley said that while a local cable company, along with FLOW and Digicel, has been providing Internet service, access is limited. Her comments are a refrain that can be heard all across Jamaica: The service is unstable or dysfunctional. That is a forceful reminder that children in deep-rural communities such as Alva, Nine Miles, Eight Miles, Stepney, Murray Mountain, among others, will be at a greater disadvantage than already exists through structural disparities compared to their more well-off counterparts in urban settings.

Acting principal at Brown’s Town Primary, Monica Campbell-Coley, said that while she appreciated the 126 tablets delivered on Sunday, many more were needed. Her student population numbers 977.

Campbell-Coley said that the 126 tablets would go towards some of the 320 students at her school who are on PATH.

“We’ll be soliciting other stakeholders to see how best we can get some other tablets to make this progamme a success,” Campbell-Coley said, adding that already, one past student had donated 50 tablets to the school. At Brown’s Town, at least 30 per cent of students so far have logged on to the LMS.

At Sunday’s ceremony, eight students attending Brown’s Town Primary were each given a tablet compliments of New Fortress Energy.

Williams appeared to be well seized of the structural imbalance that affects Jamaican schools – even in the non-COVID-19 era.

“There shouldn’t be such a wide disparity among schools. Parents should be indifferent as to where students go to school because they know that they will be getting a very high level of education in those schools,” the minister said.

The Government has so far distributed 25,000 tablets to teachers. More than 18,000 have registered on the LMS.