Thu | Dec 2, 2021

Editorial | Mission to reopen schools

Published:Wednesday | October 27, 2021 | 1:52 AM

The eight organisations, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which this week published an open letter to the Government, estimated that Jamaica’s students have lost around 1.3 billion in-class hours in the 19 months since face-to-face schooling was suspended because of COVID-19.

Put differently, that is equivalent to more than 148,000 accumulated years of direct contact between teachers and hundreds of thousands of students in the environment where teaching and learning happen best. It has the makings of a social disaster, with long-term consequences.

Indeed, the impact of the loss has begun to tell. It shows in the over 10 percentage point decline (to 73.3 per cent from 83.9 per cent in 2020) in passes for English at this year’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations.

It shows, too, in the collapse of the performance in mathematics in the same exam. In 2020, 61.2 per cent who wrote the maths test received passing grades. This year, only 38.2 per cent did, reversing the gains of recent years. English and mathematics are considered core subjects, necessary for Jamaican students to master if the island is to build a modern, competitive economy.

Long before the pandemic, there was consensus that Jamaica’s education system faced deep problems. Historically, less than 20 per cent of the island’s 60,000-plus CSEC students passed five subjects in a single sitting, the normal requirement for direct matriculation to tertiary education. In secondary education, around a fifth of students do not complete their schooling. Before then, perhaps a third of primary-level students are ill-prepared to seamlessly move to secondary education.

We worry that without urgent action, the pandemic-induced disruption will exacerbate the crisis, with the unsalvageable loss of a generation of Jamaicans. Indeed, as Education Minister Fayval Williams acknowledged in May, during the last school year more than 120,000 students were missing from the school system. They did not log on to online classes, and their schools heard nothing from them. That figure was approximately 30 per cent of all students enrolled in government-run schools.

REAL DEPTH OF THE PROBLEM

The absenteeism is only slightly less in the current school year. Yet, the data masks the real depth of the problem. Many students who log into online classes are only transitorily engaged. Many do not have consistent access to digital devices with which to join the classes, or their families cannot afford the cost of mobile data or fixed-service Internet connection. Or, the other available ways of being taught are not practical to their circumstances.

It is against that backdrop that we support the call by the signatories of the open letter (employers’ representatives, private-sector/trade organisations and teachers, youth and parents advocacy bodies) for the Government to urgently map a strategy for an early, and safe, reopening of schools and the return to face-to-face teaching.

On this matter, the administration has been largely opaque and inchoate, seemingly preferring, as with much of its COVID-19-containment policies, to lead from the rear, then catch up with prevailing public sentiment.

It must now lead from the front – with clarity. In this regard, the administration recently took tentative steps on which it can build: the decision to allow, at some schools, the return to in-class teaching for students preparing for CSEC, or higher, exams.

In advancing this process, the administration must fully engage school principals, whose association is a signatory to the open letter, on how their institution can be safely reopened and adhere to health protocols to prevent the spread of the disease.

Geoinformatics analysis can help to inform policymakers and administrators on how to limit the health risks of students travelling to and from school; and opt-out arrangements for students who face peculiar challenges should also be considered.

Further, given its faux pas in using the first batch of Pfizer vaccines to inoculate all age groups, rather than only children, as was originally planned, the administration has to consider the practicality of its policy requiring 60 per cent vaccination rate among students for the reopening of schools. Or, it has to show a credible pathway for the vaccination of students in a short time.

ONLY THE FIRST PART

Getting children back in school quickly, however, is only the first part of the strategy for mitigating the looming education and social crisis. A UNICEF-World Bank analysis, the letter’s signatory pointed out, showed that Jamaica needs to invest between J$2.4- and J$3.9-billion to cushion the learning loss, and other impacts, of the school closures. Failure to make that investment will, over time, cost Jamaica J$828-billion.

As this newspaper recalled gnarly a year and half ago when Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced the Orlando Patterson-led committee on the future of education, in 2004 the Rae Davis-led task force recommended that Jamaica increase its education budget by J$220-billion, or J$22-billion a year over a decade, if it wanted to lift outcomes to credible levels and provide a platform to meet the demands of a competitive global environment.

After an initial flutter, the funding was not sustained. Today’s situation insists that even in the face of the fiscal constraints, the recommended additional spending (an increase of less than four per cent on the current education budget) for COVID-19 mitigation has to be found. The potential cost of failure to do so is too great.