Thu | Oct 22, 2020

Educators fear students falling behind - COVID-19 puts holidays, exam prep under threat as access challenges linger

Published:Friday | September 18, 2020 | 12:14 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Jasford Gabriel, president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association.
Jasford Gabriel, president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association.
Lynton Weir, president of the Association of Principals and Vice-Principals.
Lynton Weir, president of the Association of Principals and Vice-Principals.

School administrators and teachers are growing increasingly concerned over the inability of many students to access lessons remotely as they prepare to resume classes in a few weeks. The disruption to the academic calendar could also mean shortened Christmas and Easter holidays as they try to claw back time to complete this year’s lessons.

Speaking during a virtual Gleaner Editors’ Forum yesterday, Jamaica Teachers’ Association President Jasford Gabriel expressed dissatisfaction with the prevailing learning environment since schools were ordered closed in March.

Chief among his concerns is the lack of access to the Internet and inadequate devices for thousands of students to fully participate in classes from their homes.

The issue was highlighted in a recent UNICEF-CAPRI study, which revealed that during the last school term, the levels of online engagement varied by age group, with children in the pre/basic-school group having the lowest – 75 per cent.

Additionally, the study found that in a third of households, students did not have exclusive access to a device.

“We will try our best in terms of the diagnostic testing, and we do differentiated learning, and so on, so we can always extract in terms of those who need additional support, but it’s going to be quite a task to bridge that gap and also to be infusing the new curriculum so that our students are able to realistically sit external exams,” Gabriel said yesterday.

He found support in the president of the Association of Principals and Vice-Principals, Lynton Weir, who was worried that students could be affected in external exams, especially if there is no adjustment in syllabi on the part of the Caribbean Examinations Council, which administers secondary exit exams across the region.

Weir, who is also principal of Old Harbour High School in St Catherine, said that despite the academic year not officially started, his institution has gone ahead to commence online classes for fifth-form students, who will be sitting external exams next year.

“We are mindful and concerned about the other students as well, but as it is right now, we have to pay attention to the groups writing [external] exams,” Weir reasoned, adding that at least seven other schools have taken a similar step.

A Fayval Williams-chaired Education COVID-19 Management Task Force set up to arrive at a consensus on the reopening and management of schools amid the pandemic will be having its first meeting today.

Schools were initially set to kick off the new year on September 7 before a spike in COVID-19 cases triggered a one-month delay.

Weir said based on the COVID-19 case count, the October 5 start date “is not realistic at this time, but that’s not my call”.

“One of the things I will be proposing is that based on the losses that we have experienced, we will now have to look critically at the holidays that exist. The Christmas holiday that is coming up, we will have to look at it – how much of it will we be able to take back? We will also have to look at the Easter term, and parents and students will have to shift their minds when we reach that bridge,” said Weir, who is also a member of the task force.

The principal also pointed out that teachers cannot bear all the added costs that will come with hosting classes online.

“There needs to be an increase so that our teachers will be able to put themselves in a position to make provisions for their classes as it relates to Internet connectivity, devices, and the different capital costs that are going to be injected,” he said.