‘I had to take care of mommy’
Many students forced to earn a living instead of returning to school
Droves of Jamaican students have relinquished their right to an education, lured away by meagre earnings they have clung to since hustling illegally during the postponement of face-to-face classes because of COVID-19 some two years ago. Some are...
Droves of Jamaican students have relinquished their right to an education, lured away by meagre earnings they have clung to since hustling illegally during the postponement of face-to-face classes because of COVID-19 some two years ago.
Some are said to be working at roadside garages, shops, in the markets and even as agents in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector. Others are said to be working on fishing beaches, begging or hustling at stop lights – perennial problems even before the pandemic.
As their peers returned to the classrooms, some students at the Bridgeport High School in St Catherine, for example, have outrightly told educators they have no intention of going back.
This is despite tedious efforts by the school’s administrators, backed by workers from the Ministry of Education and Youth’s Yard to Yard Find The Children initiative, launched in December.
In some cases, they are even threatened with the intervention of the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA), administrators have told The Sunday Gleaner. But that, too, has failed to turn some stubborn heads among the 20 pupils still absent from Bridgeport High School’s halls.
Last year, CPFSA said they had reports of some 250 girls impregnated between January 2020 and March 2021, and they expected that number to grow with increased reports of underage sex following the suspension of face-to-face learning.
Bridgeport High administrators said that increase was evident from their end.
“We have about nine students pregnant, while some, especially the boys, have decided that they want to go and learn a trade,” explained Audrey Forbes, a guidance counsellor at the Portmore-based school, which has 1,633 students enrolled.
“Then we have boys and girls who have told us that they are going to go and do the BPO. I don’t know how the BPO takes them at that age,” she argued, noting that most of the absentees are from grades 10 and 11.
When contacted, a senior manager at a BPO firm, who asked not to be named, said that his company does not employ underage persons, but said he would have to speak to other members of the sector on whether such a practice was taking place as there was a guideline across the board re “age of employment”.
The Bridgeport High guidance counsellor also told The Sunday Gleaner that “some of them have told us that they are going to be enrolled at HEART/NSTA Trust. They have said they want a skill, and they can’t bother with the classroom.”
Forbes added: “There are about 15 students who are no longer accepting our calls. The numbers that we dial no longer exist. Those are the ones for whom we have no location, their address on file no longer exists, and community members have said they have moved and they don’t know where they are.
“For some of them, we have to be using stringent measures, and threats to call the police, and that is how we get some of them back. But others we have just not been able to get to.”
‘FEEL A WAY’
Nineteen-year-old St Thomas student Byron Benbow* stopped attending high school weeks after the Government suspended face-to-face learning in March 2020.
He was in grade 10 and after months of being without a phone or electronic device to access online class, he gave up on school.
“In the last part before school reopened, me did get a tablet, but by that time, me never did too follow it (school) up,” he said sombrely last Friday, hours after he failed the mathematics component of the Jamaica Defence Force entrance test. Benbow passed the general knowledge and English language aspects of the test, but that was not enough to have him drafted.
“Mommy sick and is me did have the shop running. Is around them time there she lost her foot because of sugar (diabetes), so me did have to help take care of her,” said Benbow, his head hung low upon leaving Up Park Camp.
To make matters worse, Benbow’s brother was shot and killed in St Thomas earlier this year.
“I feel a way still to know I didn’t get to finish school because a lot of the things them that me did suppose to learn I never get to learn them. Me never get to leave school with any subjects so that make me feel a way,” he said, undeterred, however.
His next move is to go back to HEART to “learn electrical work”.
In Clarendon, Otis James, head of the James and Friends Foundation which has been sponsoring hundreds of students to return to school, said there are dozens of households with children who have not been back to school.
“You have to understand that a lot of their parents are domestic helpers, wash clothes and so on, and because of COVID-19, they have lost their jobs so they are not able to send the children back to school,” said James.
“Because of that, a lot of the students actually have to be sending themselves back to school. So they hustle, sell sweetie and them things there so they can get their lunch money to go back to school. It is not like they don’t want to go to school, but their parents just don’t have it,” adding that begging is another means of income for many students in the parish.