The unintended consequences of the pandemic on education

Pupils at school during the pandemic
Pupils at school during the pandemic (Photo credit: Pavel Danilyuk)

The third academic year of pandemic learning has ended. Things have gradually returned to normal with students getting back into activities that were near and dear to them. The pandemic had brought along school closures, mask-wearing, temperature checks, and physical distancing among other safety protocols. Although most of these restrictions were lifted within the last three months of the school year, some measures, like mask wearing, were strongly recommended by the medical officers of health to continue although not mandated. The ongoing pandemic has left behind some unintended consequences, it has resulted in interrupted learning which has left many deprived of opportunities for growth and development. This has had a disproportionate effect on the less privileged learners who had fewer academic opportunities to start with. Remote learning has led to a widening of the disparity due to the unavailability of the needed human and capital resources required to address these concerns.

In all likelihood, the most extensive fallout from the pandemic represents the unprecedented wave of mental health issues that have affected students at all levels of the education system. This may have a lasting impact.  Across all levels of the system, there is evidence of increased levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep problems, and general burnout. All these conditions can be traced back to the pandemic and the methods used to contain it at various intervals. These include lockdown, isolation, general fear, and psychological stressors.

Another impacting consequence of the pandemic is the rising violence among teens in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The number of murders and other violent offences committed by children between the ages of 13 and 17, since the start of the year, has quadrupled compared to similar periods before the pandemic. In some communities, the lockdown that took place meant that teens and young adults did not have a secure space to hang out in the form of community centres, churches, schools, or even malls. This situation was not unique to the GTA. There were similar instances in the USA and Jamaica. Although violence is endemic in Jamaican schools, the situation seems to have spiked in some communities after 18 months of school closure and the reopening of the education system for in-person learning. There seems to be a correlation between the lengthy period of closure and isolation and the spike in violence, particularly gun violence. I must hasten to say that although there seems to be some correlation it does not necessarily imply causation.

There were other consequences brought about by the pandemic and unless they are addressed on an ongoing basis the residual effects will remain. School closures, hybrid learning, and constant absenteeism of both students and teachers due to illness resulted in learning gaps. Until these issues are intentionally dealt with there will be performance gaps at various levels of society for years to come. When the pandemic hit, teachers were asked to take on virtual instruction at short notice. A task many felt ill-prepared for both in terms of their skills and the technology available to their students.

When schools were reopened, teachers became frontline workers who risked infections and their lives to come into the classroom. The job of a teacher has become so demanding that many teachers have suffered from burnout, resulting in physical and mental challenges of their own. They are navigating increased violence in schools, a pandemic, and, in some instances, political interference in curriculum delivery.

In the broad context, in many jurisdictions, teachers have long been underpaid professionals. In some instances where teachers may be getting close to a living wage, they are often vilified by members of society as lazy and accused of being overpaid with a lot of time off work, vis a vis summer vacation.

The challenges and the roller coaster ride of the pandemic will be with us for a while. More unintended consequences may surface as the conditions persist. We must adjust and identify creative solutions to tackle the unknown. Meantime, students and teachers enjoy your summer break without guilt and get ready to encounter the unknown in the fall. Fernon Wilson is a Jamaica educator living in New York

Fernon Wilson is a Jamaican educator living in Canada.

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