COVID-19 students: A generation in the balance

Student working on laptop
Student working on laptop (Photo credit: Katerina Holmes)

As we enter 2022, the start of the third year of the global pandemic, the impact on the education system continues to be felt, globally. The COVID-19 crisis has fueled school closures in over 200 countries around the globe and, in the process, severely disrupted the learning process of approximately two billion children. Countries with stable economies and those with the capabilities of incurring massive debt have fared better, because they have been able to provide the resources needed to support online learning and provide strict bio secure protocol in schools.

I have been in constant communication with former colleagues who are working in the education system in Jamaica. In one instance, at the beginning of the pandemic at one high school in Kingston and St Andrew, more than 50 per cent of the students in grades 10 and 11 dropped out after school closures and online learning was introduced. Male students accounted for the overwhelming majority of the dropouts. At another high school in Kingston and St Andrew, the teacher indicated that the boys were in a more perilous situation than the girls. The prime concern was that even though they possessed the resources for online learning they were performing at a third of their traditional level. The overriding concerns for these educators were, how would these students perform in their CXC and CAPE examinations.

For many of these students, life without school is like a desert without an oasis. These students are predominantly from the inner-city communities and deep rural communities. COVID 19 “mash up everything” this is the sentiment of one student. The one secure space has been removed, the only thing he can do is to babysit his younger siblings, he would rather do this than get caught up with “bad company”. Some identify schools as a safe space that is being taken away, safe away from the eyes of the police, away from the area dons and petty gangsters.

Since the closure of schools in March 2020 in Jamaica, approximately 120,000 children, as reported by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) have been disengaged from learning. Schools have limited or no direct contact with their students. These students, who have been lost to the learning process, represent upward of 25 per cent of those totally disengaged, with the remaining 75 per cent suffering from what may be deemed as unrecoverable learning loss and gaps. These instances cover enrolment in public primary and secondary schools.

This now begs the question, “What of the possible future for this generation of students and its likely impact on Jamaican society?” Unfinished learning is real and regrettable, the impact of the COVID education crisis will reverberate throughout the Jamaican society in decades to come. One of the primary impacts will be observed in crime and violence among youth 12 years and over in the community. For a country that is hitherto experiencing a rise in crime and violence among the unemployed and the unemployable. Other societal impacts will invariably include health and wellness issues, especially mental health, which carries a social stigma in the society. There will be a widening of the socioeconomic gap with the inner city and rural communities being typically affected the most.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has petitioned the government to intensify its effort to access and provide support for the 120,000 children who have been lost to learning. The longer it takes for a genuine solution to be found the longer the setback will be. The government needs to act promptly. It has had almost two years to prepare and adapt to the pandemic. It is time for them to carefully look at the best practices in other jurisdictions. It is an opportunity to correct some of the fundamental flaws that exist in our education system. 

They need to provide and expand social protection for those families who require it most. What is the government and civil society doing for the adolescent girls who have become victims of pregnancy due to school closure and other socio-economic fallout exacerbated by the pandemic

Jamaica is confronting a monumental crisis in the education system and only the tip of the iceberg is being shown. What we require is a complete reset. Schools need to be reopened safely with strict bio secure protocols in place. There needs to be financial support provided to families to sustain a robust online support system. Universal internet access is needed across the country and flexible work and leave arrangements must be provided for parents. The social, psychological support services departments must provide ongoing psychological support for children, and more reliable mechanisms must be established to detect and report child abuse.

The call is now for commitment and action to rescue this generation of students. Otherwise, we will be experiencing social and economic dislocation for years to come. In 1974, when the JAMAL Foundation was established it had as its primary goal the eradication of illiteracy among the adult population in the shortest possible time and to ensure that these adults could participate, meaningfully, in the social and economic development of the country. If the rescue operation of our children does not begin now, we will end up developing a JAMAL programme on steroids. Our children are our present and future, rescue them now. “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind”.

Fernon Wilson is a Jamaican born educator working in Toronto, Canada.

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