Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Editorial | Transparency in protocols for classroom teaching

Published:Wednesday | October 28, 2020 | 12:14 AM

It has been more than a month since this newspaper urged Fayval Williams, the education minister, to bring to the table for frank discussions, and a sharing of the geo-mapping data, on how, where, and under what circumstances schools may be reopened safely, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. She had faced pushback by teachers’ groups to her call for a return to classroom teaching.

Minister Williams has not reported, at least not publicly, on if, or how far, she has taken our suggestion, although recent pronouncements by Prime Minister Andrew Holness imply that the Government now has specific ideas for implementing the plan.

That, though insufficient, is welcome. For as Jamaica goes deeper into its experiment with online education, the island’s digital divide, running alongside the social and economic ones, is increasingly making clear the need for face-to-face contact between some categories of students and their teachers.

As we argued in our September 23 comment on this matter, there is little substitute for live classroom teaching, given the opportunity it offers for skilled teachers to coax and inspire students to perform. And as we said then, too, “the school environment affords for the development of interpersonal skills and community engagement”. This, of course, is important in the context of Jamaica’s high level of social dysfunction, including its stratospheric levels of crime, especially homicides.

Such assertions, though, can have the appearance of abstractions that do not capture the lived realities of large swathes of Jamaicans, such as have been reflected in two recent and compelling reports in this newspaper, highlighting how many already underperforming and deprived students are being left further behind educationally in this coronavirus crisis.

One is Ronald Thwaites’ example, in his column on Monday, which highlighted the problems faced by one rural high school, most of whose intake of grade seven students, including the cohort it received last month, are usually vastly ill-prepared for secondary education. Of that school’s 1,000 students, Mr Thwaites reported, teachers estimate that only a sixth (less than 17 per cent) are reached for online classes “on any given day”. Further, the school has not been able to contact a fifth (20 per cent) of its grade-seven entrants, “who uniformly score 50 per cent or less for whichever grade six they take”.

“Of the 80 per cent who have registered and have been evaluated, only one quarter (25 per cent) can read and compute at a level required for grade seven,” Mr Thwaites reported. Clearly, these students are in need of remediation, which can only happen if they are in school and in contact with teachers.

Problems such as those highlighted by Mr Thwaites are all too common in Jamaica’s education system, once you go beyond the top 50 or so high schools. Earlier this month, for example, a week into the online reopening of schools, only 45 per cent of the 1,162 registered students at Holy Trinity High School in downtown Kingston had logged on to classes. Additionally, only 71 per cent (160 out of 225) of its first-formers (grade-seven students) – who, like those at the school referenced by Mr Thwaites, will require much remedial work – had registered for online classes. Many teachers are willing to take on the classroom engagement.

Some of these students who are not engaged, mostly because their parents cannot afford the digital technologies or the continuing cost of data services, remain unsupervised at home and may be susceptible not only to the coronavirus. They are in danger, too, of being ensnared by negative social influences that are better kept at distance in the school environment.

CASE-BY-CASE BASIS

All this notwithstanding, we fully appreciate the concerns of many teachers and their organisations, such as the Jamaica Teachers’ Association and Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, about subjecting educators, students and the administrative staff of schools to the potential ravages of COVID-19, which has already been contracted by nearly 9,000 Jamaicans, 196 of whom have died.

In the event, the reopening of schools has to be on a case-by-case basis, subject to agreement between their boards, management, teachers and parents, and the endorsement of their operating protocol by the Ministry of Health & Wellness. The application of geoinformatics and demographic data to this process, to help in the minimising of risks, makes sense. These skills exist in Jamaica.

But we repeat: the reopening of schools, in a climate of real and not unreasonable fear, cannot be merely a top-down imposition. It has to be the result of a genuine partnership.

Presumably, given the prime minister’s recent statements, there may be back-room dialogue between the Government and teaching interests on the issue. That, however, leaves out parents, who are critical stakeholders.

Minister Williams must now start telling this group, and others, how geoinformatics work, where the schools are that can be reopened, why and what are the reasonable precautions that will be taken to keep students and teachers safe. She must be transparent. Indeed, those who do these analyses, and the information itself, should be available to all stakeholders so that everyone can be invested in the enterprise. It is called building trust. There is not much time to get it done.