Mon | Apr 19, 2021

Ronald Thwaites | Repeating the school year

Published:Monday | March 1, 2021 | 12:07 AM
With COVID-19 cases on the rise and face-to-face learning having had to be suspended there are concerns that the vast majority of grade six, 11, 12 and 13 students are ill-prepared for exams.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise and face-to-face learning having had to be suspended there are concerns that the vast majority of grade six, 11, 12 and 13 students are ill-prepared for exams.

We have done something like this before. During the 1950s when the polio epidemic struck, many schools which had to close for long periods, on resumption, repeated all or part of the time lost for those who had been absent. Sure, back then there was no possibility of virtual learning, but homeschooling among the small middle class was frequent. What is significant is that a crisis of lost learning was recognised, and there was no hesitation or delusion as to the need for a radical response.

Contrast our situation now. It is March, the pandemic is raging like Gilbert and has become so overwhelming that even the weak and indecisive efforts at resuming face-to-face learning have had to be suspended. Knowing full well that the vast majority of grade six, 11, 12 and 13 students are ill-prepared – many still functionally illiterate – we are trying to cram them for likely watered-down exams in the next few months.

For the rest, the most coherent but wholly inadequate proposal which I have heard involves some testing for COVID-19-induced emotional and psychological shortcomings (by whom and to what end?) and the deployment of some coaches in schools to help children catch up.

Teachers and parents are making their plans and budgets for the summer recess now, heedless of the tentative suggestion by a few wise educators that the customary eight- to 10-week vacation ought to be shortened or cancelled.

NO ASSURANCE

None of these measures meet the gravity of the learning-loss challenge which is upon us. No one can give the assurance that continued infections will not prevent most returning to class for the next quarter, which is when the remainder of teaching and learning takes place in any academic year. May and June, even if they were to become feasible from a public health standpoint, are universally employed for revising, term exams and end-of-year activities – not remediating for one year’s loss.

More realistically, there is reasonable prospect that teachers and those students and families who are most vulnerable should be vaccinated by September.

The safest and most effective recourse, albeit the most far-reaching, is to admit the depth of the learning deficit, acknowledge the likelihood of the present peril continuing for the next few months, and plan to start back school in September from where they left off last March. In short, for most students, it will mean repeating the school year.

INTERRUPTION

Before you retch at the idea, consider its advantages. Politically, it avoids troubling teachers’ routines, which any government is afraid to do, especially when there is little or no salary increase to compensate, while many will not take kindly to the interruption of their increased extra lessons earnings.

Surely, it adds predictability to planning and overcomes the jerkiness of current virtual and face-to-face efforts. Also, my suggestion gives time to vaccinate; plan extensive mental well-being reconstruction; the opportunity to arrange better systems of school feeding; experiment with zoning; and engineer much-needed curriculum reform to fit the needs of a reconstructed economy, the human resource requirements of which no one envisaged before last March.

Giving examination candidates the chance to defer their sittings will improve the likelihood of more authentic passes and remove the suspicion of diluted standards. For this reason alone, parents and employers should support the direction.

Trust school principals to find ways of advancing that minority of students whose learning loss has been genuinely minimal and for whom repeating a year would be a setback.

I foresee a logistical challenge in accommodating the roughly 30,000 little ones who will need space in early-childhood institutions so as not to delay their start of formal schooling. This is the cohort for which temporary additional space in churches, private facilities and empty schoolrooms can most easily be created, and teachers and caregivers affordably employed.

Universities, already battered, will also probably not see the volume of matriculants needed for their survival. Solving this problem is part of the much more complex issue of financing tertiary education, to which this column will return. But the alternative of admitting hosts of underachieving students cannot be an option.

Jamaica needs to use the March to August period for robust co-curricular and recreational activities in every community. As safety protocols permit, every school-age person needs to be engaged in day camps, community work programmes and otherwise taken away from the idleness and temptation of the unsupervised yards or the street corner. We need an active, imaginative, properly resourced youth programme now as a part of national security as well as education.

A move of this magnitude requires time for deeper consideration and refinement than can be attempted here. But time is not on our side. Neither a return to effective schooling nor the alternatives proposed can be effected very quickly. An education system, particularly ours, is a heavy apparatus, resistant to change, therefore thoughtful decisions have to be crafted very soon if we are to avoid continued delusion, uncertainty and seat-of-the-pants planning.

Can you think of any more crucial matter for national discourse and decision?

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.