Editorial | Crusade against anxieties and learning loss
While we acknowledge the initiative by the health and education ministries to address the pandemic-worsened anxieties and other mental health problems faced by Jamaican students, this newspaper is concerned that a summer hiatus in the programme may cause a reversal of gains recently made. We also fear the possibility of a loss of ground in the efforts to catch up on the learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last week, the island’s schools, having only fully reopened in March after two years of limited face-to-face classes, went on their normal summer recess. They will reopen in September. In other words, most students will be out of class for at least eight weeks. Some may be invited in for special sessions at some point over the summer. However, there will be no mandatory and full-scale extension of the school year.
We raise these concerns on two fronts.
Even in the best of times – assuming the pre-pandemic period was such a time – Jamaica’s education system was not in a healthy condition. As the Patterson Commission Report on its overhaul highlighted, of children preparing to begin their secondary education, a third cannot read, or can barely do so. Fifty-six per cent can scarcely write, and 58 per cent are unable to discern ideas or extract information from simple English sentences.
Less than half of the secondary students who sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams pass five subjects (considered basic for matriculation to tertiary education or to relatively decent jobs) in a single sitting. Of those who pass five subjects at one sitting, only 28 per cent manage to achieve those passes with mathematics and English among them. We also know of the acute problems of the early-childhood sector and the ill-preparedness of large numbers of children for primary education.
It is against this backdrop that COVID-19 happened. It caused a suspension of in-class teaching and learning. Attempts at online delivery of classes were problematic. The education ministry, after the first year of the pandemic, reported that it could not account for 120,000 students, approximately 28 per cent of the enrolment in primary and secondary schools. In May, when the ministry last provided data, it still had no trace of 27,000 of those students, approximately 23 per cent of the original ‘lost’ cohort.
UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, in an analysis endorsed by Jamaica’s education authorities, estimated that it would take between two and three years, and the expenditure of billions of additional dollars, to make up the learning loss. It is unlikely that the fact that six per cent of the primary- and high-school enrolment still being accounted for at this stage was factored into that assessment.
Like many watchers of the system, we are not convinced that the programme for catching up has been as robust or as sustained as the circumstances require. We worry, too, that the system for transitioning students to higher classes remains essentially intact, unadjusted for the post-pandemic circumstance. In other words, many marginally equipped students will be promoted. Except that some might have extra lessons in the few weeks before schools reopen, on the basis of pre-holiday test results.
Second, we fear the likely lapse in some of the discipline and structure that were being rebuilt in students after the trauma of the pandemic and the long period away from the classroom, which, for many, was their primary environment of social stability.
Indeed, many schools, on the resumption of face-to-face classes, reported increased incidents and dysfunction and violence among students. There have been two cases of murder. As Dr Judith Leiba, the health ministry’s director of child and adolescent mental health, told the Observer newspaper, during the pandemic, many students had a sense of isolation and some, who couldn’t log on to digital classes, felt stigmatised.
These feelings of alienation manifested in the classrooms, often with bad interpersonal relationships, which sometimes descended to violence. The good thing, as the anecdotal evidence, such as that provided by Clan Carthy High School in Kingston, showed, is that robust intervention works.
“COVID did a lot of damage and caused setbacks,” Clan Carthy’s vice-principal, Laurel James, told The Gleaner last week. “Nothing was normal when we started out [after the lockdown].” Disagreements quickly turned angry and violent.
Things settled after a programme instituted by the school’s guidance counsellors, including weekly ‘empowerment’ sessions with students. Separately, Clan Carthy is one of 50 schools earmarked by the health ministry for a special mental health initiative – 30 face-to-face sessions and the remainder online.
We, however, believe that the scale of the problem demands far more. In that regard, we repeat our suggestion of last November when a return to face-to-face face classes was being contemplated. The reopening of schools should be accompanied by an army of all the “schools’ guidance counsellors, psychologists and child psychiatrists they can muster for this extended campaign”.
Indeed, there should be no break in this crusade for summer or other holidays. Because there are not sufficient specialist skills for each school individually, experts should be rotated across the system.
It is not too late to ramp up this existing initiative along these lines. What is at stake is too great for us not to.