COVID’s impact on our skills deficit

For longer than we wish to remember, employers have complained that too many high school graduates in The Bahamas are inadequately prepared to meet the needs of the economy.

These complaints are especially loud when annual BGCSE exam outcomes are made public, resulting in unflattering comparisons between the achievement levels of students in government-operated schools and those in private and religious-affiliated schools. Invariably, significantly higher percentages of graduates from private schools achieve higher passing grades than those in public schools.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a significant program of continuing education and lifelong learning has had to be developed at the University of The Bahamas to assist aspiring university students who, having finished secondary school, do not meet minimum university entrance requirements.

The education and training of students in Abaco and Grand Bahama was further scrambled by Hurricane Dorian. Hundreds of students were relocated to schools on other islands or in the United States (US) while hundreds of others attended makeshift classes under tents or not at all.

Imposed on this unhappy situation has been the year-and-a-half-and-counting COVID-19 pandemic which shuttered schools around the country, and the world, beginning in March 2020, forcing students onto online tutorials.

Students lost the last semester of the 2019-2020 school year, when schools nationwide were closed.

And many students are losing the 2021-2022 school year.

The strain on parents has been immense. Many children were withdrawn from private schools as some parents suffered job insecurity and many others unemployment. All had to contend with becoming the homeschool teachers as their children’s education was forced onto online education platforms.

Online education fared better in the private school systems where more students had easier, regular access to computers and more reliable access to the internet and electricity than did a large proportion of students in public schools.

Laudable efforts were made by the government with impressive assistance from civic-minded private sector businesses to put more technology within the reach of disadvantaged students.

Still, international studies suggest that even when done properly, online learning is a poor substitute for in-class education. On average, students’ performance is weaker when working online. This is especially so for students with weaker academic backgrounds.

Our reality, as recently noted by the director of education, is that as many as 30 percent of students in public schools never signed on to online classes. And additional numbers failed to sign in regularly.

Absenteeism negatively impacts student performance at the best of times. Absenteeism from online classes during the pandemic has cost many children a year of learning.

This result has been called unfinished learning by some policy analysts in the US, capturing the reality that many students did not complete all the learning that would be completed in a typical school year.

Most private and religious-affiliated schools have resumed in-person classes. Not so for public schools in New Providence, where most students are enrolled.

Many students have slipped backward, losing knowledge or skills they once had. Where these students are “socially promoted” to the next grade, they will arrive unprepared, missing many of the building blocks of knowledge that are necessary for success.

As damaging, say the experts, students who are made to repeat a year, typically drop out, never complete high school, and seldom move on to college. And even more seriously, many will leave school without the skills, behaviors, and mindsets to succeed in technical school, college or in the workforce.

This compounds the skills shortage in our labor market already a drag on the economy prior to Dorian or the pandemic.

Today’s health crisis has deepened our education predicament and adds to the skills deficit. These deficits require urgent prioritizing and action.

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