Education inequalities created by COVID-19

On September 1, the minister of education announced a delay in the reopening of schools to October 5 and advised that schools on New Providence, Abaco and Eleuthera are to resume classes remotely though private schools may be permitted to begin the semester ahead of the newly announced October start date.

On paper, arrangements appeared to be organized if overly ambitious and expensive. In reality, COVID-19 exposed a chasm which continues to separate education for the poor from the middle class and the latter from the wealthy.

We read in Monday’s edition of this newspaper, the painful account of a grandmother’s plight as she faced the prospect of preparing three grandchildren, who reside with her and whose parents are unable to contribute to their maintenance in any meaningful way, for the new school year.

This grandmother acknowledged that not only had she not yet registered her charges for the new school year but that the children did not have uniforms, books or individual computers/tablets. What is more, her residence did not have internet access. Without that, her grandchildren, whom she admitted were lagging behind in their reading levels when COVID-19 forced schools’ closures in March, could hardly hope to return to education virtually.

She said that her plan was to “wing it”.

Of course, “winging it” is not good enough if we hope to produce healthy, competent, skilled and productive candidates able to satisfy the needs of our economy.

We had hoped that the delay in the reopening of government schools would provide time for the necessary to be put in place so that no child would be disadvantaged by the mandate for all education to take place virtually.

Indeed, some would have recalled that, beginning with the introduction of cable services in the mid-1990s and the requirement for Cable Bahamas to provide one installation at every government-operated school, The Bahamas ranked amongst the most wired of countries internationally, theoretically permitting virtual education to take place on every populated island.

As long ago as December 2018, the prime minister announced that some 12,000 digital devices had been acquired for distribution in the schools. Then last month the minister of education gave assurances that students enrolled in the Ministry of Education lunch program would be supplied with tablets required to participate in virtual education classes.

The poor cannot afford computers for every child.

Many middle-income families, able to healthily feed and clothe children, are not financially able to provide each child with a personal tablet or computer.

Every home cannot provide a separate space for each child to follow their class level instruction without interruption or distraction.

Further, adult supervision of students participating in online classes at home creates additional challenges. This is especially so where parents or guardians are educationally ill-equipped to assist or where work schedules prevent parents from helping to keep children focused.

And then there is the continuing problem of dealing with an unreliable electricity supply and uneven internet bandwidth, at both the school and residence ends, that often prevent multiple children from connecting to online education platforms simultaneously; a problem aggravated when one or more parent must also work remotely from home.

Virtual education is clearly beyond the capacity of far too many.

We believe that government would be far better placed had it concentrated its efforts in making the government school system ready for face-to-face classes, beginning with providing free COVID-19 testing for all as a prerequisite to re-entering school.

Inadequate testing has proven to be the greatest challenge to schools reopening around the world.

Further, the time should have been used to reconfigure schools to accommodate physical distancing, install sanitizing and temperature check stations and provide ample supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers, administrators and students. 

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