With no electricity supply for months now, several children we met on Deveaux Street this past Saturday morning have pretty much had no schooling at all this term, their 38-year-old mother told us while holding the youngest child in her arms.
All around her, the little ones darted busily across the dirt yard, seemingly carefree, but with no access to learning, we imagine they have significant challenges.
The small wooden house where Shaketra Brown lives with her eight children — ages 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 8, 6 and 2 — is sectioned off, and is also home to her boyfriend’s relatives, including other children who are school-aged, but who are being left behind in learning.
When we asked how many children in total live there, Brown paused, then admitted it is quite a few to call off without really thinking about it.
“They get online sometimes, but they haven’t been online for quite a while,” she admitted. “There’s a little challenge with the internet and the light situation. We don’t have any light at the moment.”
She said her five children, who should be in school, logged on “one or two days” since the school year started.
“It does concern me because it’s slowing them down on their learning,” Brown told National Review.
“I really wish that they can get back in school like they normally do because over the past year [and more] now, constantly having them home is more challenging to me because they are always around, they are missing out on their education, so I feel as if they need to be back in school.”
Brown’s children are among the many Over-the-Hill students for whom the pandemic has hit much harder than other children — though families from all socio-economic backgrounds have faced, and continue to face, significant challenges in continuing their children’s education during a protracted period of school closures to face-to-face learning.
“While we gear ourselves up to reform education in this country, we are faced on a simultaneous basis with an immediate and daunting crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic,” Minister of Education Glenys Hanna-Martin said in Parliament recently.
On street after street in communities we visited on the weekend, we had up-close experiences of just how daunting the situation is for so many.
Many, like Brown and her children, have no electricity supply, no internet, no running water and, in many cases, no jobs.
In some instances, wherever the children lay their heads at nights in the decades-old, small spaces in which they reside, is where they sleep.
When they awake, they are not getting dressed to attend school — not in person, and not online either.
Last month, Director of Education Marcellus Taylor said 30 percent of students in the public school system were not logging on for classes. We shudder to think of the long-term impact this will have on these students, their communities, and the nation as a whole, especially given the fact that long before the pandemic, our education crisis was already grave.
Dezree Taylor, a teacher at Stephen Dillet Primary School, who introduced us to families in the area on the weekend, understands the dilemma better than many.
“They’re not logging on,” said Taylor, herself a proud product of the inner-city. “I have 30 children in my class and, every day, if I get 12 children log on, it’s plenty. And the 12 that log on, after break, some are not coming back, so I have to all day, in between trying to teach, call parents; ‘I don’t see this one; I don’t see that one’.
“Parents are at work; children are left home and we don’t understand how far-reaching this thing is. When you leave your girl children at home, and your boy children, because we just focus a whole lot on the little girls, but can I tell you, the world is upside down now with evil.
“When you leave them home, they become preys to predators; people know that they’re home. Sometimes, they lure them with things, especially the inner-city children.”
We imagine that in addition to Brown’s school-aged children not being in school, the other children we met in the yard on Deveaux Street on Saturday are not either.
Brown said it is a challenge caring for the children — “who are constantly hungry being home all day, every day” — but she said their father, who works on a cay, supports them the best way he can.
She, herself, is unemployed, and will soon be a grandmother as her eldest daughter, who is 17, is now pregnant.
Fearing it might be insensitive to ask Brown why she has had so many children given the tough circumstances, we instead asked her whether she intends to have more. She quickly responded that she is done, as her two-year-old snuggled closely against her, looking on curiously.
Not far away on Windsor Lane, Carla Taylor, a 36-year-old mother of three, has seen better days.
Taylor has three sons, ages 15, 13 and two.
She told us she used to work at Baha Mar, but was made redundant in June 2020.
It has been extra tough since, Taylor said.
“I’ve filled out a lot of applications,” she said. “I’ve been on a couple interviews. I’m just waiting for a call back. I was a room attendant. It’s very difficult because I was so used to working and making that money, and all of a sudden don’t have a job and can’t take care of them the way that I used to, so it’s been really tough because I’m not the type of person used to not being able to take care of my kids. They were always straight until the pandemic hit.”
Her only source of income is the weekly $100 government unemployment assistance she gets. The children’s father does what he can, she said, but added that she is a single mom.
Taylor lives in a tiny home with her children, her retired mother and her sister, near the area known as “The Big Yard”.
Her eldest son, a 10th-grader at C. I. Gibson Senior High School, logs on for online school at her father’s house, she told us.
Her younger son, a seventh-grader at T. A. Thompson Junior High School, stays at home with her and her youngest child.
“But sometimes, like right now, our internet is off, so my neighbor allowed him to come next door to use the internet until I turn it back on, but when it’s on, I make sure he’s in class every day, but it’s a challenge when the internet goes and I don’t have the money right away to turn it back on, because, you know, I have to deal with the baby; he usually takes most of the NIB (unemployment assistance). I have to make sure he’s straight first,” the mother said.
Brown and Taylor, and many other parents, are elated to hear public schools are set to reopen to face-to-face learning in January. Earlier this year, officials had put in place a hybrid system, but with COVID-19 cases soaring in September, in a deadly third wave, there was a return to virtual learning, as was the case in the initial months of the pandemic.
“I will be really happy (when in-person starts). It’s just the challenge of finding uniforms for them to go back to school. That’s the only challenge I have, but I’m glad they’re opening school,” said Taylor, the mother of three boys.
She said they will be able to “learn better”.
Asked what it would mean to her to have the boys back in school, in person, she said, “They could focus more inside the classroom than home. They wouldn’t have much distractions. But at home, you got people walking up and down. Sometimes, you really forget that they are on Zoom.”
Schools like Stephen Dillet also provide food for children, and a safe haven for many students during the day.
Taylor is fighting to ensure her boys are safe. Raising boys in a community where so much crime happens is incredibly hard, she told us.
“It gives me chills just to hear you talk about it,” she responded when we broached the topic of crime. “It happened so close right in my neighborhood. It’s really tough because, especially with me, I have boys and they are very easily influenced, but especially [the younger one].”
Her 13-year-old son, Drexel, looked on quietly as she spoke.
He later told us, “Staying home isn’t fun. If you are face to face, it’s more than fun. You can learn more stuff than being on phones.”
A few corners down on Quakoo Street, a 53-year-old grandmother, Sandra Smith, understands well the pain of losing someone to crime in the area. Her eldest son was shot in the head and killed on Windsor Lane late last month.
The crime happened less than four months after her eldest daughter died, just one day after Smith’s birthday in June. Her daughter left behind three children, ages 18, 15 and 13.
Smith said her daughter, 32, had also been a victim of a shooting incident, which impacted her kidneys.
She now cares for the children her daughter has left behind, with a particular focus on her 13-year-old grandson, who does not know his father.
“I’m all he’s got,” said Smith, as she stood in the tight doorway of her modest home next to a wreath.
She held up a large framed photo of her daughter as she tried to explain her loss.
“I feel so bad inside,” she said, her cheeks wet with tears, “but I can’t let myself get down because if I get down, [there is] no one to take care of the kids, so I just take it one day at a time and I just pray and ask God to just help me because that’s the only person that can help you.”
Smith has not yet buried her son. She said she had hoped she would be doing so the same day we visited but she used her money giving her daughter a good burial and did not yet have the money to lay her son to rest.
Smith also takes care of two other grandchildren. Though she said she is extremely careful where she allows them to go and who they are allowed to be around, she had allowed her niece to take them out on Saturday for “a bit of fun”.
We were disappointed that we did not get to meet the children, especially her grandson, Tarino, the 13-year-old whom she spoke about for much of our conversation.
Smith, who had been enjoying a nap when we arrived, said with a chuckle she sleeps better when she gets a little break from the kids.
But her tone shifted as she spoke about the struggle to make ends meet.
“It’s hard,” she said. “If I hustle $100, I just make sure the children eat. Sometimes, I don’t even save nothing. I don’t like them going to people begging because sometimes when children go places around people begging, you don’t know what they will do to children.”
Smith lives in a one-bedroom house with the children. As we peered in, we wondered aloud where everyone sleeps.
“We fit it the best way we could; however we fit in, we just jam up because to let them go to people to suffer … you don’t know who to trust, so I [put] everybody right in here.”
The house has no electricity supply and no running water.
Pointing to several gallon bottles, Smith said the children were nice enough to fill them with water before they left, so she could take her bath.
Smith said they log on for online learning at a community center down the street, but she can’t wait until they go back to an actual school.
“I want a better life for them,” she said.
It’s not unlike the same dreams parents and grandparents have everywhere for their children and grandchildren.
Education an escape
On Peter Street, Shantel Jolly, a 37-year-old mother of three — ages 13, 10 and six — has been struggling through supervising online learning.
Her oldest daughter is a student at H. O. Nash Junior High School and the two younger children are students of Stephen Dillet Primary School.
When virtual learning started, she said, it was incredibly rough because the only device her children had was her cell phone.
Eventually, she said, Taylor, the teacher from Stephen Dillet, provided them with two tablets.
Now, they no longer need to “rotate” her phone.
Jolly, a married stay-at-home mom, said that during the day, she also supervises the children of relatives who have to go to work.
“Sometimes, up to 11, 12 kids are here,” she said.
Asked about the struggles of virtual learning and ensuring her children do not fall behind, Jolly said, “I have to [supervise]; if not, they would be lost because they don’t focus. You have to keep them focused. It’s stressful because I can’t get housework done … it’s a lot.”
Taylor, the teacher, described Jolly as an “ideal parent”.
“She is so good with her children in terms of keeping them focused, their school work, their dress; it’s amazing. You would never believe that she has some of the challenges that she has,” she said.
“She actually goes out of her way not to make an excuse. Instead of making an excuse, she said because this is where we are, this is why we do what we do with our kids … Yeah, life has thrown her some hard balls and we have some hard situations, but we don’t sit down and wallow in it; we make our children to understand education is the escape.”
Jolly said she is working hard to ensure her children understand they can indeed escape current circumstances.
“I don’t want them to suffer the way that I did because growing up in the ghetto, this is hard,” she said.
“I told them ‘your education is really, really important, so that you can make it’. Fighting for food, trying to make ends meet is rough, so I tell them, ‘If you get a good education, you don’t have to worry about people giving you things; you could go out there and do what you have to do. You don’t have to worry about someone knocking on your door, rent got to pay; you can get your own home; you can make it in life.’”