The COVID-19 crisis has reshaped much of our normal lives since March.
Many of the things we have come to expect as routine have shifted dramatically, forcing Bahamians to adjust to things our lives previously had not prepared us for.
One of the many dramatic changes was the closure of primary and secondary school campuses and the move for students to virtually learn at home. This presented specific challenges. There was the mental stress for children of social isolation from friends and teaching professionals. There was the need for parents who still had employment to balance working from home and attempting to teach their children with skills they do not possess. There was also the developmental losses children suffered from not being in the school environment.
Also, many lower income children did not have access to the internet to take advantage of virtual learning, and were, therefore, placed at an additional disadvantage.
The vast majority of children do not associate home with school. They have been conditioned to think of home as a refuge from learning institutions.
It was a trying time for students, teachers, parents, faculty and administrators. With the prime minister announcing a return to work for all civil servants, there is no practical way to ensure that school-aged children will be able to learn virtually without parental assistance, let alone ensure proper supervision of these minors.
The question as to whether public schools will reopen this fall has been answered by Minister of Education Jeffrey Lloyd – they will. The private school institutions are said to be awaiting guidance from the Ministry of Education. There is a wealth of science that suggests all schools should reopen for in-person learning this fall. How the schools will reopen is another matter.
The first thing the Ministry of Education must figure out is what days schools will be open. Will it be three days per week, four days per week? We see no reason it should not be five days per week. Then, it must figure out how many hours per day children will attend school. Would there be some sort of shift system with some students attending school in the mornings and others in the afternoon? And, is that at all practical for parents?
After figuring out the days and hours of schools when they reopen, the ministry must then figure out how to maintain a safe environment in the schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released guidance this summer stating that children should return to the classroom and they are at low-risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19 to one another.
Therefore, the adult teachers and faculty at the school would be more at risk of catching and transmitting the novel coronavirus.
Then, there is the consideration of masks.
It is impractical for young children to wear face masks for prolonged periods of time.
Children under the age of 10 are much less likely to have the presence of mind to remove a mask if they are having difficulty breathing.
The risk factor grows higher the younger the children get.
Children are more likely to touch the masks and chew on the masks, making them less effective, and distracting them.
Masks also make it more difficult for small children to communicate with teachers and other students.
And covering the face can seriously prohibit critical learning in the early developmental stages.
The Netherlands reopened primary schools weeks ago without masks and social distancing, and has experienced no noticeable spike in COVID-19 cases.
For older children, masks may be more practical.
The ministry must also figure out what it may need to trim from the curriculum.
Things like assemblies, school choirs and other programs that involve crowds may need to be curtailed to protect the teachers and other faculty.
With the target date for public school reopening being the first week of September, the ministry should have already worked this out and come to certain conclusions.
Private schools have also moved slowly, affecting the parents’ ability to make critical determinations about their children’s education.
The apparent lack of effort to address this, up to this point, has been unfair to children, parents and teachers.
We should know by now whether children will be re-evaluated and required to do extra work and cover lost ground.
We should know by now how the teachers and faculty, many with comorbidities in a non-communicable disease-plagued Bahamas, will be protected.
Childhood is a time for children to master critical developmental skills and attain knowledge that will shape the rest of their lives.
It is critical that children are, again, allowed to interact with other children in a learning environment.
It is critical that children receive focused discipline to learn, particularly our boys, who are already falling behind our girls.
It is critical that children be firmly guided by a professionally trained teacher.
And it is critical that children return to an environment that does not contain too many safety protocols, to the point they become distractions from learning.
Yes, there are some public health risks that accompany the reopening of schools.
But we do not believe they outweigh the national risks of a generation of children lacking the educational skills to build successful lives.