The education crisis requires priority focus

The Millennium Development Goals agreed to at the United Nations in 2000 included, among eight primary objectives, the provision of universal primary education.

The Bahamas had already achieved this goal by 2000, though the products of our education system did not always reflect the time, effort or funding dedicated to education in the country.

When Hurricane Dorian devastated the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama in September of 2019, education on those islands entered a period of crisis.

Many students were relocated to other islands and, in some cases, other countries.

Then, in March 2020, all schools in the country were closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to dictate social interactions at every level of society two years later.

The pandemic created an education crisis that, in turn, has deepened economic and financial challenges.

Some schools moved to virtual platforms for the remainder of the 2020/2021 school year while other schools closed and did not return to any level of in-class instruction until the beginning of the 2021/2022 school year.

For many students, particularly those already marginalized and vulnerable ahead of the pandemic – the poor, the physically and/or academically challenged – virtual learning amounted to virtually no learning at all.

Notwithstanding commendable public and private efforts, thousands of children did not have access to a computer, other electronic devices, or the internet at home.

And even in homes with internet access, the quality of the service was often uneven and the number of children needing access often outnumbered available devices.

Further, the parents of some children found themselves incapable of meaningfully assisting their children with virtual classes while the work schedules of other parents prevented meaningful, sustained supervision of studies.

While a number of church and privately operated schools are now conducting special summer sessions, in an attempt to make up for lost learning by their most vulnerable students, no such organized program has been announced for the government education system.

Even more disturbing, some students are not returning to classrooms at all.

The long-term repercussions of lost learning on future national economic performance are daunting and concerning.

Against this backdrop, the government education system is being threatened by possible industrial unrest.

The inability of the government and the Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT) to resolve a four-year-old salary dispute is absorbing all of the oxygen in the room leaving little for the fight to bolster student learning so critical in a post-pandemic world.

The BUT’s demand for salary increases must take into account that teachers in the government education system enjoy job security, including vacation with pay, while thousands of individuals in the private sector have suffered reduced incomes and job losses; some forced to join food assistance lines for the first time during the pandemic.

On the other hand, the government has shown no inclination to prioritize concluding a new BUT contract. We believe, as a matter of high and urgent priority, the government should conclude negotiations with the BUT.

Further, we believe that the government should engage with the BUT to implement initiatives and programs to rescue the large number of students who abandoned the school system during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An idea deserving of consideration is the engagement of retired teachers to provide supplementary instruction in after-school and weekend classes to assist in the recovery of lost learning by thousands of students during the pandemic.

In the circumstances, it is more than disappointing to see the government continue to expend significant budgetary resources to satisfy its political agenda; increasing budgetary provisions for official international travel, expanding the number of diplomatic and consular representatives abroad, and re-engaging a still growing number of retired senior public officers, who receive salaries in addition to their pensions, while critical needs in the education, as well as in the health and welfare sectors, remain underfunded and under-resourced.

The government should be aware that teachers are not oblivious to such expenditures and that, in such an environment, the consternation of the BUT over its inability to secure a new contract including salary increases for teachers is understandable.

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