The education emergency

That at least one third of public school students have not been attending online classes in place for most of the pandemic, is a crisis that while not dominating headlines and public discourse today, can mushroom into what society will be unable to take for granted tomorrow.

Education Minister Glenys Hanna-Martin has raised the alarm on several occasions to parliamentarians and the nation, with her concern harnessing the echo of global organizations which stress the urgent need for action to address historic threats to educational development.

In its September 2021 report “Education disrupted: The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures”, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said its latest data point to more than 870 million students at all levels facing disruptions to their education.

UNICEF reported, “Globally, around 131 million schoolchildren in 11 countries have missed three quarters of their in-person learning from March 2020 to September 2021. Among them, 59 percent – or nearly 77 million – have missed almost all in-person instruction time.

“Schoolchildren around the world have lost an estimated 1.8 trillion hours and counting of in-person learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.”

A joint 2020 report by UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union revealed that 2.2 billion – or two-thirds of children and young people aged 25 years or less – do not have internet access at home.

Hanna-Martin told parliamentarians this week that the ministry has sought the assistance of the Department of Statistics, “to undertake a scientific survey to gain full insight into the reasons and issues resulting in thousands of children at all grades and levels having not signed on to the virtual learning program and so, essentially being absent from school in some instances for almost two years.”

It is good that the ministry is taking such an approach, as too often, policies are devised void of relevant up-to-date data and scientific analysis necessary to guide the formulation of strategies with a high confidence of successful outcomes.

Special needs children and children of many low income families in The Bahamas have been especially vulnerable to the challenges of online learning, together with children across economic classes whose home environment is not conducive to productive virtual instruction.

A July 2021 McKinsey COVID-19 report on the lingering effects of unfinished education in America stated, “The pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. High schoolers have become more likely to drop out of school, and high school seniors, especially those from low-income families, are less likely to go on to postsecondary education.”

Thousands of children in The Bahamas who fall well behind in their education today, can become thousands of teens and adults shut out of opportunities for advancement tomorrow, which in turn not only increases risks for entering a life of crime, but further threatens a national workforce productivity level that leaves much to be desired.

The pandemic’s toll on the mental health of children and teens continues to be assessed worldwide, and this burden is especially potent in The Bahamas where mental health is not given its necessary quality of resources, focus and support.

Children who through no fault of their own have fallen well behind their peers academically in the pandemic, can be at heightened risk of depression and social isolation, further complicating efforts to combat the societal ills such dynamics can foster.

Highlighting the focus points for remediation that the ministry is currently pursuing, Hanna-Martin stressed, “This is an urgent situation, an emergency of sorts, which has the potential to seriously impact our national development and future prospects.”

It is an imperative to save our children and consequently the country’s future that cannot be tackled by government and teachers alone.

Parents and guardians are an integral part of the educational system, and must all take a positively active role in their child’s schooling, rather than in far too many instances, taking the position that education is solely the teacher’s responsibility to guide and manage.

The nation’s education emergency is too far-reaching not to garner our collective attention and response.

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