Op-Ed

The impact of COVID-19 and education

The global pandemic has presented us with many opportunities, lessons and push factors to create a society that is more sustainable and prepared. But one thing that it has taken away from us is the time we could not get back to replace the student learning gap we now face. Prior to the pandemic, The Bahamas’ national exam average remained at a “D”. While this is only one measure of academic performance, it is still notably an important measure. It is believed that a combination of a prolonged lack of face-to-face learning and impediments of virtual learning will have adverse effects on the student learning population in The Bahamas. In this segment, we will explore the impact of COVID-19 protocols on our education system and students.

A design that does not fit

From kindergarten to high school, students in The Bahamas entered a new experience of virtual learning and hybrid face-to-face models between the years 2020 to present. The past two years have been a roller coaster for parents, teachers and students having to adjust to a new learning environment. Virtual learning had its pros and cons for the purpose of surviving in a pandemic. It was a good solution to help protect students from a new virus that continues to cause deaths around the world. But virtual learning is not a sustainable experience since we were grossly unprepared (both students and teachers) to undertake a new model of learning. In addition, not everyone’s virtual learning experience would be the same since various socio-economic factors  can dictate one’s living conditions. Therefore, we took on a model that was not fit for the education system we have designed. A report from McKinsey & Company (June 2020) states that, “US education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, administrators, and parents have worked hard to keep learning alive; nevertheless, these efforts are not likely to provide the quality of education that’s delivered in the classroom.” This finding from the research giant is important because it is proof that most education systems were simply not designed for the protocols imposed by governments.

We understand that during the onset of the pandemic, a lot was unknown. Therefore, it was not so unusual to keep schools closed as we figured out next steps. But we may have prolonged this to a detrimental extent. Since July 2020, countries were already making moves to return children to school, transitioning from hybrid to full classroom. Singapore prioritized graduating students to return to school for preparing for national exams and opened schools earlier on with social distancing practices in place. Argentina implemented a dual system that combined online and in-person learning. According to research by a UNESCO toolkit report on hybrid learning, Argentina looked at four specific courses to return full time: 1st and 2nd grades, because that is when the literacy begins; the last year of primary school (sixth or seventh grade), and the last year of secondary school (fifth or sixth year) due to the jump to the next level. Brazil developed a mobile app to ensure students received their learning material. This makes sense since most households have one or more mobile phones. In addition, the Brazilian government partnered with telecommunication operators to ensure free access to the app and billing of internet consumption to the government, not the user.

The examples above provide evidence that while no system is perfect, there was a lot being done to ensure that virtual and hybrid learning was effective and also at some point, transition back to in-person learning.

Adding to the problem

COVID or no COVID, the world continues to advance in the way we learn and how we are taught. This means that we should be preparing and equipping future generations to be competitive. To do so, we must produce more critical thinkers from our education system. Our current curriculum should be revisited and focus on closely connected areas of study: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Since every student may not be good at theory and tests, these four areas still allow for pre-vocational skills to develop. With new information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as Big Data, which is on the rise, more companies will begin to require analysis of data to remain in business at a sustainable rate. The skills required to do so require an early start with our student learning population.

Until we can produce measurable outcomes regarding change in our education system, we are only adding to the problem of being left behind. In addition, the pandemic has done nothing but worsen an existing problem. During the onset of the pandemic, the Ministry of Education Research and Planning section initially identified 8,000 students who were inactive on the virtual learning platform. While this number was significantly reduced in recent months, it shows that there is a lot of work to do to close the learning gap for that student population. As earlier mentioned, various socio-economic factors can dictate one’s living conditions. Not everyone has access to the Internet to participate in virtual learning at home. Some homes may even lack other utilities such as electricity and running water. Also, there may be a lack of supervision at home for younger students because some parents are not able to afford childcare while having to work. Therefore, we need to account for these oddities that can not be fixed overnight.

Opportunity to change

The social and economic development of The Bahamas depends on the restructuring and advancement of our education system to enhance both the private and public sector. The pandemic has identified gaps in our education infrastructure and this crisis should be the push factor for us to improve technologies and networks relating to educational infrastructure. The pandemic should also encourage us to increase the use of technology because technology helped to ease the disruptions coming out of COVID-19 in our social and work life. Our reliance on these digital technologies led us to be innovative by using skills sets in the math, science and tech fields. We should harness this talent and take it seriously. We relied on Bahamians to step up and use their skills in programming, digital assets, e-commerce, policy and risk mitigation. So, why not give other Bahamians an opportunity to do the same in the near term and future? This can be done, beginning in our primary schools and carried into the tertiary level.

When we create a life cycle of critical thinkers, we are setting the standard for education, skills, and goals for the student learning 

population. A lack of early education can be linked to other social issues such as crime and poverty. Therefore, like we always say, it starts with a good foundation.

The National 

Development Plan

Fortunately for The Bahamas, our National Development Plan (NDP) has already identified most of the gaps in our learning and infrastructure needs to help improve the education system. The NDP already calls for a renewal of the curriculum. The plan points out that lessons can be applied from what has worked in the past and more attention can be provided to the needs of the future. According to the NDP, “By investing in skills development, summer learning hours and better attention to at risk students who need more attention, or simple nutrition, it is hoped that students will be better prepared to take on higher education or well-paying jobs when they graduate high school. In addition to this, the plan also calls for improving and implementing technology into the learning process.

Conclusion

Education is the root to how we become more progressive as a nation. We must make shifts and changes in our curriculum, skills, resources and technology for our learning population to produce measurable outcomes. In this fourth industrial revolution, companies and consumers have different needs because they are shifting to digital transformation strategies to survive in the next 10 to 20 years. To do so, the human capital skills bank has changed and it requires more analytical, innovative and problem-solving skills. Therefore, we need to prepare our learning population to be more competitive against the world. We simply do not want to be left behind.

• Roderick A. Simms II is an advocate for sustainable family island growth and development. Email: RASII@ME.com.

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