Our leaders must act now, for the sake of our children

Dear Editor,
Minister of Education, Priya Manickchand has said students in the hinterland regions have been most affected by the closure of schools, as they were unable to access the interventions put in place for education delivery.
She made the statement on Wednesday, during the launch of Education Month 2021 at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, under the theme: “Education for all: innovative teaching and learning during a global pandemic.”
The children who are most impacted by school closure are the children from the Amerindian villages and the hinterland communities because the fancy interventions simply cannot reach them because of various infrastructure deficits in the country. These are some of the many issues our PPP/C Government plans to address in its 2021-2025 sectoral strategic plan, As the Minister of Education clearly indicated to all, it will require “humane leadership and an innate desire” to see better for the people of this country.
The COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming the functioning and outcomes of education systems—some of which were already stressed in many respects. This is true across Guyana and affects all children, though to differing degrees depending on multiple factors—including the villages/regions where they live, as well as their ages, family backgrounds, and degree of access to some “substitute” educational opportunities during the pandemic.
The question is “why Opposition leaders and some teachers continue to play politics with our children’s education and health”?
Teachers and other school staff should receive priority access to COVID-19 vaccines. This is not just because they have close contact with many people every day but because vaccinating the schools’ workforce will make it easier to keep more children in school during outbreaks. Every school day, thousands of children head off to schools around the country, where they are taught by more than 1000s of teachers and support staff in various administrative, support, and maintenance roles.
Add to that the parents, carers mingling at the school gates, and it’s no wonder schools have been a source of anxiety for the Minister of Health and officials grappling with COVID-19 in Guyana.
Closing schools en masse may seem like an obvious call to make when outbreaks flare. But school closures can cause serious harm to children and are likely to be especially harmful for those already disadvantaged, it was clear to many that during extended school closures many children had slipped backwards in their learning. Many children also struggle with their emotional and mental health as routines and social connections were disrupted. We know from bitter experience that some children will permanently disengage from school if closures persist.
One silver lining of the current COVID-19 outbreak will be for the PPP/C Government to strengthen calls for teachers and other school staff to get priority for COVID-19 vaccines. The Government must take a decision to make teachers across this country eligible for the vaccine, regardless of their age, which will be a welcoming first step.
However, we need parents to collaborate with the Government of Guyana and commit to vaccinating all teachers and school staff as soon as possible.
Of course, being vaccinated would reduce the risk of teachers getting seriously ill. But even more importantly, vaccinating all teachers and school staff would help reduce the risk of them transmitting the virus to others at school, including their students. That could help allow a more nuanced approach to school closures in the future.
School closures have a much greater impact on disadvantaged and other vulnerable children. It suggests the learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children could grow three times faster when schools are closed.
In fact, disadvantaged children may be hit by a triple whammy. Many disadvantaged children already need more school support to keep on track. These children are also less likely to have reliable IT devices and an internet connection or a quiet place to study at home. On top of this, teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students were four times more likely to report that their school struggled to make the transition to online learning,
As parents, we have all drawn attention to the significant social and emotional consequences of school closures for our children and our families. Without any doubt we have seen the increased risks of children suffering mental health, behavioural, and developmental problems – and worse, an increased risk of children being abused or neglected, no overlooking, increased loneliness, which can damage children’s mental health.
We should not kid ourselves: some of these harms may cast a long shadow over the future of our children.
“Schools are an essential service”. While closing schools may sometimes be unavoidable to get control of an outbreak, schools should only be closed as a last resort. Even then, more nuanced approaches may be possible, such as more limited school closures based on geographic area, permitting special schools to remain open and some primary and secondary year levels at mainstream schools to continue face-to-face teaching while others learn from home.
Vaccinating teachers and school staff would give our Government greater confidence to consider these options during future outbreaks. And when the science shows that it is safe to do so, vaccinating children should be prioritised too.
Our leaders must act now, for the sake of our children.

David Adams