School closures

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected almost every aspect of national life and experts have suggested that it is uncertain how long it will take, if ever, for life in general to return to normalcy. It is the first time in history that the world’s children are at home and cannot attend school due to the various lockdown measures imposed upon populations all over to contain the spread of the virus.
According to UNESCO, as of mid-April, 1.5 billion children and youth were affected by school closures in 195 countries, from pre-primary to higher education. While this figure is dropping, 1.3 billion learners in 186 countries are still unable to attend school.
With the end of the virus being nowhere in sight, we do not know how long schools will remain closed, how student learning will be affected, and the level of impact these closures will affect the developing countries’ education systems such as Guyana.
In relation to the virus itself, no one knows for sure what will happen next; for example, key questions remain in relation to the source of the virus, and whether it is possible for recovered patients to be reinfected and how long it will take to develop and distribute a vaccine to administer to patients. Until these are answered there will be no clear path as to how we move forward. What we know for sure is that learning will indeed be lost and this would certainly have a negative impact on students’ ability in general to ‘catch up’.
The closure of schools, colleges and universities not only interrupts the teaching for students; but also severely hampers key assessments or exams which are crucial to students moving forward.
While some countries are gradually reopening their schools to students, the majority are yet to do so since there are new COVID-19 cases every day and rising deaths being reported. Of the 195 countries that had closed schools in April, 128 have yet to announce plans for their reopening, according to UNESCO.
That said, of the countries have been affected by school closures; a few of them – mostly the developed ones, were able to put systems in place quickly to minimize its impact. For example, due to easy access to high-speed internet and the availability of the necessary resources, teachers were able to distribute work to students via online platforms and they were also able to engage the students using these technologies.
In Guyana, the authorities have extended the curfew for another month due to the rising cases of COVID-19 and the death rate also going up. This means that not only would students lose out on quite a lot of learning time, but most of the crucial assessments would either have to be postponed or cancelled.
Of note too is that since the announcement of school closure here, barring a few educational resources placed online in the form of past exam papers and radio and TV programmes, the Education Ministry has not come up with any substantial plan to ensure that learning continues, even to a limited extent. What the Ministry did was to place the responsibility on parents to teach at home.
While this is generally helpful, it also has its own limitations. Not evert parent has the ability to provide this level of support to their child/children. Also, many families do not have a computer and also cannot afford to pay for internet services to access the Ministry’s resources online. The One Lap Top Per Family Project was meant to fill this gap, but unfortunately this was halted on the basis of politics.
Going forward, given the huge impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government and other stakeholders will seriously need to plan for the future. For example, investments will have to be made in building the kind of infrastructure needed to support distance learning. More and more classroom learning is being supported by other platforms, including online.
That said, while a definite date for the reopening of schools is not yet known, it is essential that educational institutions reopen in an orderly manner, in line with a number of pre-conditions. The authorities must place the health and safety of pupils, teachers and families as a main concern. On this basis, regular sanitisation and so on would need to be carried out in the school buildings and their environs. Proper hygiene and other preventative measures would have to be stepped up, including reviewing how the entire issue of hygiene is being taught in schools.
Additionally, the Ministry would need to consider designing remedial programmes to cater for students who need to ‘catch up’ since not all of them would have been engaged in doing work during the period they were at home.