With schools across the island closed to combat the spread of coronavirus, studying at home has become the norm for many students at all levels of the education system. The situation has triggered a call for a public education policy for distance learning.
Since March 13 when local schools were ordered closed, students have been connecting with teachers and other resource personnel for virtual lessons, with messaging service WhatsApp being a popular mode of delivering notes and assignments.
The education ministry has since provided school administrators with a set of virtual/homeschooling policy guidelines on which to operate.
Dr Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, said that while the drafting of policies is normally done over a prolonged period, there was an urgent need to move fast with issuing some guidelines to educators.
“We have developed a policy guideline that we have sent out to our schools. We have a set of administrative procedures and protocols to guide our schools. Eventually, they will lead towards a policy,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.
“Policy development takes time and you can agree with us that this [coronavirus, COVID-19] didn’t give us any notice. Over time, we will have a full [distance learning] policy,” she said.
While appreciative that some effort is being made to facilitate teaching and learning virtually, former Education Minister Ronald Thwaites believes that Jamaica is not culturally ready for home learning.
“First of all, homeschooling, unless it is carefully done, with trained preceptors and disciplined students, it cannot be equated to face to face. Homeschooling and virtual education are not within our culture of learning. We are good at putting up formal policies, but the issue is what happens on the ground matters. The parents themselves do not have the hardware, the culture, the habit, expertise or the discipline to undertake it,” Thwaites said.
“I represent Central Kingston (constituency), and most of the children there have no place to sit down to be homeschooled. The majority of them live in very inadequate structures. The school is the most structured formal place that they ever go. At home, they don’t have that,” he added.
Access to resources key to success
Linvern Wright, president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary School, said he supports the need for a fulsome policy to guide distance learning, as the biggest challenge teachers are facing now has to do with connecting with their students.
“We are concerned that we are not getting to a significant number of students, and it has to do with the fact that many of them don’t have data (Internet access). They live in areas that access to the Internet is unreliable. Some were just happy that schools were out and see this as a break,” said Wright, who also suggested that students be provided with resources if they are to adequately function in the virtual space.
“Any policy for virtual learning or homeschooling should be carefully drafted where the parties involved, especially students, are provided with the tools to access their lessons. All students should have access to get gadgets and access to [the Internet],” he added.
Wright, the principal of Rusea’s High School in Hanover, said only about half of his students are actively engaged virtually through various learning platforms on a regular basis.
“Many of the kids are being left behind. There are some whose parents are not so strong with them for the kind of supervision that is needed. Parents need to be responsible,” he said.
Children’s Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison said that COVID-19 has revealed that an adequate national distance learning policy is a must to guide a smooth transition when the traditional form of delivering lessons has been disrupted.
“We would like to see a national scaled programme whereby we conceptualise how teaching and learning will be under this new dispensation if it has to continue much longer,” Gordon Harrison told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I think there are going to be some real issues and questions about teaching and learning. How is that going to be managed and how are the children going to be monitored. Certainly, in terms of not just getting work, but feedback to regular instructions,” she noted.
Crafting the policy
Recently, Owen Speid, president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, said teachers are experiencing challenges in the effective delivery of lessons through distance platforms due to the problems with Internet access.
“To sustain this challenge of distance teaching, it depends heavily on data (Internet). Data is very expensive, especially if you are going to get through a good volume of work,” Speid said then.
Speid said the teachers are willing to contribute to the development of a distance learning policy but the Ministry of Education should lead the process.
“There is a need for a policy. We are willing to sit with the authorities to have it sorted out. Such a policy will need to have certain guidelines, which will have an appendix and clauses to accommodate people who genuinely cannot get on to the programme,” Speid said.
“It would have to involve an intense period of training for teachers. It will have to have a common platform. It will have to have an evaluative element so that we could know whether it is succeeding or not,” Thwaites, the former education minister, suggested. “And we would have to make sure that the appropriate list of activities is available to all children, which is a tedious task.”