The Gleaner, Jamaica, Sunday, April 26, 2020 – Two members of the Opposition, People’s National Party (PNP), have put forward recommendations to strengthen the educational system’s response to COVID-19, with both commenting that the current school at home approach, which relies on the internet, is exacerbating the inequities in the educational system.

Opposition Spokesman on Education, Peter Bunting, is calling for a task force, established under the National Education Council, to assess the current situation and plan for the long-term effects of COVID-19.

In a release yesterday, he said the team should be tasked with designing infrastructure to proof the educational system against future pandemics and similar disruptions. He added that the design should include media literacy for students and a mechanism to accelerate the adoption of technology in schools, and train teachers to effectively deliver instructions online.

“The proposed Task Force must seriously consider how to reconfigure the next academic year to help students catch up and mitigate the long-term impact emanating from the COVID-19 lockdown,” Bunting said.

Internet inequities

Peter Bunting, Opposition Spokesman on Education

He pointed out that the current mode of delivery of education is being hampered by unequal access to reliable internet and internet devices, highlighting that only 55 per cent of households in Jamaica have internet and that data packages were costly. In addition, he said devices, such as tablets are currently unavailable to many schools, as several will not be delivered until June, based on the government’s contract with its supplier.

His fellow PNP member, Senator Damion Crawford, similarly noted problems with internet provision and cost, as blockades to many students’ access.

“There are areas that don’t pick up the internet well, and for some households, the cost of the internet surpasses what they get for their salaries,” he said in a separate release.

“When I did the research into Zoom, an hour to access and use the platform for lessons uses 1 GB of data. If you’re going to do three hours of lessons, that’s 3 GB of data and it costs approximately $2,000 prepaid. That’s just one day. To facilitate a Zoom lesson on your phone for $2,000 per day, that’s $10 000 per week. How many people can afford that?” he questioned.

The opposition senator is recommending resuming schools in summer if the COVID-19 spread dissipates, and establishing a better collaboration with telecommunications companies to ensure students can access learning platforms free of cost.

Returning to a proposal made during his campaign for the Portland East seat last year, he also called for support for parents who are home schooling at this time. He said teachers preparing students for the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) assessment should be paid to help facilitate daily lessons for parents who need support with tutoring their children after school.

“If we are going to do home school, we have to home school the parents too. If we aren’t thinking that way, then it won’t work,” Crawford said.

He is also advocating for students who wish to delay sitting Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams until January, to do so without penalty.

Key lessons from school at home

Bunting said although school at home is necessary at this time, there are some key lessons that have emerged from the current approach.

“Make every effort to maintain teaching, and teachers’ contact with students, in order to prevent learning regression and to mitigate the emotional impact on children,” he recommended.

He added: “Give priority to re-opening early childhood and primary schools as soon as medical personnel advise that conditions allow.  Younger children need more personal contact, and time to play with other children. They are also at lower risk from COVID-19.”

Bunting said the government should also plan for the likelihood that there will be fewer high school graduates and tertiary enrolments  for the 2020/2021 academic year due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.