The first school year under COVID-19 in 2020 is as much a hot a topic across the Caribbean as everywhere else.
Parents naturally worry that Social Distancing might be impossible during school, some are concerned that without nurses at schools, teachers will have to make medical decisions in classrooms — like whether a child who sneezes or coughs needs medical attention or just observation.
Many would prefer their children continuing to study online from home, but not so for those without a laptop, desktop, tablet or Wi-Fi.
Some welcome the chance for what one described as ‘a break from two sets of homework — household and students’ — even while worrying about safety at school.
Schools will reopen reorganized for Social Distancing and classes housing fewer students and teachers having to do more teaching.
Concerns may differ per country, but the one common denominator everywhere is a face mask, which every student and teacher must wear — at all times.
Not all Caribbean schools (if any) will provide free face masks, but they are as mandatory as for entering any business place.
Interestingly, the same scientists who insist we must wear masks also admit it will take up to 600 years – yes, six centuries — for the materials most are made of to disintegrate into the environment.
But that will be the last concern expressed today – at least until after a working COVID vaccine has been discovered – and will be affordable.
Saint Lucia’s schools will open under what I call a ‘hybrid system’ that combines classroom teaching with distant learning — students attending normal classes half-a-day and returning home to complete the other half learning online, under lockdown.
In the eyes of many, it will work: one lay preacher said ‘Taxpayers will see the teachers earning their pay’, while a middle-aged single parent mother said she simply welcomes ‘a break from being mother and father and teacher at home.’
But most important for most students and teachers is the return to the natural human interaction that has come with teaching and learning all our lives.
COVID is an equal-opportunity game-changer, but some traditional Caribbean cultural practices are simply beyond its reach: Just like those of my generation were glad every September to go ‘Back to school in Bata shoes’, I was shown a WhatsApp earlier this week from one student to all her friends in my granddaughter’s class, warning them: ‘Just make sure y’all don’t step on my shoes!’
But parents and principals, teachers and students are also concerned about more than just the state of schools, ensuring Social Distancing and application of other COVID protocols.
Then there’s also the ongoing discussion in Saint Lucia about the role of Information Technology in Education, unfortunately, mired in a muddy partisan discourse over the past four years over the wisdom of the current Allen Chastanet administration’s decision in 2016 to terminate a popular annual Free Laptops for Schools program it inherited.
The previous Kenny Anthony administration had sought to improve education delivery by computerizing classrooms and arming principals, teachers and students with thousands of free laptops every year.
The stated purpose of computerization of classrooms was to eventually phase-out use of heavy and costly school books, so students would eventually attend classes with a jump drive instead of everyday hauling a truck-load of books in their overstuffed backpacks.
Free internet centres were also being built in rural communities when the last general elections came, ensuring students could access the internet – and many elderly parents (and grandparents) also gladly accepted invitations and accompanied the young ones to those centres for their own hitherto unexpected introductory lessons on life online.
When COVID forcibly closed schools and lockdown rules forced a belated and grudging introduction of online learning, many argued it would have benefitted students studying at home today and assisted parents now being asked to provide computers, tablets and other smart IT devices — and get access to Wi-Fi.
During the past four years, government officials and ruling party supporters have been loudly arguing that Caribbean students can better learn by ‘reading from books’ than by ‘watching screens’; and that the computers provided free by the previous government ‘would have become outdated by now…’
With most parents unable to afford a brand-new computer, FLOW is offering online classes through its regional TV channel and the authorities spent the last few weeks urgently asking local IT service providers and other entities to donate laptops and tablets, at least for schools and teachers.
All that would not have been today if continuity was allowed to follow regime change in Saint Lucia after 2016, but try telling that to 19th Century book worms buried neck-deep in the sand.
Besides, with principals having to say in choosing texts and being invited by schoolbook publishing houses competing to stage annual local exhibitions of competing new texts, some principals are seen as having particular interests in annually formulating new textbook arguments against computerization of classrooms and in favour of ever-changing and increasingly costly Book Lists.
But with COVID having turned education on its head everywhere and everyone having to weigh the balances between traditional teaching and modern learning, the Caribbean too has a unique chance to properly weigh the arguments and assess the results in real ways.
The Saint Lucia hybrid model has been described to me in many ways – from an uncertain ‘shoot in the dark’ approach of ‘trying both to see which works best’, to ‘a combination of cooking on coal pot and electric stove’ and ‘marrying Distant Learning with Direct Teaching.’
As per usual, just as parties tend to plan youth policies for young people without consulting them, I haven’t heard of any mechanism aimed at finding out from students how they feel and what they think about what the future of education should be.
Most would be just as interested in the type of education available as in what it would cost their parents, but they remind us there’s always the choice today of multiple online courses.
There is also the unprecedented longstanding promise of Opposition Leader Philip J. Pierre to make ‘One graduate per household’ an aim of any government he leads – an undertaking he’ll surely be taken-up on by both parents and students interested in being counted among the envisaged homes.
We have quickly discovered that we can be even more productive working from home, but it will take much longer to get students accustomed to and pleased with only learning from home and only being in contact with teachers, fellow students and friends online and by remote, as if they’re all overseas.
That would not work.
But the parties and the governments have also always over the decades planned to educate Caribbean children, but without planning for the jobs they’re being prepared for, resulting in the incalculably costly irreversible Brain Drain that still sees the best Caribbean brains heading or being sent outside the region because what they qualify in is not applicable at home — or vice versa.
I remain convinced that COVID has provided another rare opportunity for our education planners and policymakers today to press the restart button and (finally) start to involve the youth and students in the search for solutions, including identifying the priority courses, possible innovations and applications related to plans that ultimately will apply to them.
The Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (SALCC) and compound continue to reel under the pressure of resource limitations and infrastructural deterioration.
Here again, apart from the COVID challenge, the 30th anniversary of Sir Arthur’s death approaching also offers more opportunities for the institution named after him to live the full legacy of excellence he bequeathed.
Again, this may also be another ‘God-sent’ opportunity for the nation’s highest tertiary institution to be set on a brand-new national path, in this new time.
The possibilities are many and we should not run away from trying new things in these new COVID times that have worked or are working in similar circumstances elsewhere.
Students and parents don’t need to be mathematicians to figure out that if Senegal can produce COVID self-testing kits costing only two US dollars, Saint Lucians should not have to pay over one hundred US dollars – and they can show how it can be done!
With next Saturday (September 12) to be observed as United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation, they may even ask, why haven’t CARICOM nations engaged fellow developing countries (like Senegal) to share their worthy experiences in combating COVID with bare resources?
The questions continue to outnumber the answers.
But it’s our first experience of Back to School Under COVID Cover, so let’s first see how ‘the first time’ goes, learn well the lessons taught along the way – and then have our say — good or bad, happy or sad, whichever and whatever way…