This week I spoke to a school vice principal (unnamed due to Public Service regulations) who has raised the alarm that since the start of the COVID-19-propelled distance learning eight months back, hundreds of the nations’ schoolchildren have dropped out of the school system.
“ ‘I am the principal of a high-risk school in a low-income area with gangs and gun activity. 70 per cent of my students have devices, 60 per cent have internet access, and 90 per cent are using smartphones to attend online classes. Only ten per cent have laptops. We have students who ask not to have their cameras on or to keep their mikes off due to an adverse home environment and find it a challenge to carve a study space even if it’s against a blank wall.
‘Giving out laptops en-mass is not the answer. In the past, we gave out laptops–they were destroyed within a month, sold by parents, or used to watch porn. Schoolchildren should be given laptops after having a means test, so people can pay half, quarter, or nothing.
‘Currently, students have two options for learning: attend online classes or come to school to pick up preprepared packages on Monday and return assignments to school by Friday. Students without internet access or devises who pick up packages–up to 30 per cent are becoming a subclass. Without interaction, teacher supervision or structure when they take home a ‘package’, they are falling back and will find it impossible to reintegrate into a school system, even via Zoom. Others, eight months into remote learning, even the bright, motivated ones are so desensitised to school are not pursuing tertiary education.
‘Ten per cent of students in my school, in Forms 4 and 5, have dropped off the face of the earth to work to help their families and this is happening in schools attended by low-income students countrywide.
‘Their addresses are incorrect or incomplete, phone numbers don’t work, and if you do connect, their parents say he or she "gone and work and not coming back.”
‘For these students without support, the school was a safe space. Now we need to create safety in their homes, so they don’t choose crime or drop out.
‘A one-size directive from the top does not fit all.
‘Students access to the internet and ability to use devise changes daily depending on their ability to pay for online access. Zoom is always being updated and requires increasing space.
‘The Education Ministry needs to find out how each school is functioning and cater to varied needs. You could give me a laptop, but I may not have electricity. A phone or tablet may work better for some. Some schools need extra material for children going home with packages; flexi class time; or more software and technical training.
‘We are seeing online afternoon absenteeism across the board, even in prestige schools.
‘The Ministry of Education has been collecting a database of parents and students for years. It's time they use it and get government-based social workers and agencies like the Children Protection Unit to visit high-risk students while locating private and public sector funding for these families.
‘We need government internet, a free online research library which schoolchildren can access with a user name and password like parental control.
‘Working parents often leave younger children for older children to supervise at home. The Government must encourage employers to create spaces so parents can bring young children to work.
‘We have been in a pandemic for eight months. Schools have been shut since March 2020. Principals and teachers have risen to the challenges of online learning. The Minister of Education has not had a single general meeting with my school. There is only top-down communication. Maybe it’s different in other schools, but it’s disheartening when technocrats who have never taught a class are making decisions without consulting us. Nobody is taking our school issues to the Ministry of Education–nor do we get feedback.
'The current system of remote teaching if not remedied, will irreparably widen the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’ To plug the haemorrhaging of children’s human potential and capital, high-risk schools like ours need dialogue not directives.’”
As told to Ira Mathur.