Thu | Jun 4, 2020

Ronnie Thwaites | Making up for lost time

Published:Thursday | April 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Students wear protective gear against the spread of the novel coronavirus at the Half-Way Tree Transportation Centre prior to the school lockdown in March.

ON PRESENT projections, Jamaica’s children and young people are likely to lose between a quarter and a third of the minimum class time which constitutes a school year. This is an impending danger, not only to individual careers, but to all hopes of national reconstruction.

Strenuous efforts have been made by the Ministry of Education, businesses in the communications sector, some teachers, parents and students to convey lessons virtually. These initiatives are highly commendable, but their application has been very uneven. The imperative to innovate has been too sudden to be an effective substitute to regular schooling.

Surely, distance education in many different and expanding modalities points the way to the future of learning, but the existing channels of delivery are embryonic and unavailable to the more than half of those students who most need the teaching and learning.

Large numbers of teachers, too, especially at the lower grade levels, are unwilling or inexpert to deliver in these modes. And what happens when students and/or parents have trouble with literacy. Remember also those who are absent, impatient or hungry? Go figure at least a quarter of the target audience.

So, please do not let us fool ourselves. We have a serious problem which no amount of hype and made-up story is going to hide. Wishy-washy teaching and dumbed-down testing are like the virus itself – very sly. Everything seems fine on the surface, but the sickness and blight may only be seen long, long after the patient or the society is afflicted. And since we persist in promoting students on the basis of age rather than achievement, the losses of this period will become intergenerational.

Inner-city students mostly do not have the adequate parental oversight, or even the physical space, to keep school effectively at home. In what Peter Phillips correctly calls our apartheid education system, it is only where there is appropriate instrumentation, data sufficiency, reliable Internet access, innovative teachers and a sustained disciplined environment that enough learning is going to take place. This inventory is neither frequently available nor timely in our context.


The University of the West Indies ought to be immediately contracted to conduct a thorough survey of the reach, quality and required remediation of the vigorous, largely well-meaning, but hasty efforts undertaken since the school lockdown last month.

In the meanwhile, there are some practical measures, within our means, which can be instituted. They should be afforded as an integral part of the nation’s stimulus package.

First, even the households of very limited means generally have access to FM radios and free-to-air television. For the next quarter at least, commandeer more air time to provide and repeat the best pedagogy. Praise to the RJRGLEANER and ministry for starting along these lines. Much, much more is needed and deserved if we hope to make up for time lost.

Next, give favourable consideration to the proposal put forward by the brave Mr Linton Weir of Old Harbour High School to take summer holidays in April and May, and convene school in June and July. This would give a real opportunity to catch up both in the classrooms, extra lessons and valuable extracurricular activities. Has anyone noticed a reaction to this suggestion from either the Ministry of Education or the Jamaica Teachers’ Association, and if not, why not?

Please, it is very unlikely that the usual and much-anticipated travel to America will be possible or allowable this year. Extreme situations require radical remedies, and many of us resist change if it disturbs our comfort zones.

I challenge the main players in the education system to engage in a public, reasoned, data-driven, solution-oriented discourse on how to reverse this learning crisis into a suite of nimble, flexible opportunities for excellence. Step up ministry, Opposition, National Council on Education, JTA and NPTAJ, among others!

There remain two other urgent issues for now: first, there are about 600 private schools at all levels in Jamaica. We cannot do without them. The loss of earnings by many parents will result in low enrolment and the bankruptcy of many of these institutions. They will lose their staff and place impossible pressure on public schools to accommodate the fallout of places. The Government needs to meet with their association urgently, with a view to tide them over this difficult period.

Then again, with the completion of PEP exams suspended, what manifestly objective method of assigning high-school places will obtain for September? And how do we make sure that ALL students entering grade seven are literate, numerate and well-behaved? Watch out, because if clandestinely or capriciously handled, this one will cause riot and mayhem.

The available window for planning how to make up for lost time, rather than preside over chaos and pop-down, is about two weeks. Despite health and security concerns, we must not fail to seize this time.

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