Good! A decision has finally been made public. Was it the right or the wrong one? That will remain debatable, however, education must go on and for now online learning has been decided as the starting point until further notice.
Let us review some facts.
Based on data, studies provide evidence that COVID-19 is primarily transmitted from symptomatic people to others who are in close contact through respiratory droplets, by direct contact with infected persons, or by contact with contaminated objects and surfaces. We also know that COVID-19 is also transmittable by persons who show no signs, but are carriers of the virus.
In light of the above, worldwide guidelines have been set in place to mitigate the spread of this virus, namely: frequent handwashing, mask wearing, and social distancing. These guidelines, for the most part have been implementable by various businesses and institutions and in some countries even schools, so what is St. Maarten waiting on? Why did you, the Honorable Minister of Education Rudolph Samuel, opt to begin the academic year with online learning?
To that, the answer should be and we trust that it is, the safety of its primary stakeholders, students and teachers (and by extension the rest of the community).
To the naked eye, implementing these guidelines within the school building may seem as easy to implement as at other entities, however, the reality remains that it is not. School buildings house the group of people that tends to and requires the most socialization and physical contact than most places. Furthermore, the enforcement of the COVID-19 safety guidelines will definitely require a totally different plan of approach and preparation when it comes to dealing with the students.
So now what? Do we continue to complain and point fingers because of the decision to begin the school year with online learning (until further notice)? No! We hold the bull by the horns, virtually join hands, and get the ball rolling without further delay.
Firstly, the main challenges within the community at large remain: Internet access, device ownership, and childcare services.
To you, the Minister of Education, below are recommendations presented to you and your team:
- Internet Supply Providers (ISP) should make a special package for low income families to have Internet, example at $10 a month. These packages will exist for the duration of the online learning (island-wide). Donations are made yearly by ISPs to various events, this is another way to donate to the community as well, as we trust that we all can do this for our future leaders.
- Another alternative would be to provide Internet free of charge to low income families (to be identified by the school). This Internet access can be made available strictly during what would be typical school hours, namely 7:30am to 3:00pm. If it cannot be given free of charge, then at the expense of the government.
- Schools can be allotted a time frame to do their online teaching. This is to avoid overburdening the Internet traffic. Example: School A, B, C, D will follow online teaching from 7:30-9:00am, School E, F, G, H will follow online lessons from 9:00-10:30am, etc. In this, teachers will also need a mind shift in the workload they assign and the dependency of assignments needing to be completed with Internet use.
- Rather than require prolonged teaching time via face-to-face lessons, videos of teaching can be uploaded and accessed by parents and students during a time that is convenient for them, rather than having to necessarily access the Internet at a specific time.
- Electronic stores can offer a payment plan for families to purchase devices. The monthly payments should be low, taking the current economic situation of the island into consideration, for example at $20 a month. This should be overseen by the Ministry of Education. Parents will receive the device and will pay it off over time. Parents who genuinely cannot acquire a device based on the abovementioned must make this known to their respective school.
Payment plan option should also be made available to teachers to acquire material and tools to fulfill optimal online schooling.
- Another option would be to call on sponsorship from the public/business. They can donate a certain amount of devices suitable to follow online schooling (facetime camera included) and assignment completion to schools “Adopt a School” project. The school will then be responsible in identifying critical candidates and loaning them the devices for the period of the online schooling. Once onsite schooling is back in effect, the devices are returned to the respective schools. Donation directly to the schools will allow for borrowing of devices in the future in case offsite schooling is ever needed again.
- Comparable to our regular election polling stations, we can set up Online Learning Stations. The community centers within the various districts will be supplied with Internet connection, several computer stations, and volunteers for supervision and guidance purposes. These computer stations can be supplied with laptops that were used by the many civil servants during the lockdown, but are no longer needed due to the transition back to normalcy. Employees within the ministry can be assigned to these so-called Online Learning Stations to set up and collect the devices, ensuring 2-3 volunteers are on-site. The community police officers can also patrol these stations during the opening periods.
Childcare and online guidance during off-site learning
- Former teachers, retired teachers, third year education majors at USM, students who have completed their high school, but are not leaving the island as yet, all these should be called on and given an incentive/stipend to guide small groups of students through their online learning program. Groups as small as 5 students at a time. School teachers should cater to students with learning challenges (e.g. language barriers) who would need the specific guidance on school premises. This will take place at the Online Learning Stations per district, as mentioned above.
- Parents who are home can help one or two other children (family friends or neighbors) in following their online classes and assignment completion.
- A formal request from the Ministry of Education can be sent to all employers, where possible, to provide its employees a total amount of homeschooling hours per week, without salary penalty e.g. 4 hours per week. The employer would be responsible to set the guideline as to how these hours will be taken per employee.
- Students must be required to maintain a digital or manual portfolio of assignments.
- Parents are required to initiate contact with teachers if they experience specific challenges. They must be willing to work hand-in-hand with the teacher/school in order to ensure the best possible outcome for their child’s online learning experience.
- Teachers will create realistic learning opportunities for all students. They will revise the curriculum and work on topics that are more feasible/simple to follow through online learning.
- Schools will create a standard outline of how online lessons will be presented. They will select three main platforms for students and parents, namely; face-timing platform, activity/assignment websites, and parent contact portal. Avoid overbearing parents with numerous repetitive platforms in order to avoid complexity and confusion to its audience.
- School Boards will inform parents of all decisions that affect all their schools in a timely manner. They will ensure that teachers are not overwhelmed with too many demands under these already stressful times. Keep it simple for all involved.
- The Ministry of Education has to set a tentative timeline and make this public! A phased timetable that reflects how learning will proceed for the 2020/2021 academic year must be made known as soon as possible, allowing parents and teachers to plan effectively and wisely under the circumstances. This plan must reflect the timeframe that online learning will definitely be taking place for all schools, e.g. August to October (while observing the progression of COVID-19) and when onsite learning will resume and how it will look. Additionally, detailed mention must be made of what preparations are being taken within each school to be ready for on-site learning and what adjustments will be made for exam students, if this becomes necessary.
When will the execution of the above be done? Now! Honorable Minister Samuel and the Ministry of Education, now is the time to put the logistics in place. You have bought yourself some time through the continuation of online learning to get the ball rolling on preparing your schools properly, allowing teachers to plan properly for this new normal, and lastly and more importantly, safeguarding the wellbeing of your most valuable stakeholders, your students and teachers and by extension the community.
One may wonder why all this, why not just go back to on-site schooling as of August 10?
The COVID-19 numbers have been steadily rising. The reality remains that schools are currently not equipped to support and enforce the COVID-19 safety guidelines. Schools have a high chance of becoming a potential breeding ground for the transmittance of the virus. Students and teachers alike will be “forcefully" exposed to the virus if the preparation to ensure the safety of all is not taken seriously. School buildings, under typical circumstances, are meant for socializing, physical interaction, and freedom, now this has to be strategically controlled, specifically with the age groups that may have a harder time adjusting to the so-called new normal. And one often-overlooked aspect is that our medical care cannot afford an aggressive outbreak of this virus within our community.
Though many may not agree to begin the school year with online learning, Minister Samuel, you made a call, taking primarily the safety of its primary stakeholders into account, the students and teachers. Now let’s work together as a village and get creative in raising our children. Education is not a building, a place, a person, education is a movement. Education on the move, embrace it!
Respectfully, concerned teachers and parents