Back-to-school is foremost on the minds of parents, teachers, students and merchants, even more so as we contemplate the new meaning of school for the 2020-21 academic year in the time of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
Today was the first round of consultations on the reopening of schools proposed for September 21.
Complex issues doubtlessly emerged as secondary school teachers, principals and education officials made attempts to map out the best way forward in this unprecedented scenario.
The truth is there is no roadmap for how to reopen schools in the midst of a pandemic, even for our country where confirmed COVID-19 cases as of today number 164.
We know all too well that numbers can change overnight and this, more than anything, makes the thought of reopening schools nerve wracking, especially when one considers similar moves in large, rich countries have been fraught with problems.
But confront the issue we must. Life continues in spite of this microscopic enemy.
The public tension between the Ministry of Education and teachers’ unions on the same old issues of lack of consultation and mutual respect must be confronted and settled. Ultimately, decisions on the reopening of schools demand clear thoughts and level heads.
We expect our educators to take into full account the health risks under the guidance of experts while considering the short- and long-term implications of closed schools on the behavioural and academic development of students.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the health, safety and education of students should be the guiding priorities; so, too, the wellbeing of teachers.
The Ministry of Education is duty-bound to meet the interests of all involved and find ways to respond to the demands for more resources, on a limited budget, particularly the necessary sanitation-related expenses.
To date, the suggestions have been varied. Some remain sceptical about a return to the classroom, calling for online learning to be firmly developed, while others suggest a blend of face-to-face instruction and online tutoring.
It’s reasonable to expect that the latter may be more practical. It is also reasonable to worry about diminished returns from e-learning exclusively.
Back in March, teachers and students had to suddenly adjust to online learning as authorities took the wise decision to shut down the country to keep the coronavirus from spreading. It has worked in many respects but we should not ignore the fact that many students lost out on classes because they did not have access to the Internet, thus highlighting the value of face-to-face educational instruction, especially for children from low-income households, as well as those living with disabilities.
This underscores the critical need for the Government’s tech drive and we urge the fair and equitable distribution of the computers and tablets donated under the initiative to ensure no student is left behind.
But while the value of e-learning cannot be discounted, nothing fully substitutes for face-to-face instruction delivered in a traditional classroom. Educators know full well that in schools, students not only readily learn reading, writing and arithmetic but develop social skills and teamwork. Teachers, too, learn more about their students and connect with them better in person.
Still, the case for a return to the school plant is demanding – requirements for masks, social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting and use of shared materials and bus transport.
School officials will have to be flexible. Parents and students will have to be fully committed to following health and safety precautions. And all must be willing to adjust as the school year unfolds.