One cannot help but feel sorry for school-aged children who have been entangled in this COVID-19 pandemic, as there appears to be no end in sight to the disruptions to their lives and education.
Traumatic seems insufficient a word to sum up the experiences that parents and children have endured over the past two years, as the disease’s impact becomes more expansive.
The hope that by now we would be witnessing the tapering of novel coronavirus infections and a return to ‘normal life’ following the development and approval of vaccines, has been shot down.
Older students preparing for Caribbean Examination Council examinations at the CSEC and CAPE levels have faced challenges such as incomplete syllabi, on-again-off-again face-to-face classes, teachers who are inexperienced in delivering education programmes in the virtual format, insufficient technology hardware, high levels of unemployment in households, lack of Internet access in vulnerable homes, and intense anxiety about their ability to successfully write examinations.
At the primary level, similar hurdles have confronted our children and their parents. This, as some teachers report instances where children have never logged on to a single virtual class.
It is unfortunate that we are seeking to transition our children from primary to secondary schools during a historic pandemic, utilising a system that has been found wanting, even in the best of times.
Parents, including those with the wherewithal to provide private tutelage, have been hamstrung by the fears that accompany COVID-19 infections.
Then there is the group of children who could be described as the forgotten ones.
Our kindergarteners, who lack the capacity to fully comprehend the upheaval that is taken place around them, are also missing out on key foundational preschool learning.
Apart from the concepts of adding and subtracting, their reading skills are stimulated at this stage, language arts skills such as the who, what when, where, why, and how are also developed.
At this age, their minds are inspired by play and interaction. These little ones learn from visits to fire stations and police stations, learning about various professions, are exposed to music, and importantly, they learn to socialise, things like honesty, hygiene, and what behaviours are acceptable.
In 2020, before the novel coronavirus had mutated into its many deadly strains that are now sickening a growing number of children and young adults, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said children were not the face of the pandemic, however, they risked being among its biggest victims.
The UN organisation made a strong argument that all children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected, particularly by the socio-economic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good.
Our children’s education has been sacrificed or significantly altered to protect their health and that of the entire population. As UNESCO puts it, “The potential losses that may accrue in learning for today’s young generation, and for the development of their human capital, are hard to fathom.”
We have witnessed the number of children who are on our streets, unsupervised, during what would usually be attendance at school. It is only a matter of time before we reap the whirlwind that is bound to accompany such an extended absence of formal, structured education for our youth.
We are in total agreement with the President of the Barbados Union of Teachers Mr Pedro Shepherd, who has proposed the offer of an additional “repeat year” to all our students, who have basically lost an entire year due to the pandemic.
“This is something which the Ministry of Education never entertained before, it never came to the table, but I believe that when we start to see the repercussions and we look back, we are going to realise that it is something that should be done,”
Shepherd articulated in the media.
Early in the pandemic, it was believed that children had been relatively unscathed by the health impacts of COVID-19. However, the dangerous and highly infectious Delta variant has changed all this.
It remains a tough call for health and education policymakers and stakeholders.
A delicate balancing act is required in the circumstances. However, we maintain that it is important to consider that when the pandemic is over, the aftermath of these two years and counting will remain.
Certainly, the huge and unprecedented scale of the global crisis in education, and the grave effects of COVID-19 and related school closures on learning and wellbeing, require concerted efforts to ensure a safe return to school where possible and the provision of quality learning resources and support outside of school where it is most needed.