Improving access to education in the year ahead

FOR a greater part of this year, millions of us were plunged into the internet school phenomenon featuring “Zoom school”, television graduations, and many more internet final examinations than we hoped for. In Guyana, across the Caribbean, and many developing countries, it is well ventilated that we really were not ready for this virtual shift.

Tectonic shifts like these usually have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. This virtual education shift has had a significant impact on learners in rural and hinterland communities, and among families who were struggling to get by in the strange economic circumstances presented by the pandemic.

In the year ahead, not only do we have to work on bridging these gaps that have been widened for our vulnerable and disadvantaged, but we also have to move apace to ensure that we find solutions to the disparities we are continuously faced with for the future. It cannot just be immediate efforts to remedy the impact of the pandemic alone.

Since there were utterings that my second semester–starting at the end of January–would be online again, I’ve been saying that I may very well take a semester break. For me, internet school has been quite a difficult experience to navigate; blackouts are frequent, my internet connection is poor and I don’t have a space at home that is conducive for classes. Yet, I have electricity, I have an internet connection, I have electronic devices and I can attend classes.

There is a teacher in Lethem with whom I have been in contact and she laments how difficult teaching has become for her and her students. She had to snap photographs of worksheets and send those along with voice notes via Whatsapp, because who can sustain video classes using only data plans?

For context, a basic monthly plan, containing two gigabytes of data, costs $2,000 on one network, and $2,699 on the other. There are 1,000 megabytes of data in one gigabyte and a 30-minute video call via WhatsApp (not Zoom, or Microsoft teams) uses approximately 350 megabytes of data. Therefore, approximately three hours of a video call (or approximately six 30-minute sessions) would consume this entire month’s plan. Again, who can sustain video classes using only data plans?

Last week, Deputy Chief Education Officer (DCEO) for Amerindian and Hinterland Development Marti DeSouza said that the Education Ministry would be reviewing these challenges in an attempt to provide some support in the new year and school term.

He identified several key challenges, including lack of electronic devices (laptops, tablets, or even phones); a lack of stable electricity, if any at all; limited internet connectivity, if any at all. Digital literacy and internet bandwidth were also challenges.

These disparities in education are not isolated to our neck of the woods. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres emphasised, “The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education ever.”

It has been reported that this pandemic can reverse some of the gains made over the past few years in ensuring that there is greater access to education. Guterres highlighted that moving forward, education initiatives must seek to reach those at greatest risk of being left behind, including those in minority groups, emergencies and crises, displaced people, and those with disabilities.

We have to think about whether students have left school and opted to work instead, because of the financial challenges brought by the pandemic. We have to consider what mental toll these changes have had on them, which may dissuade them from completing school.

Mr. DeSouza said that after reviewing existing data and studying the challenges that exist, the ministry will then look into what support can be provided in the period ahead. Beyond that, curriculum reviews and integrating digital technologies have been things that we have been talking about for a while now. I hope in the year ahead we can see progress in these areas.

Finally, while we await the COVID-19 vaccines expected to arrive sometime early in the new year, we cannot assume that we will go back to the ‘old normal.’ We cannot only depend on the reopening of schools or the distribution of booklets. While these have been good short-term solutions, we have to think about implementing longer-term solutions for the years ahead. These should be geared at providing equitable opportunities and access.

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