By RODERICK SIMMS II
Island growth and
The global pandemic has presented us with many opportunities and lessons for creating a society that is more sustainable and better prepared. But one thing COVID-19 has taken away from us is the time we cannot recover to replace the student learning gap we now face. Prior to the pandemic, The Bahamas’ national exam average was ‘D-’. While this is only one measure of academic performance, it is still important. It is thought that the combination of a prolonged lack of face-to-face learning, and the impediments associated with virtual learning, will have adverse effects on the student population in The Bahamas. In this segment, we will explore the impact of COVID-19 protocols on our education system and students.
A design that does not fit
From kindergarten to high school, students in The Bahamas entered a new experience of virtual learning and hybrid face-to-face models between 2020 to the present. The past two years have been a roller-coaster for parents, teachers and students alike in having to adjust to a new learning environment. Virtual learning had both its advantages and disadvantages for the purposes of surviving a pandemic. It was a good solution to help protect students from a new virus that continues to cause death around the world. But virtual learning is not a sustainable experience since we were grossly unprepared (both students and teachers) to adapt to this new model. In addition, not everyone’s virtual learning experience is the same since due to the various socio-economic factors that can dictate one’s living conditions. Therefore, we took on a model that was not fit for the education system we have designed. A report from McKinsey & Company (June 2020) says: “The US education system was not built to deal with extended shutdowns like those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, administrators and parents have worked hard to keep learning alive. Nevertheless, these efforts are not likely to provide the quality of education that is delivered in the classroom.” This finding from the research giant is important because it is proof that most education systems were simply not designed for the protocols imposed by governments.
We understand that when COVID-19 struck, a lot was unknown. Therefore, it was not so unusual to keep schools closed as we figured out the next steps. But we may have prolonged this to a detrimental extent. Since July 2020, countries were already making moves to return children to school, transitioning from hybrid learning back to full classrooms. Singapore prioritised graduating students, so they could return to prepare for national exams, and opened schools earlier on with social distancing practices in place. Argentina implemented a dual system that combined online and in-person learning. According to research from the United Nations’ children’s agency, UNESCO, on hybrid learning, Argentina looked at four specific courses to return to full-time learning: The first and second grades, because that is when literacy begins; the last year of primary school (sixth or seventh grade); and the last year of secondary school (fifth or sixth year) due to the jump to the next level. Brazil developed a mobile app to ensure students received their learning material. This makes sense since most households have one or more mobile phones. In addition, the Brazilian government partnered with telecommunications operators to ensure free access to the app and billing of Internet consumption to the government, not the user.
The examples above provide evidence that while no system is perfect, there was a lot being done to ensure virtual and hybrid learning was effective and, at some point, transition back to in-person learning.
Adding to the problem
COVID or no COVID, the world continues to advance in the way we learn and how we are taught. This means we should be preparing and equipping future generations to be competitive. To do so, we must produce more critical thinkers from our education system. Our current curriculum should be revisited and focus on closely connected areas of study: Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Since every student may not be good at theory and tests, these four areas still allow for pre-vocational skills to develop. With new information and communication technologies (ICTs), more companies will begin to require analysis of data to remain in business at a sustainable rate. The skills required to do so necessitate an early start with our student learning population.
Until we can produce measurable outcomes regarding change in our education system, we are only adding to the problem of being left behind. The pandemic has done nothing but worsen an existing problem. During the onset of the pandemic, the Ministry of Education’s research and planning section initially identified 8,000 students who were inactive on the virtual learning platform. While this number has significantly reduced in recent months, it shows there is a lot of work to do to close the learning gap for that student population. As mentioned, various socio-economic factors can dictate one’s living conditions. Not everyone has access to the Internet to participate in virtual learning at home. Some homes may even lack other utilities, such as electricity and running water. Also, there may be a lack of supervision at home for younger students because some parents are not able to afford childcare while at work. Therefore, we need to account for these oddities that cannot be fixed overnight.
Opportunity to change
The social and economic development of The Bahamas depends on the restructuring and advancement of our education system to enhance both the private and public sector. The pandemic has exposed gaps in our education infrastructure, and this crisis should be the impetus for us to improve technologies and networks relating to this. The pandemic should also encourage us to increase the use of technology, because this helped to ease the disruptions coming out of COVID-19 in our social and work life. Our reliance on these digital technologies led us to be innovative by using skills sets in the maths, science and technology fields. We should harness this talent and take it seriously. We relied on Bahamians to step up and use their skills in programming, digital assets, e-commerce, policy and risk mitigation. So why not give other Bahamians an opportunity to do the same in the near term and future? This can be done, beginning in our primary schools, and carried into the tertiary level.
When we create a life cycle of critical thinkers, we are setting the standard for education, skills and goals for the student population. A lack of early education can be linked to other social issues such as crime and poverty. Therefore, like we always say, it starts with a good foundation.
The National Development Plan
Fortunately for The Bahamas, our National Development Plan (NDP) has already identified most of the gaps in our learning and infrastructure needs to help improve the education system. The NDP calls for a renewal of the curriculum. The plan points out that lessons can be applied from what has worked in the past, and more attention can be provided to the needs of the future. According to the NDP: “By investing in skills development, summer learning hours and better attention to at-risk students who need more attention, or simple nutrition, it is hoped that students will be better prepared to take on higher education or well-paying jobs when they graduate high school.” In addition to this, the plan also calls for improving and implementing technology into the learning process.
Education is the root of how we become more progressive as a nation. We must make shifts and changes in our curriculum, skills, resources and technology to produce better outcomes. In this fourth industrial revolution, companies and consumers have different needs because they are shifting to digital transformation strategies to survive the next 10 to 20 years. As a result, the human capital skills bank has changed and requires more analytical, innovative and problem-solving skills. Therefore, we need to prepare our learning population to be more competitive against the world. We simply do not want to be left behind.