As most students head back to school facing the prospect of learning from home for the rest of the year, many of them are in grave danger of being left behind.
We are particularly distressed that some students still do not have access to the needed equipment to participate in online classes, and therefore must learn from physical packets provided weekly to their parents. This system must be changed straightaway to ensure that equal opportunities are provided to all.
Meanwhile, the entire community must work together to ensure that no student falls through the cracks.
Today’s children have been through much. Hurricane Irma left most of them attending classes on a shift schedule in compromised facilities, and school life was still far from normal by the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit this year.
Some students might benefit from such challenges, learning real-world lessons that ultimately prove as valuable as what they’ve missed in the classroom.
But adversity also exacerbates existing inequalities and other problems in the education system.
Successful students who have the necessary support at home — including a computer and internet connection — likely will continue to succeed and may even excel under the new regime. But those who were already struggling — and lack access to needed equipment — could very easily get left behind in the coming weeks.
The Covid-19 crisis, then, is nothing short of an emergency for the education system, and handling it properly is crucial.
To that end, we support the government’s plan to ask students to learn from home through the end of the year with a few exceptions including those who study technical subjects or have special needs. Given the recent spike in Covid-19 cases, this step seems necessary in order to ensure the safety of students and the wider community.
However, even during this time of crisis, the government also has a responsibility to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities.
The current set-up — which provides a different system for the haves and the have-nots — falls far short of that goal. The situation is particularly distressing given that in May government awarded a $138,000 no-bid contract for laptops that still have not been provided amid a global shortage related to the pandemic.
Government, then, should immediately devise a better system that provides the needed internet access to all students. The “loan-to-own” programme for laptops is a positive step, but until all students have the necessary equipment at home, perhaps those without it could be granted access to a socially distanced facility where they can safely access what they need.
Meanwhile, teachers will need all the support they can get as they work to transition online. Easy access to information-technology professionals is essential, and government also might consider temporarily redeploying other public officers as teachers’ aides.
The business sector also has an important role to play in ensuring that children get what they need during this difficult time. Employers should do their best to allow flexibility to parents who are unable to work during the day because they must assist their children with at-home learning. Offering flex-time schedules or extended paid time off would be ideal.
Additionally, non-profit organisations and churches must redouble their usual efforts to provide financial, emotional and other support to needy children.
To the same end, government might follow the example of the United States Virgin Islands and establish a feeding programme designed to ensure that all students are getting adequate meals throughout the day.
All other residents also should be on the lookout for any child who might be struggling in the coming weeks, and lend a helping hand where possible.
Children are among the most vulnerable community members. And at a time when many residents have lost their jobs, hundreds of them are facing the threat of poverty and other daunting challenges.
Protecting and supporting them is everyone’s job.