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Schools Are Closed, Now What?

COVID-19 is forcing us to change the way we live. It demands that we change our behaviour in order to stop the spread of the virus. We are not yet taking it as seriously as we should. We should not have waited for a confirmed case before taking action, especially when we have thousands of people moving in and out of the country, directly engaging with a large proportion of our population through the tourism industry. We are behind and rushing to make decisions when we could have been far ahead, learning from the experiences of China, South Korea, Italy and Spain. Finally, we are making adjustments, but it is coming slowly. We are not being given much time for transition. We have to be ready for sudden changes. It should not, however, fall completely on us.

The government has a responsibility to ensure everyone has a reasonable chance to get through this, and that means introducing feminist policy rather than making sweeping changes that leave gaps that increase the vulnerability of people who were already vulnerable. They need to give us the tools to survive their decisions. As an example, we can look at the decision to close schools. The closure of all schools was a good call. That said, it should have come with a comprehensive plan to manage all of the components that are missing as a result of the closure. It needed to consider the safety of children, the income of parents, food security and education.

This is no village

We have created a culture of selfishness. We do not care as much about our neighbours as we like to pretend. We do not live in little proverbial villages. We expect people to take care of themselves or suffer the consequences of their inability to do so. We also expect them to do it quietly. This was made clear by the comments on one of the livestreams of the prime minister’s address on Sunday night.

The prime minister made the announcement at eight o’clock on Sunday night that schools would be closed for one month starting the next day. This gave parents and guardians less than 12 hours to make other arrangements. People, obviously unprepared and unsure of what to do, commented on the video to ask what they were supposed to do with their children. Others responded that those children were their problem to deal with, the prime minister need not figure out their lives for them and they should let the same person who watches the children while the parents party watch them – no one.

The responses were rude, callous and evidence of the erosion of the moral fabric we pretend to have in this society. People are uncaring. Not only that, but we have a limited understanding of the responsibility of governments, and we have gone for such a long time without the government properly providing the services and resources it should, depending heavily on non-governmental organizations, that we are ready to accept it and ridicule others for daring to even question it.

Schools meet more than educational needs

Schools are primarily the site of education, but they are also providers of supervision, safety, lunches and routines. School closure does not just mean children will not be at school, potentially spreading the virus. It means many children will be without adult supervision. Parents and guardians have to be at work. Working from home is not a common option here and, even at this time, employers refuse to consider it. The foolish idea that people are only working if you can see them working prevails. This makes it impossible for people to ensure their children are safe when out of school. Add to this low wages and high cost of living and it is not difficult to see how many cannot afford to pay a sitter.

Children are, no doubt, currently at home alone with instructions to be quiet and not let anyone know they are there, or given responsibilities like taking care of the younger children and walking to a neighbourhood store to purchase food. Parents and guardians are forced to trust family members and friends to drop by and check on their children, hoping they do not, instead, cause them harm. We cannot close schools without making commensurate adjustments to worklife.

There are children on lunch programmes. The number is limited and the criteria strict, so it is obvious these children need to be provided with free lunches. What will they eat when they are at home? They receive free lunches at school because their families cannot afford to feed them otherwise. This does not change when they must now be at home. How can we close schools without thinking about the nutrition of the children who will be behind closed doors?

The disruption in children’s education must also be considered. We all know what happens after a school break when children have not reviewed their work. When they return to school, teachers have to go over old material with them. We cannot have them at home with no curricula to follow and expect them to return in a month and prepare for exams in a few weeks.

What will be done to ensure their education continues? Every child does not have internet access, so virtual school will not work for everyone. Will teachers prepare packages with review material and schedules for them to follow? Who will assist them if they need help? Will there be radio programming to occupy, educate and entertain them while they are at home, and guide them through their days?

These are only three consequences – changes in safety, nutrition, and education – of the closure of school in isolation. The government has not put any measures in place to support families through this change. There has been no announcement of assistance for families that have no one available to stay with their children free of charge and no money to pay someone to do it.

There have been no arrangements made for people to pick up or receive deliveries of the lunches that would have been provided at school. The government is making decisions and leaving gaps. These gaps are huge, and they are directly linked to poverty, hunger and child safety.

If this is an indication of the actions the government intends to take in the face of COVID-19, we are in trouble. We have to speak up now. We have to pay attention to the gaps, point them out, recommend solutions. If we fail to do this, we fail ourselves and our communities. We do not want to be left wondering why there are so many reports of sexual violence or cases of malnutrition in the weeks to come.

How do we make feminist policy?

Have you ever been in a running club? Or a cycling club? One of the strongest runners or cyclists is always at the back. They could go faster, they could be in the front and they could finish first. Clubs, however, are not about that. They are about building community through the enjoyment of an activity, and part of being in community is making sure everyone is safe and no one gets left behind. Someone is always at the back, making sure the slowest, least skilled, or newest person is in their sight.

Feminist policies leave no one behind. They consider the most vulnerable people, put them to the front and design policies that will work for them. This is different from typical policymaking which focuses on the majority and sees vulnerable people as outliers. If the policy will not work for the people with the greatest need and who are the most marginalised, it will not work. It will create greater gaps, and we do not need that.

We need to close the schools. Okay, let’s think it through. Who are the students with the greatest need? We will need to consider those from families with low incomes, those with specific learning needs, those with no one to care for them during school hours, those with disabilities, those with medical needs, etc.

We still need to close schools, but what programmes and services can we implement to ensure they are not left more vulnerable? These could include stipends for caregiving, lunch drop-offs, modified lesson material and scheduled visits from a medical professional. Beyond this, we need to look at other household needs like the ability to work from home and increased food stamps or stipends. Feminist policy identifies existing needs, anticipates the needs that would arise from the proposed change, and directly addresses those needs.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Unit shared an assessment of potential challenges and solutions arising from the COVID-19 crisis, from food (in)security to economic (in)equality, and the necessary response on through its social media channels.

It is important for everyone – government actors, non-governmental organizations, advocates, employers and citizens – to review, consider and act upon the recommendations made in the chart the SDG Unit produced. It is designed to help us to move forward without leaving anyone behind, and we should all be committed to that.

We, the Bahamian community, have to do this together to survive.

Published by The Tribune on March 18, 2020.

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Culture Clash: D-Average Students Aren’t The Problem

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on September 6, 2017

Every year around this time, the entire country is frustrated by the BJC and BGCSE results. The “national average” becomes a measure of our worth and indicator of success, both present and future.

For the past decade, this “national average” based on national examination results has been a D, and we have come to casually define ourselves as “D-average”. It is the first thing that comes to mind when someone runs a red light, an MP makes a nonsensical statement, a neighbour fails to sufficiently prepare for a hurricane, or people lose money in looms. We’re quick to say, “There’s the D-average again.”

We don’t consider lack of respect for law and order, or the quickness of a lie as opposed to time and energy it takes to tell the whole truth. We don’t think about the scarcity of resources necessary to complete tasks, or the desperation of people who need a way out of poverty. The D-average is the national scapegoat, and every summer we are reminded everything can be blamed on it.

Resist the urge to make sweeping generalisations about lazy students, poor parenting, and underpaid, overworked teachers. We know we will not be able to solve a problem until we define it. Is the underperformance of students in national examinations the problem? Could the problem be the exams themselves? Should we be thinking about the way we prepare students for these exams? With over fifty per cent of students sitting the national exams getting under a C, the problem cannot be the students. The existing system is not working.

For emphasis, our students are not the problem. They are not, year after year, failing us. We are failing to properly serve them.

Missing the Basics

Social promotion is still practised in our schools. Students who do not meet the minimum standard for one grade are pushed through to the next. They fall further and further behind, unable to catch up because a level of knowledge and understanding is assumed, and the students are often too embarrassed to admit they have not acquired them. This can manifest in a number ways, from the appearance of disinterest to poor behaviour. Teachers can often identify these issues, but are limited in what they can do in a class of dozens of students with limited resources, minimal involvement of parents/guardians, and an unchanging educational system.

Home Life

In pre-school and primary school, learning cannot stop in the classroom. Homework and grade level-appropriate project help to bring context to new knowledge, and give students the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned and test their understanding of material.

This, more often than not, requires parent/guarding participation. Someone in the home needs pay attention to what is being taught and how the student is progressing by assisting with homework, reviewing tests, and meeting regularly with the teacher. Some parents/guardians are willing and able to do these things, but others are either ill-equipped or unavailable for this level of involvement. Multiple jobs, shift work, and low literacy are among the barriers to greater involvement in their children’s education.

Beyond help at home, nutrition and rest are critical to student performance. In 2014, it was reported that 19.3% of five to 14-year-olds were living in poverty. We often hear stories about students going to school hungry, and not having money or anything packed for lunch. How can we expect them to learn under these conditions?

Some students work after school and on weekends to help ends meet, and some have to help in other ways like taking care of elderly relatives or children younger than themselves. With these responsibilities, and concerns about their homes and families, it is not hard to understand why students are struggling in school. Add to this the lasting effects of hurricanes like Hurricane Matthew, from missing school to untreated PTSD.

Learning and Teaching Styles

In many ways, we have not built schools and educational programmes that accommodate our students. One style of teaching does not work for every student. Learning styles are typically broken down into four categories: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic.

Do teachers cater to all of these learning styles? Are they trained to identify students’ learning styles and adapt lesson plans to suit their needs? Do we need to start using learning styles to compose classes similar to the way we rank them by grade?

Even the best lesson plan will not produce results if it seems like it is in a foreign language. As Director of Education Lionel Sands said on a radio talk show this week, we need to prepare school for our students, not students for schools.

How can we make the shift from teaching (and learning) toward the goal of succeeding in an exam to encouraging curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, practising new skills, and exploring ideas with new-found knowledge?

Students learn in environments of dread because they anticipate exams to come. This helps to feed anxiety and forces memorisation and regurgitation rather than real engagement with and understanding of the material. Classrooms need to be student-centred, not test-centred.

Testing and Evaluation

Every student is not good at taking tests. Test-taking is a specific skill. Some students perform well on multiple choice questions while others excel in short answer and essay questions.

In many cases, results speak to a student’s ability to strategise and navigate a specific type of test rather than knowledge.

How can we evaluate students and test their understanding of material in ways that yield real results? How can we prepare students for test-taking, outside of teaching the material? These are the things we need to consider when we expect to use exam results as the ultimate measurement tool.

The national average should not be used as a collective insult. It is not a reason for us to feel bad about ourselves, or fear for the future of this nation.

The D-average is a call to action. The results are abysmal, and that a reflection of the system, not the students.

As citizens of this country, it is on us to call on the Ministry of Education, educators at all levels, parents, and students to address this national issue.

We cannot afford to forget about this until it’s a handy weapon in an argument. We need a national action plan for the improvement of our educational system, and we must be prepared to do our part — churches offering student breakfasts, civic organisations operating homework help centres, education experts providing ongoing training to teachers, and communities supporting parents.

The D-average is our problem to solve, and whether or not we get rid of BJCs and BGCSEs, our work is cut out for us.

What are you prepared to do? How can you contribute to the effort? Email me, and let’s get to work.