Locked out of learning
This was the situation for an untold number of children across Latin America and the Caribbean, where it is estimated that 60 per cent of all children who missed a full academic year of school came from the region.
“Children here have been out of the classroom longer than any other child in the world,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. He continued: “In Latin America and the Caribbean, the loss will be more disastrous and far-ranging than in any other region for children, for parents and for the society at large.”
Within the Caribbean, almost all countries closed schools in March 2020. Just over half reopened their schools in September 2020, although school closures followed closely a few months later. Up until May 2021, schools in the region closed in some countries, either partially or fully, and ‘back to normal’ in others.
But long before the lockdowns were on the horizon, Caribbean states were looking into harnessing the powers of the Internet for educational advancement. More than two decades ago, Barbados embarked on the ambitious EduTech Programme (later called the Education Sector Enhancement Programme, or ESEP), which was touted as the region’s first major attempt to integrate Internet and Communications Technologies (ICTs) into learning and pedagogy. Other attempts were made throughout the region to include technology in the classroom; it was halting and inconsistent.
Things changed drastically by the second quarter of 2020 when COVID-19 made online education at the primary and secondary levels an imperative. Teachers and students urgently had to adapt to the modality while still trying not to compromise on their pedagogy, engagement, and classroom management. Governments, the private sector and civil society worked quickly and closely to close the digital divide through device drives and loan programmes. School closures also gave teachers and other instructors a chance to build out online initiatives that were placed on the back burner. As a 2021 UN ECLAC policy brief noted, “pre-existing initiatives have been expanded, including the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) remote examination capacity and national learning management systems (LMS) in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago” (2021, p. 3).
However, the reality remained that the pandemic made the switch to online learning a necessity, as opposed to a phased, well-thought-out approach to support traditional educational methods. Educational disparities were heightened during the switch to online learning based on their household’s economic status, geographic location, immigration and whether the student is living with a disability. This would then affect access to stable WiFi and or mobile data, access to devices for households with multiple children of school age and parents/guardians’ ability to quickly learn or adapt to online classroom modalities. Furthermore, organisations working with migrant and refugee families in Barbados noted that paying for WiFi became less of priority when weighed against affording food and shelter. Teenaged children were forced to sacrifice their own educational priorities in order to find work to support the family, or to tend to siblings so parents could work.
In addition, teachers reported feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious and uneasy about the switch to online learning.
Research conducted on behalf of the CPDC indicated that school closures also had deleterious consequences for those who relied on school feeding programmes. These programmes are spread throughout the Eastern Caribbean and target children in public nurseries and primary schools. “This situation, compounded by reduced income for some households, would have negatively affected the nutrition quality of many children. However, several school administrators discovered ways to maintain the school feeding programme throughout the pandemic. This contributed towards reducing child hunger across many households during the COVID-19 pandemic” (Cornwall, 2022, p 31). Issues concerning school feeding programmes also underscore schools’ role in providing routine and structure for children and youth. For some, it is one of the few places of reprieve from witnessing or experiencing violence, as well as socialisation and peer support.
These consequences are significant and require attention and intervention. Lack of attention to the severity of the impacts that COVID-19 had on teaching and learning could lead to an exacerbation of the learning loss that students faced during school shutdowns. This should research at all levels to ensure that children are reaching educational targets, and are adequately prepared for major assessments, such as Caribbean Secondary Examinations Council and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE).
However, learners at all levels could benefit from further integrating technology into the classroom so that further disruptions would not cause long-term harm. As a region already heavily impacted by climate change, future-proofing educational systems is one of the many ways we ensure we are protecting ourselves from climate change harms. Furthermore, technology can make for a more inclusive classroom, allowing people living with disabilities to participate more meaningfully in mainstream classes. It is imperative that these systems be conceptualised and implemented with the support and input of students.