Tuesday 27 October, 2020

Digital learning has created greater imbalances among students

In mid-March the Honourable Julianna  O’Connor-Connolly,  Minister of  Education,  Youth,  Sports,  Agriculture and  Lands announced the  COVID-19 closure of all educational institutions in the  Cayman  Islands and a transition to online learning. The success of these efforts was assessed by the Office of Educational Standards in a review of online learning among the 16 government schools, which was released this month. The Ministry of Education promptly responded to the recommendations of the review with a clear acknowledgement that the playing field of online education has been highly unequal.

The conclusion of the OES review was that “home learning currently serves as an imperfect substitute to school-based provision.”

Here are some reasons why the switch to home learning has exacerbated the inherent inequalities that existed before the pandemic:

There is “inequality in terms of [technology and online] access for students of both primary and secondary ages”

The OES review speaks not only of some students not having access to technology for a variety of reasons but also of the unreliability of technology available to them. As of May 22, there were 300 students who either did not have the required hardware or internet access. In some schools, up to 20 per cent of the students were unable to access the internet and 30 per cent did not have access to the appropriate hardware. There were also cases raised by the Ministry in which households with multiple homeschoolers and home-based workers had to share technology and limited bandwidth. During the crisis, the Ministry distributed over 500 laptops and digital devices and is currently seeking to introduce a programme that would provide each student with a digital device. This request is currently before Cabinet for consideration.

Hungry kids are not good learners.

According to the Ministry of Education, “the number of students requiring free nutritional services (free schools meals) increased throughout the pandemic as some parents/guardians were newly unemployed or struggling, for other reasons, to provide nutritious meals for their families.”

Social challenges that extend to the home have been heightened

This includes parents who are both working or stressed about making ends meet, small homes with limited space to do work quietly and home environments in which there is abuse. Children who are in stressful environments around the clock would have been placed at a great disadvantage.

According to the Ministry of Education, “Parents/guardians struggled during the pandemic for a number of reasons and have expressed difficulty supporting their children with school work, while also having to work from home or manage a range of other hardships or responsibilities. There is a need to balance the educational provision with the understanding of the strains and hardships being experienced by families in this very difficult time. “

Children with mental health issues or children who have parents with mental health issues are at a greater disadvantage

Mental health for students, teachers and family members continues has been identified as a priority for the Ministry of Education, but of course, not all cases are evident to those on the outside.

Students with different learning needs who are not in specialized learning tracks are at risk of falling through the cracks

Sadly, neither the OES review nor the Ministry response makes any real reference to children who are typically on the spectrum of normal but have learning differences such as auditory processing issues or mild dyslexia that would place them at a disadvantage in a home learning environment.

“Students are missing important opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers and require additional individualised feedback and direction from their teachers.” (OES)

This need is especially important in the case of environments where parents are working and there are no older siblings or family members to provide support and feedback on learning activities.

The Ministry of Education has most aptly summarized that those who were most vulnerable before the pandemic would be in an even more heightened state of vulnerability during the pandemic.

According to the Ministry of Education, “Evidence shows that children’s learning may be significantly impacted if they are hungry, feel insecure or unsafe. This pandemic, and its multiple effects on the health, income and well-being of individuals and communities, put a strain on the psychological reserves of all, including students and parents/guardians.”

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