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Catholic Educators address online learning challenges

Education Minister Nyan Gadsby-Dolly last month disclosed in an interview with Guardian Media that approximately 2,000 students from Primary and Secondary schools could not be contacted by the Ministry’s Student Support Services Division (SSSD). As schools shifted to online tuition last year, the issue of student absenteeism became more apparent.

Gadsby-Dolly told Guardian Media, in the May 26 report, “In the circumstances, the SSSD officers may find it difficult to conduct home visits, but we do need to locate the students who are not appearing online or collecting packages, so we have developed a protocol and now refining it where we can have the formal intervention of the community police but not to lock up parents”.

The Education Act Chapter 39:01 ‘Compulsory school attendance and inspection’ states in section 77, “it shall be the duty of the parent of every child of compulsory school age to cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude, by regular attendance at a school.”

According to Section 78, “A child is excused from attendance at school— (a) if, in the opinion of the Minister, he is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere; (b) if he is unable to attend school by reason of sickness or other unavoidable cause; (c) if he is excluded from attendance at school under any written law; (d) if he is absent temporarily as authorised under the Regulations.”

How many of the estimated 2,000 absentee students attend Catholic schools? The Catholic News asked the Catholic Education Board of Management (CEBM), which has responsibility for 118 primary schools, one private and five government-assisted secondary schools. ‘Other RC secondary schools are managed by the boards of their religious congregation/order.

CEBM Senior Manager Schools Ashram Deoraj said the issue of “student dropout” had to be clearly defined. “Usually, it means that a child has been absent from formal schooling for a period of more than three months without excuse,” he said. Reviewing data, he provided six main reasons for students not accessing tuition: do not have a device; do not have connectivity; possess a device but no connectivity; parents have decided to ‘homeschool’ and duly informed the school; parents have relocated from the area and medical condition.

Deoraj said, “presently there are 411 students that fall into one or more of the above categories. These 411 students must be seen from an approximate total of 30,000 students enrolled in Catholic Primary schools”. By vicariate area: Northern, 77 students; Eastern 199 students, Southern 37 students, Suburban 94 students and Central 4 students. He said, “In all cases, no matter the cause for inconsistent engagement with schools, referrals to the SSSD from the Ministry of Education have been done and continued follow-ups are engaged by principals.”

Apart from referrals, also noted were: two children in Central vicariate had relocated, one has a serious medical condition; in the Eastern vicariate one student, 15 years, left to learn a trade; one relocated,

and another will be home-schooled. In Northern II, two students will be homeschooled and Northern I, one student has a medical issue.

Getting students online

During the pandemic, pupils without devices and/or connectivity kept up with their school work with printed material left at schools by their teachers. The “packaged curriculum” was to be picked up and returned to the teachers by parents.

Deoraj said, “A sample across four Vicariates revealed that a total of 1,000 packages were accessed by parents and returned”. He provided a breakdown—Central: 9 schools – 331 packages; Suburban – 15 schools – 397 packages; Eastern I and II – 30 schools – 272 packages.

As Covid-19 restrictions increased with the State of Emergency and regulations to reduce movement by persons in society, the provision of printed material had to be halted. “The CEBM sought to address this situation simply because if students were unable to access continued ‘formal’ education, then these students would be ‘left out’ of the education system,” Deoraj said.

He referred to the efforts of Chief Executive Officer, Sharon Mangroo, Senior Operations Manager, Ayanna Nero and Jesse Francis, Business Operations Assistant to assist the affected children. The CEBM determined that there were 71 schools that needed assistance with devices and/or connectivity. The total students requiring either modality was 1,920. The number of students requiring devices, 622, connectivity was requested by 316 and students requiring both 982. Deoraj disclosed that 104 devices were obtained from UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) and 400 from Massy Technologies and connectivity arrangements were accessed through Telecommunications Services of TT/AMPLIA, Digicel and Columbus Communications. He said distribution of devices and SIM cards for connectivity is in progress.

He said reports received thus far from Catholic primary schools’ principals and teachers indicate “principals and teachers are assiduously pursuing to contact all children through all means available to ensure no child is left behind”. Principals have been in contact with the SSSD and specifically the social workers. The latter are legally authorised to visit the homes of children and ascertain reasons for persistent absence and the solutions required.