COVID-19 Pandemic Likely to Result in Lasting Changes to schooling
Ah at last, the school bells are ringing albeit for pupils prepping for national exams. But the feeling is good! It is a 'back to school' season like no other as we begin to reopen our school gates following weeks of enforced closures.
Schools closed for all students in Sierra Leone on March 31st and partly reopened on July 1st for students taking NPSE, BECE and WASSE. Other classes remain closed. The school closures are likely to have worsened educational inequalities, jeopardizing Sierra Leone's attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 4, and all of us as citizens and parents have a duty to ensure that a temporary break in schooling does not become a permanent one for our vulnerable educational system.
Our Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education has responded to one of the many questions on our minds - Who goes back to school first?
Some countries have decided on a geographic approach, considering access to distance education as a key factor, with schools in areas with higher poverty levels being the first to reopen. Other strategies also exist. In China, school reopening began with those in less populous areas and they prioritized high school students in their final years of education. Elsewhere, in Denmark and Norway, the youngest pupils have gone back first because they are less able than older students to learn at a distance. Sierra Leone has prioritised pupils taking NPSE, BECE and WASSE.
The challenge for Sierra Leone now is to determine and actualise strategies and actions for the reopening of full classes in September. The absolute priority is to safeguard children's lives and well-being. Parents, teachers, and school communities need to have confidence that the school system can protect the physical and mental health of students, teachers, and other education personnel.
I also listen to parents on radio asking valid questions ranging from whether reopening schools risks spreading the virus, whether schools have the necessary hygiene facilities, how to reduce class sizes to take into account physical distancing measures, and what psychological support the school community is offering. All this I think needs to be context specific - what will apply in the only primary school in my village in Morpeleh, Shenge may not apply for the Annie Walsh Memorial School in Freetown or Our Lady of Guadalupe Secondary school in Lunsar.
When it comes to reopening schools, the 'consult, coordinate, and communicate' approach is vital. Our educational sectors need to engage and consult the whole of government and stakeholders on this very important subject - continuing education in the midst of COVID-19. It is critical to build trust among all stakeholders. This can be achieved through continuous communication and consultations within the school community whilst ensuring that NACOVERC considers the school calendar when they advise on timings for reopening schools.
Our Education authorities must urgently prepare for in-school learning to start up again, knowing that schools and students face unprecedented challenges in the wake of the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines provided by the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education are very specific and they provide the guidance that school superintendents were looking for. It is already apparent that implementing them will be very costly and significantly change the education landscape, but let's aim to keep the school bells ringing - 'Belleng-Belleng!'
Note: The positive news is that children are at a very low risk from getting seriously sick from COVID-19. If infected, most children will only experience mild or even no symptoms, but this does not mean that they should not observe all preventive measures. If children are infected, they could unknowingly spread the virus to their grandparents, the elderly in the community, and people with underlying conditions and these people have a far lower chance of survival. Teach your children to do the right things for the benefit of all. It's an invaluable life lesson in selfless behaviour and it will save lives.
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Yeama Sarah Thompson