Flashback September 2020, students of four educational institutions will benefit from the first donation of devices through the Adopt-A-School Initiative. Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, second from right, and representatives of the Women in Action for the Needy and Destitute (WAND) organisation receive 25 devices on behalf of the Ministry at the Education Towers, Port-of-Spain. The laptops will be distributed to Chinapoo Government Primary School, Febeau Government Primary School, Couva Children’s Home and Crisis Nursery and Morvant Anglican Primary School.

Almost six months after Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly first announced that a means test was being designed to determine which students genuinely need devices for online schooling, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is set to implement the new system this week. The means test was designed in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Development.

Schools will reopen tomorrow but the most recent data from the Education Ministry show that up to February, there were 35,700 students without electronic devices to access online education platforms—an improvement from last October when Gadsby-Dolly estimated there were approximately 65,000 students who were unable to participate in online learning.

A shipment of 20,000 laptops is expected to arrive this month for distribution to students in need.

On the issue of connectivity, the minister said the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (TATT) is “in the process of installing connectivity in 81 schools.”

She said the ministry has so far distributed 5,200 devices containing SIM cards through TSTT, Digicel and TATT and an additional 4,200 are being prepared for delivery.

“Negotiations are ongoing by iGovTT with mifi providers to finalise procurement of these devices,” she said.

The mini mobile hotspot devices will be distributed to students who have not been able to properly access online classes. During the Budget presentation, Finance Minister Colm Imbert had announced that 45,000 of the devices would be distributed.

However, the National Council of the Parent-Teacher Association (NCPTA) is disputing the figures given by the Ministry about the number of students still requiring devices.

“Faulty devices would have sent those numbers up and several schools in the Caroni region never got anything from the initial stage, meaning since the start of COVID-19. Now they are being told that they have to re-apply when the first request was not accommodated,” said NCPTA PRO Shamila Raheem

Raheem, who is questioning the rationale for the means test, pointed out that “principals have been waiting since last year.” She is recommending that priority be placed on getting devices to primary school students.

“That’s their foundation education and focus should be put into that. There seems to be a blatant disparity in treatment of children across the country as some districts are getting while others are getting absolutely nothing,” she said.

The NCPTA said the distribution of devices is a crucial area in which accountability and transparency are needed. She said wireless access is the best option to ensure students in rural areas can access online classes.

“Packages are not enough. Teaching in quite a few schools are not taking place. Uploading work on Google Classroom, WhatsApp and preparing packages are not teaching methods. Children and parents are having major challenges with the new learning system. Parents are not teachers. They can only assist and guide. Some teachers are only doing the basics,” she said.

Raheem claimed some teachers profiting from conducting private lessons and asked: “Who is holding them accountable for such? On one hand, we have some teachers who are very dedicated and go the extra mile for their children. They ought to be applauded for their hard work and commitment. But what is happening to children whose parents cannot afford private lessons as this seems to be a new norm as well”

Concerns about

mental health

In January, Education Ministry officials admitted the pandemic and lockdown had an adverse effect on the mental health of teachers and students. More teachers have been accessing the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) and according to School Social Work Specialist Natalie Robinson-Arnold, there had been many requests for help, mainly from secondary students. She attributed this to the “whole adjustment of being at home, being removed from the social atmosphere that they are used to in the school system” which had “created a little instability in our children and basically, it is general behaviour that our parents have reached out to us about.”

Nyan Gadsby-Dolly acknowledged then that teachers were experiencing stress with the transition from the physical classroom to a virtual forum.

“School social workers have been and will continue to provide services as needed, both online and face to face where required and possible,” she said.

Gadsby-Dolly also encouraged teachers, “to take advantage of all the training available from the MOE and other sources which will make delivery easier over time.”

“The Employee Assistance Programme for teachers is available to assist with maintaining mental health and wellness, and has been providing valuable service during this time.”

On the issue of burn-out and fatigue among students, Gadsby-Dolly said: “Yes, I am also a parent and seeing the fatigue in my children, both at the secondary and tertiary level. We as parents have to do our best to encourage our children, paying special attention to their mental health, and working together with the teachers for the best result in what continues to be a very difficult time.”

Raheem said while Standard Five students and their parents had been anticipating a return to the classroom and it is disappointing that “the careless and irresponsible behaviour of some adults continue to be a barrier for this to be possible.”

She said: “Imagine children who never wanted to go to school in the past now want to go. They are having eye and back issues from too much screen time, mental and physical issues, frustration and anxiety, stress because they don’t understand the work. Learning at home and learning at school are two different things.

“They say that these are not normal times and a new normal for learning, yet they are having normal exams. Why? When these children did not have normal school or normal teaching.”

The NCPTA’s PRO added: “More than before, the stress levels are increasing daily, especially for our Standard Five students. Dropouts are taking place, especially with secondary schools, because families are having financial difficulties and cannot cope with basic requirements so the children have to go out and find work to support the household.”

Raheem said students are “burnt out and just plain fed up.”

She added: “They are sad and some are suffering from depression. We really feel for these children and need to do our best to help them on all fronts.”