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The struggles of online learning are real, and they hang heavily over the 2021/2022 Academic Year which starts tomorrow. Approximately 225,000 students enrolled in T&T’s primary and secondary schools are returning to an education system deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The prevailing atmosphere of dread and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is not conducive to learning, as the experiences of the past 18 months have demonstrated. Added to the challenges that were already there pre-COVID are issues of accessibility, connectivity and safety.

All students will be returning to classes virtually—at least for this first month of the term. The earliest prospects for the resumption of face-to-face classes are from October 1, but only for students from Forms 4 to 6 and even that depends on the level of vaccination uptake by that segment of the school population.

With question marks hanging over that arrangement, as well as the extent of vaccine acceptance by teachers, the first term of this academic year seems set for a rocky start.

After a rough 2020/2021 academic year where many students, even with devices and connectivity, struggled with the transition from physical classes to virtual learning platforms, there isn’t the usual buzz of back-to-school excitement. Instead, on social media platforms over the past few days, parents and some youngsters have been expressing great trepidation about once again having to log on to online classes.

Concern has been expressed in some quarters about the large number of children who have become demotivated and uninterested. The reality is that apart from the few unique and purpose-driven youngsters who have thrived in online classes, virtual learning is not as engaging as classroom learning.

Many students require interpersonal contact which is only possible in the familiar, traditional classroom setting. They absorb more information and acquire a better understanding of the curriculum through face-to-face interactions.

Very valid concerns raised about learning in isolation need to be addressed by the Ministry of Education with some urgency, along with the other unresolved issues brought forward from the previous academic year.

There is also the matter of approximately 2,000 students who have dropped out of primary and secondary schools since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. This is a significant number given the size of our school population and may have to do with the huge digital divide in this country combined with the worsening social and economic situation for many families.

COVID-19 has only aggravated struggles to make ends meet, to the extent that some households now face a grim choice between putting food on the table or sending children to school.

This is a matter that needs attention from the Education and Social Development Ministries.

The results of the SEA, CSEC and CAPE exams, which were written in difficult circumstances this year, will be released early this term. It will be a time for either celebration or tears for these groups of students who have suffered through delays, changes and stress in their exam year.

The fervent hope is that things will get better for T&T’s students and the back-to-school blues won’t last too long.