On March 10, 2020, The World Health Organization (WHO) designated the COVID-19 disease (COVID-19) a pandemic. Most education systems across the world have been affected by COVID-19. In a few instances, countries continued to keep schools open while enforcing preventative measures. This includes the establishment of protocols to handle possible COVID 19 cases and limiting social and extracurricular activities. Other countries (for example Canada, Australia, Brazil and India) utilised selective school closures while most countries including Jamaica, have opted for the closure of all schools as one of the main strategies to combat the spread of the virus. Schools in Jamaica were closed initially from March 13, 2020, with the latest order requiring every educational institution to remain closed until the end of September 6, 2020 According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 89.5% of the world’s students have been impacted by school closures resulting from the spread of COVID -19.
In Jamaica, approximately 600,000 students in approximately 3,639 public and private educational institutions, from the early childhood to the tertiary level of the education system, have been impacted.The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MoEYI) in Jamaica has developed and implemented several strategies to minimize the disruption to teaching and learning during the period of school closure. Students have been engaged through a wide range of distance learning strategies including accessing teaching and learning activities online, via television and radio. Despite the significant effort, at least 30,000 students remain unreachable and this poses ‘an unprecedented risk to children’s education, protection and well-being’ (UNICEF).
UNICEF (2020) posited that disruptions to instructional time in the classroom can have a severe impact on a child’s ability to learn. In addition, the longer marginalized children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. Children from the poorest households are already almost five times more likely to be out of primary school than those from more affluent households. Being out of school also increases the risk of teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation, violence and other threats. Further, prolonged closures disrupt essential school-based services such as school feeding, mental health and psycho-social support and can cause stress and anxiety due to the loss of peer interaction and disrupted routines, particularly for vulnerable children.
In an effort to mitigate these risks, the MoEYI is taking the necessary steps to prepare the education system for the full reopening of schools on September 7, 2020. Prior to the start of the new school year, it is important to take account the needs of those students who are at the points of transition in the education system Upper secondary students (Grades 11 and 13) normally sit exit examinations in May/June, including the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), to transition to the next level of the education system or entrance to the labour market. These examinations are administered by the Caribbean Examination Council, which following a Meeting of the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) on May 8, 2020, decided that students will sit examinations in July of this year.
Approximately 76,000 students are currently registered to sit exit examinations in the 2020 cycle -59,662 for CSEC and 16,243 for CAPE. Although most students would have completed portions of the syllabic up to March 2020 when schools were ordered closed, several students would have had challenges accessing online learning platforms and other learning opportunities. According to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN), approximately 45% of families do not have access to devices or to reliable internet services. As a result, these students would need additional support to complete their preparation for the examinations which have now been rescheduled for July – August 2020. As a result, the MoEYI has taken the decision to reopen schools between June 8, 2020 and July 3, 2020 for all students registered to sit exit examinations. Administrators also have the option, after the 3rd of July when schools would have officially closed, to facilitate additional preparatory interventions for the students in an effort to ensure that no student is placed at a disadvantage.
In considering the need to control the possible spread of the virus amongst the student population, the MoEYI has examined best practices while considering the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and Wellness. Accordingly, the MoEYI has developed a series of standards and guidelines for administrators which are designed to help them facilitate teaching and learning while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of students and staff.