As the country prepares for the start of the new school year next month, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information is ensuring that various stakeholders are equipped to meet the challenges brought on by the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
School plants were closed on March 13, just days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Jamaica, with learning continued remotely.
With a recent spike in cases of the virus, the opening of the 2020/21 academic school year, initially scheduled for September 7, has been pushed back to October 5, with a blended approach to learning to be employed.
This involves limited face-to-face engagement, online and offline computer-aided learning, televised learning and the provision of printed learning kits for students without Internet access, the use of the Ministry’s content app and other learning management systems.
Acting Chief Education Officer, Dr. Kasen Troupe, told JIS News that several lessons were learned from schools making the switch to online learning in March, which have informed preparations for the new school year.
“What we have learned is that many of our students and teachers were not fully comfortable with the learning environment, so we had some challenges in terms of maximising the virtual pedagogical skills. Therefore, as a Ministry, we had to move expeditiously in building the capacity of our teachers in that regard,” she noted.
She informed that there were also challenges in terms of cost and access to equipment and devices, and Internet services.
“So, as a Ministry, we had to move expeditiously in supporting our parents and families in need to provide access to the technology. That is why… we would have moved into procuring tablets and laptop computers for our students on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH),” Dr. Troupe noted.
She said the Ministry received further support from the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, to procure devices for students who are in need but are not on PATH.
To this end, primary schools across the island will be given a total of $50 million to procure tablets for students who do not have access to these devices.
“For our tablets… we will provide at least 109,000 additional devices this year. I can tell you that we have 18,000 tablets already in the school system that we would have given permission for our principals to distribute to our students,” Dr. Troupe said.
“We are getting ready now to distribute another 40,000… by the end of September,” she added.
Students at the secondary level are also being supported, Dr. Troupe told JIS News.
“We would have already distributed and disbursed funds to high schools. Those schools have now been charged to procure laptop computers for the grade 10 to 13 students who are on PATH, and that is ranging from a low of $350,000 to a maximum of about $12 million that we would have given to… our high schools,” she noted.
“We are providing the support in terms of the specs that they should use to guide their procurement plans and also working with the suppliers to make sure that there is economy of scale and to assist them in terms of the waivers that are necessary, if it is they are importing these devises,” she added.
Meanwhile, the capacity of instructional leaders/principals has been strengthened to enable them to lead remotely.
“We had to build the capacity of our principals through the provision of guideline documents that we developed internally at the Ministry level through research and consultations with our international partners. Also, we moved quickly to develop a virtual instructional leadership course through our National College for Educational Leadership (NCEL),” Dr. Troupe noted.
She noted that more than 2,500 principals and senior managers have access to the course.
Teachers are also being prepared, with in excess of 20,000 to date benefiting from virtual courses developed by the Jamaica Teaching Council.
“These activities are ongoing, so we continue to build out our training network,” Dr. Troupe said.
The Ministry also entered into partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to build the virtual pedagogical skills of teachers using the train-the-trainer model.
“So, we have 40 teachers who have just been trained through UNESCO [in] partnership with other partners that delivered the training. They have been certified and they are now writing the course programme to cascade training to the other institutions that would not have participated in those training sessions,” Dr. Troupe said.
“So, we have capacity-building coming from several fronts just to make sure our teachers can successfully navigate this new environment, which would undoubtedly be a part of our future going forward,” she pointed out.
Meanwhile, hundreds of lecturers are benefiting from a training programme implemented by the Ministry in partnership with local and international tertiary institutions.
This is part of the Ministry’s efforts to strengthen the capacity of lecturers at the tertiary level to manage learning management systems and plan lessons and engage students in an online environment.
Delaware State University in the United States of America (USA) is delivering a 16-hour certificate programme to tertiary lecturers in four phases. The first segment was held from July to August, the second is scheduled for October, and the final two sessions will take place in February and May 2021.
More than 3,500 lecturers are expected to benefit from the training.
Dr. Troupe said that the Ministry is pleased to see “how interested our teachers are, our principals are, in building their capacity to navigate this new environment”.