There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is making learning more challenging for children.
For ten-year-old Amy Scott and her seven-year-old brother, Keenon Sylvester, living in the rural Brasso Seco community, it is even harder to keep up with the school curriculum.
Amy and Keenon attend the Brasso Seco RC School, which, like the village, has no internet connection. Their mother, Yolande Thomas, said no internet service provider offers a service in the community, making it difficult for children to access online classes.
On May 15, the Ministry of Education instructed schools to discontinue all face to face classes and moved all teaching activities online. It led to schools halting the delivery of work packages for students who do not have access to the internet or ICT devices.
According to parents of pupils attending the school, it is a challenge for them as 40 per cent of the school population is still without devices. Many parents are unemployed and they say it is too costly to purchase phone cards for multiple pupils weekly.
“My children are being left behind due to not having a proper internet connection to help them. I am an unemployed parent, and I find it difficult to provide a phone card every day to ensure that they have data. If not, they are being left behind,” Sylvester said.
She said the teachers informed parents that they would no longer drop off work packages because of the increased rate of COVID-19 infections. They advised parents to secure internet service for children to access the work. “I have to buy a phone card every day up here. It is roughly $250 for the week because it is $27 for a phone card. You have to hook up a one day plan for the week, which is $25, and you have to buy two phone cards in one day.” Before May 15, teachers would usually deliver packages to the school every Wednesday for parents to pick up. They would also collect the pupil’s work from the past week. There are approximately 200 people in the community.
The residents are pleading with Flow, Digicel and TSTT to either run lines in the community or set up a hotspot so children can access WiFi to do their school work. “The village is mostly dependent on tourism: the chocolate tour, hikes and the Brasso Seco honey. They are dependent on tourism, and the outer communities supported them. Now, with this pandemic, parents are unemployed. I know one parent went to sell crabs yesterday to pay for a phone card to get data for her child,” a member said. Incoming Parent Teachers Association president Helen Janette-Ramdial said she has two children at the primary school and another in secondary school. While her children are doing work online, it is costly.Janette-Ramdial, a security officer, said not only does she spend $249 for a data plan for her phone, it is her three children and niece that has to use it. She works 12-hour shifts and the children can only access data when she is home. “My Infant Two son and Standard One daughter, they get work every day via WhatsApp and then the teacher would have to call on Zoom for us to keep up… I am a working mother, so because it is my phone they are using, sometimes it keeps back their work because the teachers are always on time,” Janette-Ramdial said. She said all the parents want is a service provider to help get a proper internet connection, so their children can keep up with their studies. While pupils also need devices, she said they need the internet first.Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly says that schools can make every effort to make up for the work missed by students who do not have online access once package distribution at schools can safely resume. Gadsby-Dolly said that in the meantime, educational material from the Ministry remains available on the radio, TV and newspapers. “We do anticipate that based on the robust measures put in place to curtail the spread of the virus, package distribution should be able to resume soon with acceptable levels of safety. “ In February 2021, 35,000 students indicated that they did not have a personal device. The ministry implemented a means test to determine those who needed assistance, which closed on May 14. The results showed approximately 21,000 applicants to date. Gadsby-Dolly said the ministry contacted all schools regarding the provision of tablets, through Telecommunications Authority and internet service providers, with SIM cards and three months connectivity for Standard Five, Form Five and Form Six students. “These tablets were provided according to the requests over the last few months. Therefore, those students facing their critical terminal examinations should, at this time, have access to the online environment.”