I am not a professional teacher. But I enjoy teaching and have been leading a group of pre-teens in an under-privileged area (what Bishop Harvey called ‘the belly of the whale’) for the last few years.
In the light of the debate about school reopening and the announcement of the SEA results, it may be interesting to share my ‘lived experiences’ over the last 18 months.
The Thursday evening before the first lockdown, I hosted a young doctor who taught the boys about staying safe and washing their hands properly. Little did we know that session would have been the last face-to-face meeting.
The ensuing week was like free-falling into a chasm; it was maddeningly disorienting. There was a scramble to get in touch with the boys. The tragic reality is that some disappeared—not even their colleagues knew where to.
The ones who were free-spirited, needing help to harness their exuberant energy, were, unfortunately, the ones who went missing. The online experience is an isolating one, robbing one of the free-flowing joy of sharing.
The question of getting devices and connections was a complete mish-mash of confusion. It is neither simple nor straightforward to provide devices and internet access.
Do children need individual devices? If not, how many young people could reasonably use the same machine? Is a mobile sufficient, or do they need a laptop?
What are the minimum technical specifications to connect to the public school system? What kind of internet connection is adequate? No longer was it about the boy’s needs but the family’s.
The phone service providers zoned in on the business opportunity in that fray, so families needed help to decipher the pricing maze. With job losses and reduced income, the connection fee was an extra bill to pay.
Families suffered, becoming even more financially burdened. Fathers felt crushed. Mothers soldiering on in their ‘essential’ jobs meant less supervisory time. The fear of the virus was a factor in deciding to send the child to the grandmother.
Older teenagers were pressed into service to look after the younger ones since daycare centres were closed. Frustration crept in and hollowed out the determination of some parents to keep their children going.
There were dropouts. A lot!
Providing a device and connection is not enough. The primary reason for homes not having internet access and computers was their lack of financial resources.
Having a laptop scheme does not fix social inequality. Young people who did not have digital access at home were likely to have fewer digital skills than their peers, and their parents may not be able to help them adequately.
Using the internet has multiple risks. Despite running sessions on staying safe online, one kept wondering whether the boys would be seduced by unsuitable material. Between the dropouts and the availability of inappropriate material, we are facing the grooming of another generation to be policed, not excited into possibilities.
I feel sorry for the public school teachers who have to digitise their years of blackboard and chalk teaching material. Even with my computer skills and orientation from my day job, I felt inadequate.
The process is complex and problematic. Exhausting for me and the youths, especially at the end of the day. Were the sessions, intended to supplement and help, working as planned?
Coordinating the different children on different screens, not the teaching, became an exhausting part of the experience. The absence of a central meeting place increased the significance of the family environment. Some homes are equipped and supported by a parent or older sibling; others live with dysfunctional arrangements.
The effect of community support is diminished as ties are disrupted. What is clear is that there are significant setbacks in learning. One study (Engzell et al, 2021) predicts that in similar communities, there is up to 60% more learning loss than in the general population.
We are perpetuating social inequality and raising a generation unable to perform the essential tasks in a work setting. Persistent deviant behaviour is in our future.
Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has come to her job more than five years late. We will have to support an ever-burgeoning national security budget for the foreseeable future.
Our disadvantaged youths are losing the opportunity to improve their life chances and contribute to the national economy.
What should we do? Stop the adult mess of ‘vaccine freedom’; the poor school child pays the price. We must improve our contact tracing and adopt quick antigen testing to open schools by districts—our schools cannot ‘social distance’.
Research on self-control suggests that children who master the skills needed to keep their masks on will grow up to be better at achieving their long-term goals, solving problems and handling stressful situations.
Why can we not do right by our children and save future headaches?