The resumption of children’s education in a safe manner next month is a collective objective that all should be working hard to achieve.
One would expect that the government, the public health department, medical professionals, school officials, teachers and their unions, parents and their representatives, and any other stakeholders are right now working flat out, hand in hand, on a comprehensive strategy to ensure that all schools will open on time and safely at the end of September.
Failing that, they must make sure that robust remote-learning alternatives are in place so that, come what may, education can go on in a steady and reliable manner, with no child left behind.
After schools were shut last spring, private schools demonstrated they were nimble enough to adopt virtual teaching options.
One hopes they will be even more prepared to do so this time around.
The state school sector appeared to be far less successful in going online, with reports rife of inadequate approaches and ‘lost’ students.
Evidence has still to emerge that they will do a better job of it during the next scholastic year if necessary.
This is disturbing, because the teachers’ unions have already questioned the plausibility of re-opening schools in September, especially as COVID-19 returns with a vengeance. At the same time the minister, Owen Bonnici, has given no assurance that learning will resume in whatever form, beyond a vacuous pledge that schools will be ready to welcome students on the set date. We have heard that sort of talk before when it came to tourism and look what happened there.
These obviously contradictory stances urgently need to be resolved. Rigid political or sectoral interests have no place in the present situation. All players must be focused exclusively on the children’s best interests. It is critically important that the reopening plan be driven by medical science and pedagogical best practice, and not by how loud the voices of particular stakeholders are.
Any plan that is drawn up as protocol meetings start tomorrow would need to be flexible and regularly revised to reflect the new realities of COVID-19. Individual schools may need to suspend in-person classes for a while if teachers or pupils contract the virus, as has already happened in several countries.
Heads of schools need to be given discretion, in consultation with public health experts, to decide on the best way to deal with their particular circumstances. Schools may need to close again en masse if the spread gets worse, and migrate fully online.
One important factor in the mix of these complex decisions is the deleterious effects of not going to school in terms of children’s mental and physical health. Let’s not underestimate the impact on thousands of parents who work in industries where telework is not possible.
Another factor in favour of opening is that children appear much less prone to developing serious medical conditions from the virus than adults, although they are far from immune. On the other hand, their teachers are as susceptible to serious illness as any other adult.
The reopening strategy would also need to make provisions for getting children to school safely.
Also, if, as is likely, virtual learning continues to be an essential component of children’s education for the next several months, it needs to be ensured that all children are treated equitably.
Not all families can afford to provide information technology for their children.
The government made mistakes when it reopened the economy. It cannot let the pandemic cause an educational catastrophe.
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