Children have a right to education. That right is universal and no exceptions are acceptable. When the principle was adopted on a global level, they were not too worried about places like Malta. They were thinking of children living in remote villages in Africa, on the cliffsides of the Andes or in the outback of Australia.

When I worked in Zimbabwe I witnessed grotesque inequalities there, but children in uniform walked every day for hours before dawn from their huts to the nearest school. Poverty was no excuse to miss learning.

The universal right to education means that it is incumbent on every government to overcome all obstacles and to level all inequalities in the means to access education.

COVID-19 is a new barrier to education the government has a duty to overcome. It is simply not acceptable that our inability to work around this challenge has the consequence that children miss days of compulsory schooling. The mandatory obligation to teach children is not only incumbent on parents. By waiving the consequences of that obligation as Owen Bonnici has done for parents with children in government schools, the compulsory requirement – moral and legal – to provide education to children does not go away.

Because the mandatory obligation to teach children is an obligation on the government as well. And however difficult, however costly, however complicated, the government cannot opt out of this responsibility.

The government is failing in this. COVID-19 has been in this country since March and schools have been closed since then. We all had to patiently wait for the government to adapt because they were dealing with something new they did not know much about before. But here we are, six months later, on the very eve of a new school term, finding out they’re still fumbling in the dark. They still don’t know what to do and what they’re doing falls short of any reasonable expectation.

Let’s start with the obvious. Since June, the government has been overly concerned with the possibility it may become unpopular if it imposed restrictions on non-essential social interactions. The rate of infections today would not be so high if we spent less time in restaurants, fireworks displays, parties, weddings and partying in each other’s houses. The government was too timid to ask the population, except residents of old people’s homes, to make sacrifices in order to keep infections low.

In part this was buckling under the pressure of the tourism lobby, and the wrong portion of the tourism lobby at that. Even in COVID-free times, considering the idea that we should take over from Ibiza as a party-going destination is anti-social and undesirable. In 2020, it was sheer insanity.

Ultimately the tourism industry operated at some 10 per cent of its ordinary capacity. It remains to be seen if opening up for trade in the summer months proved more costly even to the operators themselves than if they had remained shut.

Whatever benefits there may have been from that decision, the myopia is now costing our children the irredeemable loss of school days. The government’s refusal to ask us to commit to a national effort to bring the virus under control again is a swap: the terrible death toll among the elderly and the loss of schooling for the young exchanged for the government’s desperate addiction to popularity.

Has the Education Department assessed the incompleteness of the education children were given during the last academic year?- Manuel Delia

There were also decisions from within the educational system itself that did not help. In the present, extraordinary circumstances why did anyone think that Malta’s extravagantly long summer holidays were still justified in this year of empty classrooms?

The rest of Europe starts schooling at the end of August or the beginning of September. Here we spent September’s rainy days wondering if schools would start as usual after Independence Day. Schools will not be fully operational, we now learn, before mid-October. Is no one regretting this loss of unrecoverable learning time?

Speaking of unrecoverable. Has the Education Department assessed the incompleteness of the education children were given during the last academic year? Are we going to go on ignoring gaps in their knowledge, holes that will continue to grow as we throw into them stuff children can only understand when they’ve properly learnt what they missed?

Has the government adopted methods to ensure all children at home have

broadband access and the equipment needed to follow classes? Many teachers report massive absenteeism. There are  children who never joined an online class, and many who join it merely to sleep through it. Have protocols been adapted to reach these children?

I accept that parents have a major role in supporting their children’s education. But that doesn’t relieve the government of its responsibility to intervene on children’s behalf when that does not happen. That is why we have a declared universal right to education. That is why, indeed we have compulsory education.

Where I live, I have noticed children working on farms helping their parents during school hours like this was 1920. I am aware of children living in families that may afford a computer but it’s mostly used by parents for Facebook scrolling. There is no doubt that there are many children out there living in families were education has no value or where a computer is a luxury.

It is for those situations that we have laws against absenteeism, and it is a criminal offence for parents who do not ensure their children are at school at 8am each school day morning. It is for those situations that schools give books out for free. Because the country cannot rely on parents’ understanding of the value of education or the need of a connected computer. It must use its authority to ensure all children get the education they are entitled to.

Instead Bonnici has now not merely absolved parents from their obligation to ensure their children are educated. He has absolved himself from his obligation to enforce that obligation. He’s abandoning an entire generation of children to their fate.

Bonnici does not want to field calls from irate parents. But by not doing his job, he’s not doing anyone any favours. Least of all this country.

Children from poorer families will miss their chance to acquire the learning they need to grow in our society. They will be trapped in deeper inequalities. All their lives.

Thankfully, COVID-19 has not taken away the lives of children yet. But for some of them, it is taking away their education and their future. We have a responsibility not to let that happen.

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