Simple solutions should be part of education lockdown

It has been a wild and unpredictable ride for school students in Samoa this year and they are all the worse off for it.

But the state of emergency - and its possible extension - poses fresh challenges to their already interrupted education. 

When children’s brains are at their most absorbent, missed time learning the fundamentals of education can compound throughout their lives and leave them at an immense disadvantage.

A litany of events have already intervened in pupils' classroom experiences over the past year. 

We have had the imposed break from studies that came with the Pacific Games; the Measles epidemic; potential cyclones; and now the two-week state of emergency that seems like it could well be extended. 

Most of these are interruptions of forces beyond our control. 

But we must ask how prepared the Ministry of Education is to ensure that the possibility of looming further long-term interruptions do not limit students' learning. 

In the event of further lock down ensuring that students can continue to learn outside of school is going to be critical.

The Ministry here has followed the lead of those in other jurisdictions such as Europe, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia to ensure that students can access their lessons remotely. 

But perhaps they should be discussing the question with countries which are in a similar position to Samoa across the Pacific of how best to implement distance learning in an environment where technology is not in abundance.

The Ministry told the Samoa Observer it was preparing broadcast lessons over television and radio channels.

It is a fine plan. But is it a feasible way to reach all of our students?

We must worry that the effect of a prolonged state of emergency might create a two-tier school system and be practicable without further coordinated involvement at the village and family level. 

As it stands under plans to broadcast lessons, some students will be available to receive the stimulus of televisual learning; others will not. 

It is difficult to obtain up-to-date figures on the number of households in Samoa who own a television set; the numbers are patchy at best. 

A 2012 study - “Preparing for the Worst: Disaster Preparedness Education in Samoa” - cited figures showing that only a little more than two-thirds did.

But even if we were to be conservative and assume 90 per cent of houses now own televisions, that leaves 3,600 Samoan children without access to television for their lessons.

“We have the digital T.V. and the Government radio station and it's doable,” said the Minister of Minister of Education Sports and Culture, Loau Keneti Sio.

Another messy question is whether the Government will be in a position to let the country’s myriad education systems - public, private, Catholic, Methodist and E.F.K.S. - have their own channels dedicated to their own curricula.

Cost, Loau said, was the biggest barrier to giving separate education systems their own channel, leaving the question open for now. 

Being forced to start learning from an entirely different syllabus will prove another setback for students. 

And, of course, at the latest estimates digital T.V. is only accessible to 80 per cent of the country. 

The options for children outside the coverage areas or without equipment appear stark.

Parents, too, who are struggling with the economic-led downturn of the coronavirus are going to be relied upon to police their children’s study habits and will be bringing in a salary to keep their household budgets going.

Many have been paying school fees for an entire term without receiving lessons in return. They are at the precise point when they are least able to supervise their children's learning. 

But these problems are not insurmountable. The Ministry’s plans are ambitious. For that we do not fault them.

But they should be complemented with measures that acknowledge our technological limitations and allowing every child to learn. 

The easiest complementary measures to fill the gaps are low technology solutions that make use of our nation's social structures.  

The Education Ministry should coordinate with village councils and provide them with textbooks, support and educational materials to ensure that all students can learn. 

Decades ago the education system ran basic English language lessons for village schools that did not have the capacity to teach the language via the radio. Students discussed what they had learnt with their teachers after the lessons had concluded. 

Village education officers could be able to educate needful children in small groups in keeping with the spirit of quarantine, or at least be on hand to answer students' questions, or ensure that students are not simply availing themselves of an extended holiday. 

Our essential communications providers will also need to be called upon to do their part. 

Working with Bluesky Samoa the National University of Samoa has negotiated to help students to get free data to complete online courses. These measures are laudable and could and should be repeated for primary and secondary students. 

Children removed from the watchful eyes of teachers are always going to be less apt to focus on school work. 

But after so much of it has been missed already, we must do more to ensure that an entire generation of school students is not left behind. 


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