The government remains uncertain in its approach to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our children. The Ministry of Education has stated that there will be a return to face-to-face classes when 65% of students in a particular school have been vaccinated. The Ministry of Health, on the other hand, has ceased distribution of the only vaccine that is available for children aged 12 years and older, due to supply. There can be no mandate on vaccine uptake for face-to-face learning if there are insufficient supplies of the Pfizer vaccine. Compounded with this are the many issues presented by online learning, as Jamaican students are finding it difficult to access online platforms, and many are being left behind as their right to education is treated as a non-priority.
According to the WHO, herd immunity achieved through vaccine uptake is encouraged, and is seen as the safest way to manage the pandemic without a further burden on the healthcare system. Herd immunity is necessary in schools to ensure maximum protection of our children, especially for those whose medical contraindications and age will prevent them from being able to take the vaccine.
The government must prioritize availability of the Pfizer vaccine, and focus on encouraging Pfizer uptake among children, and uptake of other vaccines among adults. Further, there needs to be consistent reports on the number of children who have been vaccinated and the progress schools are making towards the 65% requirement. Equally, the Government should be providing regular reports on COVID-19 infections amongst children and the nature and severity of their conditions.
The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network encourages teachers and school staff to get vaccinated, especially those that work with children who are under 12, who cannot yet receive any vaccine and are often in close contact with their teachers and peers. The Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education should make it a priority to have vaccine information drives in schools, targeting staff. As with vaccine uptake in children, the public should be consistently informed of vaccination progress amongst educators.
ADDRESSING ONLINE LEARNING ISSUES
The current unavailability of the Pfizer vaccine means there will be a delay in opening schools for face-to- face learning, and so there is the need for us to recognize the implications this has on ensuring the right to education for our children. The continuation of online classes through platforms such as Google Meet and Teams allow students to access learning opportunities and to be seen and heard by their teachers and peers, satisfying both learning outcomes and social interactions, however limited.
In 2017, the World Bank reported that only 55% of Jamaicans had access to and were using the internet. In 2021, we continue to contend with a digital divide and an environment that is not suited to facilitate online sessions as the primary source of learning. We are not sure what currently obtains and are guided by the anecdotal reports from students, parents and teachers over the last 18 months. What is apparent is that the challenges of online learning persist with insufficient interventions.
While schools await the go ahead for face-to-face learning, the Government’s focus should be ensuring that the alternatives being put forward are available, accessible and acceptable to all children for this new school year.
It is not sufficient to mandate online classes, without ensuring provisions are made for widely available and accessible internet access, especially in harder to reach communities. The Government needs to be able to answer: how many children have internet access without having to rely on data? Where internet access is available, is it affordable for the average student? If the internet is available and affordable, is it working? In the absence of internet access, can the average student afford data to sustain an entire day of school? The answers to these questions determine the interventions needed to ensure proper implementation of online classes. Getting the answers to these questions requires constant interaction with schools, and assessment of their situation and their capabilities for rolling out and sustaining online learning. With this information there can be swift action to address all issues and gaps. Without this information and some solutions, we continue to do a disservice to our children.
Policy & Advocacy Coordinator,
Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN)