For the first time in the history of the Bhutanese education system, we witnessed a paradigm shift in teaching. The education system changed its landscape when the coronavirus pandemic hit us. We have started to resort to technology like never before to mitigate lost instructional hours and leverage distance learning.
UNESCO (2020) warns that if lessons learnt from Ebola are not applied to COVID-19, then the similar fate awaits our children jeopardizing their future. According to UNICEF (2020) in South Asia, 430 million children are affected by school closures due to Covid-19. Save the Children (2020) reveals that the devastating consequences of Covid-19 outbreak are set to have on learning. Several other studies have suggested that the risks of learning from home due to closure of schools outweigh the advantages. Hence, among numerous challenges, there are certain pressing issues, we have to be wary of and be strategic when children are out of school for a longer period of time. In fact, we have begun to witness the by-products of new normal of the education system.
World Bank (2020) at the beginning of the year cautioned that as seen from previous health emergencies, most recently the Ebola outbreaks, one of the impacts on education is high dropout rates. A number of students of class X and XII have not returned to school after schools reopened as reported in Kuensel. The dropout was anticipated when schools closed in the spring. And with a large portion of students still at home, we cannot be so optimistic for 100 percent turn up for the remaining classes. Moreover, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has proposed that along with primary class students, pupils of class VII and VIII are to complete their 2020 academic session through distance learning, so, children losing their interest to study abound in high gravity. Now, it is extremely important for schools to devise realistic strategies to keep their interests alive to study.
Our children are also trapped in the vicious cycle of risk amid the current situation. Girls are especially at risk of gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy and early marriage. A case in point, the closure of schools increased girls’ vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse both by their peers and by older men, as girls are often home and unsupervised according to Plan International (2020) during the Ebola crisis. Gender-based violence cases have increased during this pandemic period as claimed by RENEW. The vulnerability of our girls falling prey to sexual predators who are lurking in the society’s shadows is relatively high the longer they stay out of school. For most of our girls, education is a lifeline, shielding from exploitation and violence and equipping them with skills and hope for a better future. Thus, evidence-based and context-specific actions must be in place to favour our girls in preventing or overcoming ordeals of this pandemic.
The quality of learning is going to be seriously compromised at the time of this crisis on two grounds: parents with limited education to guide at home and a minimal amount of guidance received from teachers. Teaching either through online or with Self Instruction Materials (SIM), there are several challenges our children face at home. The quality of learning is directly proportional to the quality of digital access. Even if our children could access content, are they fluent in the language of instruction? So, teachers in some part of the country have initiated mobile teaching. Given the time constraint at hand, teachers cannot provide detailed guidance to students as supposed in the school with this initiative as well.
On the other hand, assessing the delivered lessons with fact-checking is a component not to be taken lightly. The assessment part must be little beyond than just correcting their completed works. A class VI child promoted to class VII will face serious consequences in that grade as teachers will hardly check previous knowledge given the situation the child is at the moment. Or will the teachers of grade VII teach the concepts of a former grade for a few months before rushing to the new syllabus, for instance?
The World Economic Forum (2020) argues that the digital divide would widen further if opening of schools is prolonged because as per the Global Digital Overview (2020) only around 60 percent of the globe’s population is online. So, to have equal access to learning, the MoE has launched SIMs for children lacking any form of digital learning platforms. Now, we have one group of students using SIMs and the other with access to digital tools. As long as the education disruption is continued by this pandemic, the disparities in learning opportunities would be exacerbated to a much higher level. Children from the affluent family would be at more advantage with digital knowledge and skills compared to those from the lower socio-economic background.
Reducing the gap of the digital divide should be a priority in post Covid-19 world as envisioned in the isherig-2: Education ICT Master Plan 2019-2023, to produce globally competent citizens through the equitable and pervasive use of emerging and relevant technology.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given us a glimpse of how education could change for times to come and stimulated innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time (United Nations, 2020). This is also an opportunity for teachers to deeply introspect within and self-assess on one’s skills required for 21st-century classroom. The moment schools were closed; teachers were tasked with implementing distance learning modalities, often without sufficient professional guidance. The sudden transition to new teaching strategies by the crisis posed challenges for teachers as well who lacked basic digital skills despite in contexts with adequate resources and connectivity, let alone facilitating quality distance learning. Perhaps it is vital to realize how crucial it is to equip oneself first than to attempt to teach younger generations. ‘You cannot give what you do not have’ as said the His Majesty The King.
The effect of Covid-19 crisis on education has been unprecedented, yet, we have found a way to manoeuvre through these dark times and still sailing overcoming hurdles on the way. Teachers go beyond the call of the duty to keep learning on track. The education community will prove to rebound with greater resilience under the guidance of the education ministry, the government and the King.
Mamita Bhandari (Offtg.Principal)
Pangserpo PS, Dagana
M.Ed II (2020) SCoE