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Point and Counter-Point: COVID-19 and student learning in Belize

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Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2021. 6:30 pm CST.

Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ.

By Dorian A. Barrow, Ph.D., Florida State University: Whether students have indeed been learning during the time of COVID-19 is controversial. The abrupt presence of COVID-19 in March 2020 in the lives of students has certainly affected their state of mind. The concern is that students may be suffering from tremendous loss in learnings during the pandemic when they are having to do schooling at home. The purpose of this essay is, therefore, to share some of the preliminary findings from a piece of research that me and a student (Ms Regina Huang) is currently undertaking to try and substantiate that concern, that is, to determine the extent of the loss in learnings that students at the primary and secondary levels may be suffering while doing schooling at home due to the COVID-pandemic. In regards to the change in teaching pedagogy or teaching strategies used, students are facing challenges such as those relating to the new technical means of teaching online and to the self-motivation aspects of learning. The question is to what extent are primary and secondary school students growing academically, or are being kept back in their studies, given the pedagogical, technical and self-motivational challenges that they are having to overcome during a COVID-Pandemic while doing schooling at home?

Before delving into how students are being impacted by this epidemic, to set the context an overview of the history of the COVID-19 Pandemic may be helpful. According to Habet, Habet, and Marin (2020), preventative considerations did take place before the outbreak of COVID-19 in Belize. Educational institutions were no longer open. Chadwick, Kenyon, and Nagel (2020), makes the point that “the Ministry of Education of Belize instructed that schools be closed for the time being on March 20, 2020”. In addition to this, Belizeans coming back home from abroad were asked to quarantine for a period of fourteen days before entering the country. Tourists were temporarily not welcomed and Belizeans were no longer allowed to congregate for social events. March 23, 2020 marked history for Belize as the first official case of COVID-19 was reported in Ambergris Caye. However, after a couple days of no other cases, restrictions were to relaxed.

Following thereafter, the country was placed in a state of emergency as the third case of COVID-19 was registered on March 29th. A curfew between 8:00 pm to 5:00 am was implemented. Physical distancing, proper mask apparel, gathering limitations, and other restrictions were put into practice for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 Pandemic. Throughout this time, educational establishments were only virtually available for some students and a paper-based learning package was available to others. This served as bad news for students already struggling with technological resources and proper learning environments, as only “slightly over half of the country has stable access to the internet, which poses a threat to the equal learning opportunities of Belizean students” (Chadwick, Kenyon, & Nagel, 2021, p. 33).

Furthermore, the major flooding incident occurring in November heightened stress levels of Belizeans as they tried their best to stay dry and safe. Elections also occurred during this time. Political power was transferred from the UDP to PUP with Johnny Briceno as Prime Minister on November 11thh, 2021. Francis Fonseca was appointed by the current Prime Minister and was given the title Minister of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology. According to Chandwick, Kenyon, & Nagel (2021), three main themes of education were highlighted in this transfer of power to Fonseca. The themes mentioned were: promoting emotional recovery for students; strengthening relationships between students and teachers; and also advocating a healthy emotional state of teachers themselves.

The first to come to our students aid was UNICEF (2020), who began by conducting a survey that found that about forty percent (40%) of the Belizean population is still a child or adolescent under the age of eighteen. Many students within the forty percent population range of Belize were found to be “dawdling behind in their studies as a result of COVID-19 circumstances”. In addition, the UNCIF Study found that children have become more vulnerable to domestic abuse during this time, which greatly affects the mental state of students. Furthermore, the survey reported that about one fourth of the survey population were not eating as much as before and possibly skipping meals. In relation to school edifices, according to the report approximately one out of three schools lacked the resources to provide proper hygiene equipment. Thus, UNICEF teamed up with the MOE and began targeting these areas of student lives and is currently trying to provide solutions to these problems.

Though the MOE under Fonseca is not going it alone and is seeking help from other international organization including funding agencies such as the IDB who, for example has plans to aid Belizean schools in response to the caveats presented by the COVID-19 Pandemic (Reiefiol, 2020), they have been challenged with doing most of the heavy lifting in trying to have students return to in-person learning. In this regard they allowed some sixty (60) schools to reopen on October 4th, 2021, to offer some form of in-person learning. With over 90% of our teachers fully vaccinated and about 60% of the students between the ages of 12-17 years vaccinated, the MOE is hopeful that most students will begin to return to schools soon.

But that wish is far from becoming a reality just yet, as many parents are still hesitant to sending their children back to school, even though more and more of them are realizing that student learnings from at-home schooling is falling far short of what it used to be when their children went to school to do in-person learning. Our preliminary research findings are, in part, supporting these parents views. What we are finding is that the students who were already self-motivated and technological resourced before the COVID-Pandemic are finding the new pedagogical on-line learning less challenging and so are learning more than those students who continue to struggle with self-motivation and in overcoming the technological challenges the new on-line pedagogy is presenting for student learning.

We will continue to monitor this situation to see if there is a further dip in student learnings, or if the resilience of in-person learnings can help those students most at-risk to catch up.

Please feel free to use the column below to challenge any or all of the issues raised in the piece above, and let’s get this conversation on the benefits of on-learning going.

Dr. Dorian Barrow is currently working at Galen University as the Dean of the Department of Education. He has a long history of involvement in education in Belize, having served as a Lecturer at the University of Belize, and as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Education. Dr. Barrow is an eminent professional who is well respected both locally and abroad. He is serving as an editorial member and reviewer of several international reputed journals and has authored many research articles/books related to education. Apart from education, he is also a sports enthusiast.

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