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With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic a number of issues have come to the fore. Not least among these are the effects of the pandemic on children. The studies are ongoing in this regard since COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International concern on the 30th January, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and a pandemic on the 11th March, 2020. Incidentally, it was also on the 11th March, 2020 that Guyana recorded its first case of the corona virus. This presents an opportune moment for researchers at the University of Guyana to join their counterparts elsewhere to undertake studies in the area by investigating the effects of the pandemic on children of Guyana, noting our present realities.
A cursory review of the literature in this area is instructive. The data compiled by countries with large populations (Brazil, Britain, India, Nigeria and the United States of America), representing five continents, reveal that persons of the lower socio-economic and minority groups are disproportionately affected; and among this group it is the children who are most vulnerable. The research has shown that the impact of COVID-19 on children is wide ranging and significant. A few examples of the effects would suffice:
- Lockdown (confinement).
- Mental health issues.
- Losing a family member or friend to the virus.
- Undernutrition-due to their parents losing their jobs.
- A disruption of their education or coping with the rigors of studying at home.
(World Vision Development Foundation)
Some world leaders have taken the bold step of phased reopening of their countries after their first lockdown. In many instances, these countries were forced to reimpose the lockdown because of a second wave (spike) in infections. For the most part, this was due to the potency of the virus and/or the indiscretion of the citizens and their failure to adhere to the safety protocols. The schools (children) and universities were not spared in this regard.
This brings us to e-learning and online and online learning. Many schools in Guyana have already embraced these modes of teaching/learning. Just recently, even the University of Guyana announced that their first semester programmes for the academic year 2020-2021 will be held online. However, the increased need for online learning will definitely exacerbate the inequalities among children, ultimately leading to an increasing education gap between the haves and have-nots, based on their access to computers and internet facilities.
Unwittingly perhaps, the two previous governments in Guyana laid the foundation for a time such as this with their One Laptop Per Teacher initiatives. In passing, it should be noted that Barbados and Jamaica have gone a step further by distributing tablet computers to students. I am optimistic that Guyana will soon join this illustrious club of countries with the prudent management of our oil and gas wealth.
While Guyana transitions to on-line learning, here area a few of the things that we must do:
- Take steps to protect our children against cyber bullying and cyber sexual exploitation.
- Implement food assistance for families with children in place of the School Feeding Programme.
- Mitigate mental health and child abuse problems. Teacher cannot identify these cases now since schools are closed. Activate the Schools Welfare
Department to make home visits. Republish the hotline numbers so that children and concerned citizens can report cases.
- Mitigate the impact of learning losses.
- Support households to provide for their children by implementing the cash transfers that was proposed during the run-up to the March 2020 general and regional elections.
- Explore the feasibility of distributing their tablet computers to students.
For all the merits of online learning, it will not be without its challenges. Among these are:
- Catering for slow learners so that no child is left behind.
- Completion of practical Science experiments and field work components of the School Based Assessment for the CXC examinations.
- Children may encounter technical difficulties while using the computer.
- Some teachers are not proficient with the use of computers and will need training.
- Children who are left unsupervised may choose not to join the online classes.
Be that as it may, it is imperative that parents, teachers and the Ministry of Education find ways to make e-learning a success. We do not have a choice, E-learning is here to stay. It is inevitable. The COVID-19 pandemic has only hastened its introduction.
May God heal our land.
Bernel L.H. Wickham