The Ministry of Education has defended the systems it has put in place to support online learning and homeschooling during the COVID-19 crisis, as well its preparations for when schools reopen - possibly in September.
A report by the Office for Education Standards (OES) had made a series of recommendations for the Ministry and the Department for Education Services (DES) following a review of the arrangements currently in place.
The OES report concluded that “although everyone involved in delivering home learning deserves recognition for the continuation of educational provision, a key finding is that home learning currently serves as an imperfect substitute to school-based provision.”
In its response, the Ministry of Education says many of the recommendations put forward by the OES are in fact already in place or planned.
LEARNING ABOUT LEARNING ONLINE
In its review of the current online learning environment, the OES notes the need for “a comprehensive educational digital strategy for home and school learning.
However, the Ministry has highlighted inadequate internet access as a major setback.
It said: “Many families did not have internet access or had a slower connection due to the number of persons in the household requiring internet access for work or school. Several families did not have a digital device or that the devices had to be shared between multiple members of the family.
Based on this information, the decision was taken to continue with paper/activity-based resources as well as online resources.
The Ministry also says a switch to solely online provision would have severely disadvantaged students, especially those from more vulnerable circumstances.
The OES had recommended that all upper primary and secondary students should have regular access to an appropriate, designated ‘Bring Your Own’ device to support their school-based and home learning.
In response, the Ministry says it and the Department for Education Services (DES) are already in contact with various internet providers to help to increase online access.
In addition to the over 500 laptops or digital devices that have been sourced for students during the pandemic, Ministry officials say they are seeking Cabinet approval for additional funding to provide each student with a gadget.
TACKLING THE TECHNOLOGY
The OES said all government schools should be equipped with the appropriate technology ensuring equality of opportunity for all students.
The Ministry responds by stating that “while it has no control/authority over internet access in homes, its teams have worked with internet providers to increase access to students and staff.”
“It should also be noted,” it adds, “that attempting to set up internet access in persons’ homes during the pandemic and stay-at-home order would have put families and private sector personnel at risk.”
Another suggestion put forward by the OES is for “all school leaders should agree to minimum expectations in terms of online, face-to-face teaching at different stages of education and monitor implementation on a regular basis."
But the Ministry says: “Minimum expectations were set for all learning (digital or paper/activity-based) and that it, the DES and Schools were also aware that expectations for students went far beyond teaching and learning.
“Setting standards and expectations had to be balanced with principals’ knowledge of the hardships being experienced by students, families, and staff as a result of the pandemic,” it added.
On another aspect of the OES report deals with ongoing professional development for teachers on the relevant technologies.
On that, the Ministry said “system-wide professional development proved difficult due to the over 700 educators that would have required such training amid the pandemic.”
It said schools provided support to teachers as-needed and regularly assessed training needs.
COPING WITH THE CHALLENGES
The Ministry of Education says the COVID-19 crisis has thrown up challenges which have severely impacted on the learning process.
“This pandemic, and its multiple effects on the health, income and well-being of individuals and communities, put a strain on the psychological reserves of all, including students and parents/guardians.
“It should be noted,” it adds, “that the number of students requiring free schools meals increased throughout the pandemic as some parents/guardians were newly unemployed or struggling, for other reasons, to provide nutritious meals for their families.”
The Ministry said “the education system provided: access to counsellors, educational psychologists, special-needs teachers/specialists, or other personnel for students with physical and mental/emotional needs, as well providing meals for approximately 600 students each day.”
In partnership with the Department of Children and Family Services, charities and the private sector 3000 care packets and other supplies to students and families,” it stated.
Where the OES recommends that at the start of the next academic year, there should be assessment arrangements to determine the students’ skills, knowledge and gaps in learning, the Ministry says “this is already in place.”
Also already in place the ministry says, are ‘catch-up’ plans for 2020-21 and 2021-22” which has also been advised by the OES.
Where the OES proposes “lengthening the next two academic years, if possible, may be a necessary consideration”, the Ministry points out that “this is already in place.”
Furthermore, it says, it’s focusing “special attention on students who will sit exams at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year to ensure they have the best chance of success.”
The OES recommendation that “a cross-agency, multi-disciplinary partnerships should be strengthened”, gets a similar response with the ministry saying: “This is already in place. Several new partnerships have developed in responding to students’ needs throughout the pandemic.”
Another suggestion calls for “appropriate modifications to existing school premises in advance of the students’ return to school”. The OES It lists multiple hand-sanitising stations, signage and “a heightened regard for supervision at break and lunchtimes”.
But according to the Ministry: “This is already planned”, adding that it has developed a ‘Guidance for the Reopening of Schools and Early Childhood Care and Education Centres’.
This covers safety protocols, breaks, physical distancing, pick up and drop off protocols and protocols for buses.
DOING BETTER COMPARED TO ENGLAND
On another point of the online remote and home-working system during the pandemic, the Ministry of Education says Cayman compares favourably with England.
It points to government schools here reporting on average student engagement percentage of 90+% (over a number of weeks), while England reported less than 40% of students engaged in online learning during the first few weeks of the pandemic.