Given the various extenuating circumstances surrounding the pandemic, TT Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) president, Antonia De Freitas, said some of the 2,000 students who were unable to access online classes since March 2020 will likely continue their education once normal classes resume.
Last month, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly said 2,000 primary and secondary school students dropped out of TT’s education system since the pandemic began as it was the number of students the Student Support Services Division (SSSD) could not contact.
Commenting on the matter at a press conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s on Saturday, the Prime Minister said children dropping out of school was of great concern, but it was not surprising.
He admitted that some children and families did not get the kind of support they should have had, which led them to slip out of the school system. And even for those who remained in the system, there were negative effects because of what the education system became during the pandemic.
“That is something that is going to come back to us eventually. We will not leave it that way. We’ll have to try to find those people later on and see how we can get them back on track for their education in one form or the other.”
However, Dr Freitas stressed that to drop out meant a student had absolutely discontinued their education.
She said thousands did not join their schools’ virtual classes owing to concerns about availability of devices and proper connectivity because of location, socio-economic status, and other factors.
She pointed out that, at a joint select committee meeting in January, the ministry estimated about 60,000 students did not have devices or connectivity. Even now, with the ministry having distributed some devices and with donations from corporate entities and individuals, there were still a significant number without devices.
In April, Gadsby-Dolly said 26,450 primary school students and 8,998 secondary school students were still without laptops and other devices for online learning. She later said 22,000 devices were donated by 60 donors through the Adopt-A-School programme and that the government purchased 20,000 more, which should be available by mid-June. Parents and guardians of students without devices were asked to complete and submit a means-test form to determine the eligibility of students for allocation of laptop computers.
De Freitas said students not having access to virtual classes did not mean they had dropped out of school.
She added that many students in both primary and secondary schools were given work packages because they could not access classes online and that number fluctuated over the past months.
Owing to the restrictions of the state of emergency as well as the continued public health challenges, members of TTUTA were advised not to engage in movement from place to place to deliver packages or have parents pick them up.
They too, can not be considered dropouts.
In addition, the ministry had alternative learning TV programmes in which students can be engaged and teachers have reached out to students over the phone or via WhatsApp.
“From TTUTA’s perspective, based on anecdotal data from our teachers, we are not sure that we have 2,000 ‘dropouts.’ There are challenges with children being consistently engaged, given socio-economic factors, access to devices and connection, and all of the other health factors.”
There were also students with covid19, students whose parents died, students undergoing physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and other issues.
“In situations like that, how are those children expected to focus? In situations like that they have come offline. They are not responding to teachers when the teacher reaches out because of the psychological impact of what they are going through. We can’t say those children have dropped out.”
Technically, a dropout was a student who had not participated in learning for at least a year, but teachers have connected with some of those children from time to time and they explained their various situations. She believed the rule should not be applied during the pandemic.
“The issue of dropouts is not as simple as saying children stopped participating. We have no evidence to say these children have totally discontinued their education.”
De Freitas said covid19 exacerbated the gap between the haves and have-nots, so while some students have devices and good internet connection, a stable and comfortable environment in which to work, and food in their bellies, others do not.
“This is why TTUTA talks about not pushing our children to the high-stakes assessment at this point in time, and the readiness of students.”
Clarance Mendoza, head of the Group of Concerned Parents, agreed that many of the 2,000 “dropouts” probably did not have devices. However, even if the students were to get, many parents would not be able to afford internet.
Instead, these parents’ focus would be putting food on tables. And, with the current lockdown, with parents not working, some children were picking up the slack with small jobs or begging for food.
“We know for a fact that 2020 would have had a large number of dropouts. After speaking to some parents and students I want to say it’s a little more than 2,000. Many have to assist their parents based on the hardships they are going through right now at home in terms of small jobs to help alleviate costs.”
Even with the package system, he said children were teaching themselves instead of being taught. And their parents were concerned about how their children would be graded in their end-of-term tests.
“Based on the rights of the child, we should be looking at some type of serious discussion in terms of getting our children back out in the school system. I know it’s challenging for the ministry at this point in time but, as a parent myself, I see it as a real burden for our children, especially during the lockdown.”
He believed there would be more dropouts going forward, possibly up to 5,000 by the end of the year and it would be difficult to get them to return to classes as, by then, they would be “set in their ways.”
He said home visits should be a priority, not only to encourage the children back out to school, but to ensure the children are safe.
Mendoza said even before the pandemic, most of the dropouts were from secondary schools in Standards Two and Three and the numbers were significantly lower in primary schools. Also, the largest percentage of dropouts were from Port of Spain and environs as well as St George county.
He expressed concern about students, particularly the dropouts, affiliating themselves with gangs or participating in crimes as a way to assist their families. He suggested the youth and education ministries look into the matter as soon as possible and not wait until the situation grows “out of hand.”