It has only been two weeks since the start of the 2021/2022 academic term, and Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has already expressed concern about students not logging on to virtual classes.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is now on a mission to find these absentee students to ascertain the reasons behind their departure from the education system. The MOE will be soliciting help from the ministries of National Security and Social Development in the coming days to do this.
There are approximately 220,000 students enrolled in primary and secondary schools across T&T.
In May, Gadsby-Dolly claimed that approximately 2,000 students from both the primary and secondary school system had dropped out.
Last week, however, the minister was not willing to provide updated figures on students who had dropped out of school.
The minister said weekly lists containing information on student attendance and absenteeism would be compiled and reviewed on a fortnightly basis.
She was supposed to have received the first list on September 17.
"The Ministry of National Security and Social Development will be sought to assist the MOE in resolving these matters," she added.
Meanwhile, the Student Support Services Division and the Division of School Supervision have also placed an increased focus on absent students.
Since T&T’s COVID-19 pandemic battle began in March 2020 there has been an increase in the number of students dropping out of online schooling–some due to inability to access online devices, some without reliable internet service, others unable to afford payment for internet service as parents and caregivers have lost jobs.
In June, officials from the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) reported that 252 primary and secondary school students had dropped out of the education system. Data from principals revealed that at the secondary level, 122 students were assumed to have dropped out, while 130 students were recorded at the primary level.
Officials said there has been some success in getting a small number to return to school following various interventions.
Since the start of online learning in 2020, the Student Support Services Unit (SSSU) in Tobago has received 183 referrals from principals and teachers highlighting academic challenges and concerns relating to students from both the primary and secondary levels.
These challenges include absenteeism, inconsistent attendance, lack of supervision, and virtual platform fatigue.
Students, teachers face online connectivity issues–Movement for Concerned Parents
The Movement for Concerned Parents reported that "both teachers and parents had challenges with the attendance of students in the first week of online classes."
According to PRO Shamila Raheem, "Teachers' issues were online connectivity which posed a challenge at times. Parents' issues were also the challenge of their child logging in to the online classroom."
Asked what other issues had been raised, Raheem said "Some parents complained about having no money or a job to pay for internet access. Some parents voiced their frustration with the Ministry of Education for not giving their children devices after one year of promises."
The Movement for Concerned Parents described the student dropout rate as a "very real problem" which existed even before COVID-19 but said it has now become magnified due to the ongoing socio-economic fallout.
The National Primary Schools Principals Association (NAPSPA) said, however, they have not gotten any reports of a significant increase in students dropping out or missing from classes. "There were incidents of some students not attending, due to lack of devices and/or connectivity," they added.
On the move to reach students who have not presented for online schooling, NAPSPA president Carlene Hayes said, "Principals and teachers have tried their best to contact parents/guardians of students who have not been in the virtual classroom at this time. Communication and collaboration between home and school is always the key to combat these issues. Our principals are always going beyond the call of duty to assist these students in need of additional support."
Thousands get devices after a means test
In April, the MOE implemented a Means Test to determine how many students were without a device to facilitate online learning. To date, they have distributed over 13,500 devices.
This is in addition to the estimated 6,500 devices distributed to teachers, and approximately 23,000 devices donated directly to students by the private sector via the Adopt-A-School initiative.
As was done earlier this year, all students of Forms Five and Six as well as Standard 5 are now being polled to determine who still lacks devices so that they can be prioritised.
Gadsby-Dolly said, "Over 900 devices have also been given to students with special needs to ensure their educational continuity."
Regarding the supply of mifi devices promised by the MOE to help improve connectivity in some communities, the first tranche of 500 was received last week.
Similarly, the minister said distribution will be determined "based on the needs of the students as identified by the Means Test."
The second tranche of 800 is expected this week, and another larger tranche by the end of September.
'Mitigate learning loss by getting students back to physical school'
Meanwhile, the Minister of Education said "The main method to mitigate learning loss is getting our students back to physical school."
Saying this is both "critical and achievable," the minister noted that this hinged directly on "citizens doing our part to increase the vaccination levels."
T&T’s national vaccination programme includes Pfizer which is the only World Health Organization (WHO)-approved vaccine for children between the ages of 12 to 18, but the response from this group has waned in the last couple of weeks.
This prompted authorities including Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to appeal to parents to get their children vaccinated so that the Government can consider the resumption of face-to-face classes as herd immunity would have been achieved among the eligible student population.
The student population at the primary level is believed to be around 128,000, while the secondary school population is said to be around 90,000.
Gadsby-Dolly said that globally, the countries able to get their children out to physical school with the least disruptions have significantly higher vaccination levels than we do, "so the evidence of what works is clear."
However, she admitted this was only one measure being looked at and that the MOE had embarked on a combination of other methods which were in various stages of implementation.
These include an online solution for literacy and numeracy.
Literacy and Numeracy Diagnostic Coming
With tender evaluations still ongoing for the Literacy and Numeracy Diagnostic programme, Gadsby-Dolly explained, "This will allow for self-directed learning inside and outside of the classroom, increase student engagement, and provide targeted exercises and lessons for improvement.
"A nationwide diagnostic for Math and English will be sent to schools for implementation during the month of September by the Curriculum Division.
"This will allow for the collection of data to fully quantify the degree of learning loss, and also for teachers to adjust their schemes of work, where required, for individual students and classes.
"The minimum knowledge standards by subject and level will also be shared with teachers so that schemes of work for the entire academic year 2021/2022 can be adjusted."
Officials from the MOE met with the principals of primary and secondary schools last week, where many students achieving under 30 per cent had been assigned to discuss current and proposed strategies for increasing support for the school, teachers and students.
The minister is expecting a report following this exercise within the next two weeks. "This is to increase the focus on student achievement and to ensure that they receive the level of attention and resources required."