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Opinions Fri, 29 Jan 2021

Teaching and learning can continue in our basic schools during the pandemic

The leading proposition that we’re ‘rounding the corner’ with regard to the coronavirus pandemic is nothing but a false hope—in fact, all indications point to the contrary. If the government, private sector and individual citizens do not come together in unison to devise effective mitigating strategies, this is not just going to be a long harmattan season, 2020 2.0 may be inevitable.

Basic schools have been closed for about a year now. A few fortunate children whose parents had the wherewithal did not miss out much, in fact, some have gotten ahead. However, the vast majority of Basic School pupils, without a serious intervention, may not recover from what they have lost. The government and educators have wasted a chunk of time that may never be regained. Whereas this is not the time to play blame games, it is also equally important to think about what could have been done to mitigate the impact of school closure as a result of the pandemic.

A quick observation shows that some schools, very few indeed and predominantly in the cities, were able to transition from in-person to online learning immediately or shortly after the school closure. Those who couldn’t, accounting for a whooping number in the country, had no engagement with their students. But things could have been better had educators and the government employed already known but simple technologies readily available to most households in Ghana—the mobile phone and its SMS text messaging system.

To advocate for a complete transition to online education at this time may be delusional on my part; internet bandwidth is outrageously expensive—at least to most people, and services are somewhat unstable to those who have it. Further, most children do not have their personal computers and rural electrification has not yet been completely realized. However, it is true that majority of Ghanaians have mobile phones, albeit some not sophisticated enough to access internet but thank God, they can make calls, read and send text messages.

First, I suggest we rethink teaching and learning in our Basic Schools during the pandemic to mitigate the spread of the virus. And I encourage teachers to learn more about their pupils; not just their names and class but detailed information such as their home environment, names of their parents/guardians, addresses/house numbers, mobile phone numbers (or other forms of communication) and their socio-economic status, etc. If schools had this information about their pupils, although a lot more would have been lost due to the lockdown, the schools could still have been in contact with their pupils in some form and could have continue with ‘normal’ teaching and learning while still hunkering down in their homes for safety.

To effectively implement this system, it will require a close collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the Ghana Education Services, Municipalities/Districts and local schools to create a school database for each school (and using old fashion notebooks where electronic services is not available). But before this collaboration is forged, which I think will take some time to flesh out the details since non-academic staffs have to be hired to manage this system, school Headteachers/Headmasters and Principals can start watering the ground before the seeds arrive. Each class teacher can be tasked to keep a notebook of demographic information of his/her pupils; teachers with the means can digitize it using simple spreadsheets/google sheets.

Had this system been in place, teachers could have used daily class (group) text messaging (using either SMS text messaging or WhatsApp (whichever is convenient) to check on their pupils, send reading assignments and homework etc. This may sound trivia but as the saying goes: ‘half a loaf is better than none’. More importantly and noteworthy in our current circumstance, this system (i.e., the use of text messaging to and from basic school pupils), in spite its challenges was adopted by Botswana, our neighbors and reports indicates that students who had this medium had academic gains and continued to enhance teacher-pupil relationships compared to those who had none.

Using ‘low tech’ which was defined as SMS text messaging and phone calls, researchers in Botswana tested how these readily available, somewhat inexpensive ‘low-tech’ can mitigate learning loss during the pandemic. The short answer is that it worked. It worked by keeping pupils in the learning mood, connected with their teachers, and receiving learning materials that they would have otherwise received were schools still in session. Although schools were out, teaching and learning continued, albeit not an ideal form of disseminating teaching and learning resources. The good news is that the use of ‘low-tech’ to mitigate learning loss is not a new phenomenon; it is a practice that has been tested and its effectiveness established in places like Niger, US and parts of Western Europe as Aker and his Colleagues have reported for adults. The added benefits for adopting this system for Basic School pupils is that it will involve parents and guardians who hitherto might have been less keen or less involved in their children’s education.

To say that should the pandemic continue to rage, which unfortunately all indications show it might, and should Basic School pupils be kept at home without any formal education—we will lose a whole generation of our country without the requisite skills to face the numerous challenges in our world, is an understatement.

The evidence, although anecdotal, is all in our faces. There is a reason why pupils get break from school: it helps them to rest, spend time with their families, recuperate lost energies, help their parents at home, etc. And there is a reason why those breaks are relatively short: students lose track of what they have learned and struggle to jumpstart when they come back after long breaks.

The question before us is: if Basic School pupils struggle to reconnect with schoolwork after long vacations which is usually less than 2 months, how will they fare after staying home for 10 months? It is a cliché to say that we have to rethink teaching and learning in our Basic Schools, but it’s true.
Columnist: Kennedy Damoah