Nearly one in 10 public-school students in the Cayman Islands lacked access to a digital device or computer, two months after government-mandated distance learning began, according to an inspection report released Thursday afternoon by the Office of Education Standards.
As of 18 May, lack of computer access affected approximately 450 Cayman Islands students, accounting for 9% of the public-school population.
That number marks an improvement from the approximately 750 students who were identified by the Ministry of Education as unable to access online lessons when distance learning began in mid-March.
The disparity in technological access has resulted in inequalities and setbacks in the public-school system, the report indicates.
“It quickly became apparent once schools were closed that some students had no access to the technology needed to access on-line learning.
“The remedial action of the Ministry of Education, schools and local community groups to provide additional hardware reduced but did not eliminate this challenge,” notes the OES report titled, ‘No place like home?’.
“Additionally, the lack of reliable wireless connection or no access to internet provision in some households resulted in inequality of opportunity for students. This, in turn, led to significant variation in students’ progress.”
The report also highlights as areas of concern the lack of a comprehensive distance-learning strategy, poor attendance records at online lessons and lack of training for teachers.
It recommends catch-up classes when schools reopen.
“This home learning review has judged the current arrangements for home learning to be an imperfect substitute for school based learning,” it states.
“Teachers and school leaders were noted to be working diligently. Nevertheless, students’ progress was not as brisk or as consistent across all subjects and in all classes as when the students were taught at school,” the report says.
The report comes after the Ministry of Education directed the Office of Education Standards to conduct a review of home learning in government schools on 15 April, about a month after school closures began.
Online survey links were distributed to teaching staff, parents and students on 22 April and closed 8 May. In addition, last month the ministry began collecting documents from schools and samples of online classes were shared with inspectors for review.
Surveys of principals, parents and teachers indicated a desire for a clear path forward to address connectivity issues, provide resources and improve training.
While the report indicates inaccessibility numbers are trending down, at certain public schools the lack of an appropriate digital device for learning affected up to 30% of students. The report did not specify how schools compared. In all, 16 public-education institutions were evaluated.
By the time the draft inspection report was completed on 22 May, the Ministry of Education indicated approximately 300 students still had not been able to access online lessons because they either did not have internet access or did not possess an appropriate device.
This is despite arrangements by the ministry in May to loan 600 laptops and portable devices to students. An additional 45 laptops and desktop computers were donated by community groups and businesses.
“By 8th May 2020, 450 students were still only able to access paper-based learning materials and 11.5 per cent (533 students) were unable to access and therefore participate in on-line lessons,” the report states.
As of 18 May, around 200 students, 4% of public schoolchildren, did not have access to the internet. At certain schools, this number reached as high as one in five students.
While teachers and school administrators were noted as fast actors, working quickly to improvise in response to the coronavirus shutdown, their efforts were undermined by the lack of a national strategy, the report states.
“With the absence of an agreed national strategy, a diverse range of approaches arose with some more effective than others,” it says.
“Effective strategic leadership was noted at Red Bay Primary School, Creek and Spot Bay Primary School and Savannah Primary School where an agreed policy was produced identifying ‘minimum expectations’. This clarified the number of on-line sessions all teachers were expected to deliver each week and the main platforms to be used for this purpose across key stages.”
School leadership also devised a digital strategy at John Gray High School that addressed resource requirements, staff training, student safety, and communication with parents.
At other schools, however, strategies were found to be less timely and comprehensive. The report points to a lack of guidance from government officials.
“School leaders would have benefited from more extensive guidance and direction from the Ministry of Education and the Department of Education Services in relation to core requirements and timelines,” it reads.
“A distance learning policy was drafted by the Department of Education Services but this was narrow in focus and at the time of the conclusion of this review had not yet been shared with principals nor approved by Cayman Islands Education Council.”
The report identifies a general overemphasis on completing unchallenging worksheets and suggests a distance-learning policy should incorporate activities that push students to take responsibility for their own learning.
An example of such an activity was identified at Prospect Primary School, when students were asked to write letters to elected officials about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data submissions from schools, requested by the Ministry of Education starting 1 May, were described as inconsistent, making it difficult for leadership to monitor the impact of home learning.
inspectors also found non-attendance of online classes and students not submitting school work were significant problems.
On 1 May, for example, 4% – or 180 students – were deemed “unaccounted for”. Interpretation of the term is variable but OES described it as students who had not attended online classes and parents had not responded to attempts to contact them. Efforts to reestablish contact with these students were slowed by inaccurate phone and address records, the report states.
Inconsistencies in teacher training also impacted the rollout of distance-learning measures.
Before the pandemic lockdown, public-school teachers were provided with a work laptop. A wide range of digital-learning platforms were identified, including Class Dojo, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and One Note.
“However, in the survey submitted by teachers, more than one quarter of staff stated that they had not received the training required to equip them to deliver on-line learning to students,” the report says.
“Since certain platforms were relatively new to the teachers, the roll out of on-line, synchronous teaching was a challenge for many teachers. The use of different platforms and lack of agreed strategy across government schools consequently required a very broad range of training considerations.”
Schools worked to address the training gap by offering courses to meet staff needs.
“Overall, however, a majority of teachers were enthusiastic in their delivery of lesson content and were able to transfer that enthusiasm to their students who for the most part displayed high levels of engagement,” the report says.
In regard to student progress, the report noted inconsistencies and the need for many to play catch up. It advises Cayman to implement a national strategy and revisit previous lessons during the next school session.
“Students are missing important opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers and require additional individualised feedback and direction from their teachers,” it states.
While schools were found to be proactive in providing emotional support to students and families, they faced difficulties in meeting the needs of special-education students.
“School leaders at the Lighthouse School, for example, reported challenges such as the inability to provide therapeutic hands-on goals to students in home settings,” the report says. “Nonetheless, staff devised strategies to mitigate some of the challenges. For example, staff created prerecorded videos to share with families about occupational and speech and language therapy related skills and activities.”
The report outlines 12 recommendations to improve the remote-learning system, starting with development of a comprehensive digital-education strategy and professional-development opportunities for teachers.
“In implementing a revised digital strategy, there is a need to improve wireless connectivity and bandwidth provision across the Cayman Islands to facilitate effective home learning,” it states.
“As a priority, 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.”
The Education Ministry, on Friday, responded to the OES report saying throughout the pandemic, health and safety of students have been a “key priority for the Ministry, the Department of Education Services (DES) and Schools.”
It acknowledged that there were struggles with effectively executing online learning which included the digital divide that disadvantaged some students.
To this end the Ministry said, in its statement, it is seeking to introduce a programme that would provide each student with a digital device.
This request is currently before Cabinet for consideration.
It said over 500 laptops or digital devices were sourced for students during the pandemic to effect online learning.
The Ministry addressed each of the recommendations from the OES in its statement.
It also indicated that specific planning is underway to address student mental health and wellness when students physically return to schools.
“Students and their families have experienced trauma throughout the pandemic, and this needs to be addressed before learning can take place effectively,” the ministry said.
It said it has developed ‘Guidance for the Reopening of Schools and Early Childhood Care and Education Centres’ which outlines all the recommendations for the reopening of learning institutions.
The guidelines, it said, include;
Phased return to schools
Safety protocols (personal respiratory hygiene)
Enhanced cleaning and sanitising protocols
Shift break, lunches, and playtimes to ensure physical distancing
Pick up and drop off protocols
Protocols for buses
To review the OES report, click here.
Read the Ministry’s full response, click here.