Technological and social challenges complicate remote learning

For Cayman’s schools, the COVID-19 crisis came with an immediate impact.

While few of Cayman’s young people have become physically ill from the virus, they are living with its social and developmental consequences. School closures, mandated in mid-March, mean most students in Cayman have not seen friends, teachers or coaches face-to-face in 12 weeks. Homes have become classrooms, parents have become teachers, and teachers have become masters of improvisation.

How well Cayman’s schools responded to the coronavirus challenge remains to be fully determined. The Office of Education Standards released its inspection report assessing remote learning at public schools on Thursday, 11 June. A private schools report is expected to be released in July.

Remote learning, however, has proven challenging for countries worldwide. Chances of student success can vary widely depending on a combination of factors, from practical barriers, such as access to broadband internet, to socioeconomic, such as household income, explains UNICEF.

The United Nations children’s fund, in a recent press release, estimates nearly 1.2 billion schoolchildren remain affected by school closures globally.

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Data collected from 14 countries by the agency found that students with internet access at home had higher foundational reading skills than those who did not.

“Access to the technology and materials needed to continue learning while schools are closed is desperately unequal. Likewise, children with limited learning support at home have almost no means to support their education. Providing a range of learning tools and accelerating access to the internet for every school and every child is critical,” said UNICEF Chief of Education Robert Jenkins in the 5 June press statement.

“A learning crisis already existed before COVID-19 hit. We are now looking at an even more divisive and deepening education crisis.”

Digital divide

In the Cayman Islands, just over three-quarters of households were estimated to have access to broadband internet prior to the crisis.

OfReg calculates 76% of households had fixed broadband connections as of the second quarter of 2019, said Alee Fa’amoe, OfReg’s executive director of information and communications technology.

The impact of the crisis on Cayman’s connectivity rates is still unknown, but Fa’amoe fears access may have worsened.

“We’re worried that the economic toll on those less fortunate has caused them to be unable to afford that type of connectivity,” he said.

While he said Cayman has greater household broadband access than much of the Caribbean, concerns remain. Even for families who do have internet access, they may still lack access to appropriate devices.

“Maybe it’s just a phone or tablet or an Xbox. You can’t necessarily do homework on those things,” he said.

“We need to take an assessment of exactly what it is the kids need to do at home to do this work. So, for example, you don’t need a thousand dollar laptop in most cases, because online learning is done in such a way that you don’t need a huge horsepower machine to access those tools.”

While private schools appeared largely prepared to tackle the technological task, Fa’amoe said many public-school students continue to struggle with access. The extent of the public-private school technology gap is unknown, but publication of the OES private school report in July may reveal more about this subject.

Meanwhile, community organisers have attempted to step up and address the issue in recent months, with private citizens working to source donations in of support students in need.

Michael Myles and Alric Lindsay, for example, indicate they partnered in recent months to donate $30,000 in laptops, personal protective equipment, food supplies and other items for local children.

Myles questioned if Cayman’s priorities have been in the right place when it comes to allocating public funds.

“Why are we not more committed to ensuring that every child owns a laptop computer and [is] connected to the internet?” Myles asked in a press release.

“The country was reportedly committed to spending CI$2,000,000 on the redevelopment of Smith Barcadere and to participating in a financing deal in the region of CI$200,000,000 on a cruise berthing facility that would have served to benefit mainly mega cruise ship CEOs and their financial bottom lines. However, we still have children that are doing their schoolwork off their parents’ cellphones.

“Why have we not committed this type of financing and expenditure to ensure that every child in the Cayman Islands is connected to the internet and has a laptop?”

The men hope to raise funds to donate another 20 laptops and provide other educational support services over the next six months.

Charitable organisations, such as Cayman ARK and community food kitchens, have also stepped up in recent months to address the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus. As of 31 May, the government’s Needs Assessment Unit was reportedly assisting 2,700 Caymanian families with rent and food costs.

Mental health impacts

Access to technology is only a base factor to participate in remote education, unfortunately. Once children have successfully connected to a computer and broadband internet, they still must navigate the disruptions to their routines and the challenges posed by their home environment. For some young people, home life may come with a high degree of psychological distress and distractions.

The mental health impacts of this new reality can be immense, explained Dr. Marc Lockhart, chairperson of the Cayman Islands Mental Health Commission, during a government mental health panel recorded 10 June.

“School closures, while a necessary public health intervention, have the equal and opposite reaction of reducing overall learning, exacerbating delays in achievement standards, especially in reading and math,” he said.

“Those children who were having challenges prior to the shut-down are finding it doubly difficult to perform at home via distance learning. Social and emotional needs have also been compromised, as children require real-time connections with peers in structured and unstructured activity for healthy development. The teachers of these children are also experiencing significant disruptions and additional stressors.”

The emotional and mental consequences of the crisis have been compounded, Lockhart explained, by the limited social outlets currently available. In times of grief, he said, humans tend to turn to loved ones for comfort and closeness. The pandemic, however, has disrupted this human impulse, forcing many to struggle with feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety.

“We humans are social beings. We learn through social interaction and peer contacts how to model appropriate behaviours and to problem solve. The loss of this contact is a dramatic and challenging consequence for our children,” he said.

“It is extremely difficult to be human and not have some trepidation and concern about our collective future.”

For teachers, typically on the frontlines of student support, the physical distance has made it more difficult to reach out and address complex student needs.

Cayman International School teacher Lee-Anne Corin noted that while she now spends more time emailing students and parents each day, the communication has not been as efficient or effective as face-to-face interactions. There may be a lag time in responses and it has become more challenging to flag areas of need.

While she describes her school community as connected and supportive, remote learning has still come with its complications.

“The most difficult for me has been the follow-up with students who need extra support or are missing assignments,” she said, noting the frustrations of digital communication.

“It is much more difficult to gauge levels of student engagement and participation as middle school students are reluctant to be heard and seen in an online classroom. During the early teenage years, there are critical social and emotional skills that require in-person interaction and I feel they are being deprived of that.”

Remote learning has also meant more screen time, whether students like it or not.

Isabela Watler, a Year 12 student at Cayman International School, noted that she does not like the amount of time she now spends on her phone, but it is the only means of connection she has with friends. During online classes, she said students don’t normally get the chance to talk to each other. This means, once online classes finish, if students want to catch up with friends, they must stay connected to a screen to message over social media.

“I have experienced a lot of ups and downs both emotionally and mentally during this time,” Watler said.

“I feel hopeless seeing what is going on in the rest of the world and being stuck in my house. I feel lonely because I can’t see my friends. However, I also feel grateful because I have had more time to spend with my immediate family and I’m healthy, safe, and still able to get an education.”

She has found offline outlets to cope, including art, yoga, reading and meditation.

These coping and self-care strategies have become essential to managing mental health outcomes, Lockhart said.

“The bottom line is, we’re going to have to empower and augment the support structures in our school system,” he said.

When and if students return to classrooms in the fall, schools are likely to encounter a new set of complications. Lockhart anticipates significant challenges in reintegrating students, who may return to classes at varying academic and emotional levels.

But he maintains hope that Cayman will be able to catch up.

“A transitional plan is very important,” he said.

Students and teachers alike will require additional support and improved access to professional and mental health resources.

The messaging moving forward will also play a critical role to guiding students in the right direction, he explained.

“It’s very important to let our young people know that we understand that they are our future,” he said, “and every effort is being made to support them.”

The Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

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