In late August, the Ministry of Education announced that Primary Schools nationwide were to reopen for paper based distance learning on September 7, which is the traditional first day of the school year. After being on a 3 week lockdown followed by a hurricane warning, our teachers worked amazingly hard and were ready on time.
Here’s how distance learning is working at Holy Cross.
For each week in September, teachers prepare a printed packet of work for parents to collect. The first week’s work is a review of the previous year’s work, giving students a chance to ease back into learning. The rest of September focus on teaching concepts that students missed at the end of the last school year.
All teachers are keeping directly in touch with parents, using a variety of online tools, the most common of which is WhatsApp. Through the online tools, the teachers can send videos or voice clips to support the written materials, send reminders and answer any questions that come up. Many teachers are choosing to make their own teaching videos to cover key ideas.
Every Tuesday, parents come in to collect new work and drop off old work. Teacher’s take the time to answer any questions the parents have about the work. Teachers are also available to parents throughout the week, over the phone or in person. At the moment, Ministry guidelines state that only parents may enter the school to reduce the chances of spreading Covid-19.
In late September, the Ministry will assess whether students can return to school in October with social distancing in place (as described here). Either way, in October teachers will be teaching new material relating to the current school year.
All our teaching staff have worked diligently and adapted to many changes in a short period of time. But it hasn’t been easy!
Principal Olivia Tasher described the lockdown period and preparations to reopen as the hardest of all her years of teaching. When asked what the most challenging aspect was, she replied that it was having to interact with so many people online in a culture where important communication usually takes place face-to-face.
One unexpected positive of distance learning has been the strengthened relationships between teachers and parents. All teachers described the parents as being very helpful and involved. Parents are faithfully collecting the learning packages and doing their best to support students. Parents are also reporting that they now have a much higher awareness of what their children are learning.
When I asked teachers to describe some of the challenges they had to overcome, the answers were surprisingly diverse.
The most common challenge was when parents had only limited availability to digital devices or internet. Teachers are communicating directly with parents, with almost all families having a way to at least receive messages. In most cases it is the parent who has the digital device, and any videos or messages for the child need to be viewed on that device. This becomes much trickier when there is no internet at the home. This becomes even more complicated when the only time parents can access internet is at work. This turns the parent’s break times into a time of rapidly trying to memorize their child’s work, so that when they can get home they can then try and teach it. This kind of work day time lag is also challenging for students, who need to wait hours for a reply to their questions. None the less, both parents and students did well with their first week’s work.
Another difficulty is that in Belize so much communication traditionally takes place verbally, in a face to face setting. Transitioning to online communication, especially when it’s in a written format, is hard for some. A large part of our population speak Spanish or Creole as their first language, and while speaking some English, they find it hard to read and write in English. Also, some parents did not do their primary schooling in English, or never completed their own primary schooling. Our teachers do a wonderful job trying to bridge these gaps by giving instructions over WhatsApp in English and Spanish, as well as recording their own teaching videos and patiently answering questions.
Balancing teaching and motherhood
Under Ministry of Education guidelines, students may not be in school. This specifically includes any teachers’ children. The Ministry recognizes that this precautionary measure is hard for teachers, but that it is also a difficultly shared by many parents around the country.
Once again, our teachers showed their ability to adapt with flying colors. All teachers I spoke to had family members who were able to look after their children during work hours, with the teachers able to help their children after work.
Despite the challenges, all are glad that school is resuming.