MONTEGO BAY, St James — Inadequate Internet connectivity and the lack of devices dogged yesterday’s start of the new academic year across sections of western Jamaica.
During a visit to Montego Bay High School for girls, Principal Gairy Powell disclosed that there were complaints that the online learning platform was plagued by connectivity and other issues. However, he was quick to point out that some of the issues were expected.
“There were connectivity issues, both on the part of teachers and students, and because it is so new you already have parents, too, who would not be so versed and comfortable in the use of the technology and so on. So, we have calls coming in of difficulty signing in and things like that but once you have that tech support, they are fine,” Powell told the Jamaica Observer.
The all-girls’ school principal, however, shared that a week ago, his school conducted a training session to help familiarise the students with the system.
“So they were trained but again, the training was limited to those who were able to log on to Zoom for the training…and the training will be ongoing. We wanted to sensitise them because we didn’t want to start school with this new technology and they are not aware of it, so we actually had a training session for students,” he said.
Principal of Catherine Hall Primary, Infant and Special Education School in St James, Dudley Jennings said that classes at the multifaceted, Westgreen-based learning facility are now being conducted after overcoming an initial glitch.
“We had a problem with the connectivity, the Internet code, and we’re getting on top of that; but outside of that, basically everything is alright,” Jennings said.
An early check at Cornwall College for boys revealed that classes started about half an hour late, also due to connectivity issues.
Meanwhile, one 10th grade student at Anchovy High School expressed that she was very happy, so far, with the online learning experience.
“I want it to go on even after COVID. It is less stressful. The only thing is that I would miss coming to school [and] see[ing] my friends,” she told the Observer.
Vice-principal at Troy Primary School, Keresha McIntosh said there were challenges getting students to connect to the Google classroom platform, adding that many of them are without devices to assist with virtual learning.
“Some of our students are unable to log on to the Google Suite platform so we have to be using WhatsApp. We want to be using Google like everyone else, because it is a good platform,” McIntosh argued.
“There [are] some children who do not have devices so we have to do worksheets and we have pickup and drop-off points to facilitate those students,” McIntosh added.
Dwayne Edwards, principal of Albert Town High School, when contacted yesterday, said he was awaiting credentials from the Ministry of Education to register the students on the Google Suite platform.
He told the Observer that he is spearheading a drive requesting past students and others to donate devices, as many of his students are still without them.
“The Ministry [of Education] is instituting a system where all schools will utilise its Google Suite, that way there will not be any need for data to access,” said Edwards.
“We are aware that some of our students have still not been reached yet, however, I’m not able to quantify the exact amount. The main aim is to reach everyone. We will use this week to do an audit to fully ascertain who is not online…we are undertaking a device drive to assist where we can, and we will utilise distance learning as needed,” he said.
Leighton Johnson, principal at Muschett High School, who stayed ahead of the curve and opened virtual classes for grades seven, 10, and 11 three weeks ago, emphasised that patience is needed at this critical time.
“For grades 10 and 11, they are now in the fourth week of school. For grade seven, this is their third week of school. This [today] is the opening for grades eight and nine. For the grades seven, we used the last two weeks of September to recap aspects of the grade six curriculum and to get them back into the groove of school. As was expected, there was some anxiety on the part of students and parents, as they are interfacing with different platforms. However, they are now at a better place and are showing improvement in manoeuvring the systems. This period requires us to be very patient with the students,” explained Johnson.
Grade seven student Kimani McLeish, who described his first day of school at the secondary level as “a challenging experience”, said he misses interacting with his friends.
“Online classes were very challenging for me because I don’t get to see my friends at all. I miss seeing my teacher writing on the board. I had challenges going on Zoom and Google Classroom, especially Google Classroom because it is new and I am new to the software, so it was really challenging for me to get used to. I am still learning new stuff and I am willing to try and make it work,” he said.
Over in Westmoreland, educators were also concerned about Internet connectivity for their students.
“Some of our teachers will be broadcasting from the school because some of them have the same issues with Internet connectivity in their communities,” Jacqueline Taylor-Brown, a teacher at Frome Technical High School, shared with the Observer shortly before the start of classes.
“So, to ensure that they are present for their students, they opted to work from school and use the more reliable Internet connection,” she said.
The teacher said that yesterday’s orientation process, which is the main focus of many schools for the first week, was to ensure that dress codes for both teachers and students are acceptable, in addition to having a clear background.
“For some students, depending on location, they may be close to the road, so background noises such as indecent language or loud vehicles will cause disruption,” Taylor-Brown said. “But we are using this week as a learn-as-you-go phase, where we work on any glitches that may occur.”
Frome Technical High School has more than 1,400 students enrolled for this term and, like other schools in Westmoreland, it has reported that it was not a smooth transition for teachers and students who were connected.
As with Frome Technical High, schools such as Loving Care Christian Academy, Savanna-la-Mar Primary, and Godfrey Stewart High School reported that a few parents turned up at the institutions to voice concerns about lack of Internet connectivity at their homes, and sought other options for their children to receive schoolwork.
“My greatest concern is that we have been here every day and we are available to all parents, so them turning up at the last minute could have been avoided,” Megan Berry, principal of Savanna-la-Mar Primary School, lamented.
“Despite that, we have found solutions to ensure that no one is left behind. We will be printing schoolwork for pickup, as we did in March when the schools were ordered closed. This will be for students who have no option,” she said.
She also explained that for students who could not log on to the platform for orientation yesterday, parents who were able to do so will share information with them as many live in close proximity to each other.
Kemar Christie, principal of Loving Care Christian Academy, called for greater collaboration between teachers and parents.
“We must learn to move forward, so I would like to see more effort being put out by teachers and parents in making this work. We are in the technology era. This virus is not going anywhere anytime soon so we may not be able to have face-to-face classes for a while so, we must all make the effort. Yes, it is more work but once we get the hang of it, it will be smooth sailing,” she opined.
Over at Godfrey Stewart High several parents turned up with complaints about Internet connectivity as well as lack of devices.
“We had a good turnout with most students connecting this morning [yesterday],” Vice-Principal Stacey-Ann Ottey-Clarke shared.
“As you can see, we had a lot of parents here today [yesterday] so until we receive the devices from the Government we will be printing documents for students.”
And, in the neighbouring parish of Hanover, principal of Green Island Primary School Vaccianna Moseley described yesterday’s start of remote classes for the new academic year as a “big success”.
He said orientation was held yesterday via Zoom, followed by the distribution of activities to students via Zoom and Google Classroom.
He noted that the turnout of students online was approximately 80 per cent, adding that text messages, the distribution of printed materials, and telephone calls, will be used to reach out to the remaining 20 per cent of students.
As for the neighbouring Green Island Basic School, classes are expected to commence today.
Principal of the school, Andrea Myrie noted that access could be a challenge for some students due to the lack of devices and Internet.
She noted that in some cases, parents have lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Myrie said students without devices will be able to access their work through booklets.
The booklets, she said, will be collected by parents at drop-off points every Friday.
Additionally, Myrie pointed out that the online format of education delivery to the young is proving difficult for some parents and teachers, “because you find that in some cases you [teachers] are practically teaching parents also”.
She explained this is as a result of not only the need to explain how to use the technology, but also explaining the work to parents so that they, in turn, can explain the work to their child.
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