Class dismissed? Keeping Pacific classrooms open in 2022

Pacific education
Illustration: Hefrani Barnes

Will Pacific Island school children get an uninterrupted year of face-to-face learning in 2022? Governments and their partners are working hard to open classrooms, and keep them open, but the spread of the Omicron variant, and concern amongst parents about the safety of their still-unvaccinated children, is slowing this effort.

UNICEF has been a strong advocate for getting Pacific children back into classrooms as soon as possible. It calls COVID-19 the “worst crisis for children [it] has seen in its 75-year history.”

UNICEF says that at the peak of the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion students were out of school due to nationwide shutdowns.

Fiji schools closed for three months in 2020, almost all of last year, and have had their opening delayed by bad weather this year (see two students’ views on school closures on page 26).UNICEF estimates that “more than 200,000 [Fijian] school children who have lost an estimated 1,050 hours each – and counting – of in-person learning since April [2020].”

In Guam, schools closed in March 2020 and have not fully regained momentum since. Last year, students studied largely online, with full face to face classes resuming in November. Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Joe Sanchez said the number of students failing had doubled in the course of the pandemic. While Superintendent Jon Fernandez says the current number of COVID-19 cases amongst students and teachers  is “quite alarming”, there are no plans right now to close schools again, although Catholic schools have already returned to distance learning.

It’s a story repeated across the region.

In a recent briefing note UNICEF refuted concerns that schools could be super-spreader venues for COVID-19. “A review of the current evidence shows that in-person schooling does not appear to be the main driver of infection spikes, children in school do not appear to be exposed to higher risks of infection compared to when not in school when mitigation measures are in place, and school staff also do not appear to be at a higher relative risk compared to the general population,” it stated in a briefing note.

UNICEF Pacific Representative Jonathan Veitch has welcomed the planned reopening of schools, saying the “importance of the teacher has never been so clear.”

Other education challenges

Pandemic-induced disruptions to schooling have exacerbated some of the long-standing problems within Pacific education systems.

The Status of Pacific Education 2020 released by the Pacific Community (SPC) last year found that of the six nations examined (Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu), “more primary school-age children are completing primary education, and the number of Pacific children who attend early childhood education is increasing every year.”

It also found an upward trend in government budget allocations towards education. In 2019, education recurrent expenditure as a percentage of total government expenditure was between 11- 18% for most Pacific countries, apart from Solomon Islands (38%). The report projects that government allocations to education as a percentage of total expenditure will increase over the next five years, despite other pressures on national budgets.

A growing number of nations are also offering ‘free’ education, often supported by donors and promised/promoted at certain times in the election cycle. For example, last month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would provide $35 million(US$24 million) to support the PNG government’s tuition fee-free education subsidy for all primary school students. Some 1.1 million children are enrolled in primary school in PNG and questions remain around the long-term sustainability of this policy.

While the SPC report noted these improvements, it also identified a number of on-going challenges:

  • too many children are still out of school and too few finish secondary education;
  • a lack of equity in accessing education for children in remote areas, in families with low incomes and for children with disability;
  • system inefficiencies: children start school too late, and grade repetition and drop out rates are too high. In Tonga, new  Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni has identified high school dropout rates as one of his top-three priorities. “We need to reduce school dropouts,” he told local media in his first days in office.
  • low quality education: literacy and numeracy achievement is low, many teachers are undertrained, the curricula lacks relevance, links between education and the labour market are absent;
  • system and school management are not effective enough due to a lack of data, low quality data, shortage of staff skilled in planning and program oversight;
  • Funding is inadequate and is highly reliant on external funding, resources are used inefficiently; and
  • a lack of coordination among education providers in subsectors of pre-primary education, TVET and non-formal education.

The underqualification of teachers is a particular problem in secondary schools, where a significant number have yet to complete the minimum formal teacher training. The report says this problem is compounded by overcrowding of classrooms in many urban schools (also a factor worrying parents concerned about the transmission of COVID-19).

The University of Fiji’s newly-appointed vice-chancellor Professor Shaista Shameem agrees that the quality of education has deteriorated.

“The 14 years or so that students spend in the public education system prior to university are marked by something close to mediocrity. It is easy to blame the teachers for this by stating that their training at universities is deficient but when the education system and philosophy is weak at its core, it is unfair to target the teachers with such criticism,” the VC said.

“The [Fiji] Education Commission Report of 2000 established a modern and creative agenda for education in Fiji; it needs to be dusted off and reviewed for its utility and application in our current circumstances by another Commission.”

Meanwhile, moves to implement education reforms in Samoa appear to have been slowed by the pandemic—Samoan schools were closed for a quarter of the 2020 academic year—and the change of government in 2021. Under the reforms, secondary schooling is to be shortened by one year, and students offered four learning pathways in the later secondary years: commerce, arts, science and technical and vocational education.

Innovation and adaptation

 The pandemic has driven some innovation in the education sector.

The Kiribati Learning Passport is an online and offline learning platform powered by Microsoft Community Training, which stores locally developed video lessons and quizzes, so children can access education materials regardless of the quality of their internet connection.

When schools closed last year, Leadership Fiji introduced an online children’s program last year. Spanning three short sessions, it focused on various aspects of leadership, and covered self-awareness, leading and serving others, responsibility to the environment, and teamwork. Participants also filled out daily gratitude journals as a way of “introducing them to self-reflection, and working with others, and helping others, “ says CEO Sharyne Fong.

New Zealand outfit, Nanogirl Labs, has created an  e-learning program for high school teachers, designed to support science teaching in Cook Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. It’s still early days, but the project will eventually deliver “100 science lessons, relevant videos and an audio glossary through a custom designed e-learning and professional development programme” on a platform that will also be available offline and through simple smart devices.

As our article on page 21 shows,  many teachers have been willing to go the extra mile-quite literally- to support students despite the challenges of the last few years. Here’s hoping that in 2022, their students will again get the educational, social and community benefits that come with being with their friends and teachers in physical classrooms and school playgrounds.

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