COVID-19 closures and Fiji schools

By Epeli Krishan Sen Vakalalabure and Lotarakuita Anand Sen Saurara

Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series notes that time is a mysterious thing and, when meddled with, could have severe consequences.

 Three years have passed since the beginning of 2019; a year that was to have been for all students in primary and secondary schools of Fiji, “another innocent year” of classes and shared laughter with friends; one that would have been ‘littered’ with all those sports hours, short tests and intensive revision for those sitting external exams.

 Yet even with the passage of all that time, Fiji and the world are still battling the COVID-19 pandemic, which peaks and ebbs, disrupting schooling with openings, then closures, then openings again, but with threatened closures hanging above it, in parasitical fashion, all the time. As Fiji welcomed 2022 and a resumption of school, a third wave of the latest variant, Omicron has hit our shores. Masks have become, once more, mandatory and a ban on all handshakes, dreaded the most among school aged friends, comes back again.

The Beginning of the school problem

COVID-19 hit Fiji just as students were finishing off their first term in 2020. Everything went on as usual, until the month of March when students found out that Fiji’s borders were closing and all schools were going to close too. If truth be told, most students were overjoyed to hear that, as it meant we would not have much school work anymore. However as weeks stretched to months, it would become boring staying at home. There was nothing much to do, but life went on and with it the adapting to the new norms of experimental living under COVID-19.

2021- The pandemic climaxes (hopefully)

It was during April or in student-speak, week 13, when an announcement came from the Ministry of Education that all school will close down as the nation prepares to confront its biggest health challenge since our Independence.  This began a cycle of postponing the dates to open school until the Ministry of Education, Heritage and Arts (MEHA) decided it would remain close indefinitely.

Even before the wearing of face masks became legally mandatory, people started wearing them – an expression of fear as people in Fiji realised the coronavirus pandemic was back in Fiji with a vengeance, affecting all aspects of life.

When staying at home, an assumption of an average student’s day would be: chores, Zoom classes then to do what was to be done for the day which included going on social media, watching movies or whatever hobbies that we usually have. Some students had experienced traumatic events such as the separation of their parents, a family member or a friend passing away and so on. Breakdowns were bound to happen due to the frustration of staying at home or  for reasons unknown out there. For some of us, the continuity of doing some things that we enjoyed doing, helped during those times. For many others, adapting to new norms did not come easily nor quickly, causing much stress in the process.

Zoom classes were of a great help to students who easily adapted to learning virtually. For others, it was quite a difficult transition to go from classroom learning to an online platform. The novelty surrounding this new way of learning had many problems.

Not everyone and not every family in Fiji has computers. Data availability or internet connectivity was a huge challenge with many students opting out from attending the few zoom classes schools organised. To help ease this problem, the Ministry of Education and some teachers personally contributed to provide data packages to students.

The availability of devices, computers or a phone with internet was a major problem for friends in our Suva-based primary and secondary schools. In some cases, students had only one device that was compatible with Zoom, Google classroom or Viber. This made it hard for those who had a sibling or household member that had a class at the same time.

In family discussions we kept hoping if possible, the decision-makers could  import inexpensive devices that are compatible with the learning resources used and lend it to the Ministry to loan it to students with only one device in their household for them to use.

Students were sometimes at fault also; we either woke up too late or forgot or sometimes ignored the classes. This and the problem of available devices and data was worse for primary school students. 

2022 and a new year

We were all buzzing with excitement when it was announced that schools were to reopen on the first of November for Years 12s and 13s. Some of us posted on social media stories and pictures relating to our schools with captions such as “Back to Base” in anticipation for the reopening. We all started to get ready for a challenge, and to experience this other ‘new normal’, after nine months out.

On the first day, some students did not come as they were having their 2nd jab on that day. Most of us wanted to shake hands or in the iTaukei slang “Dre” but knew better as we were still in the midst of a battle against the pandemic. It was tough for the higher forms as the pressure of the annuals and the external (exams) were and continue to haunt us. A year 12 student described coming back to school as “difficult due to the fast re-learning of the syllabus”, as indeed it was, since schools had to cover within three to four weeks, a year of learning, to sit for a full scale annual paper.

The unjabbed primary school student

It has been a difficult story for public primary school students too. The pandemic has affected primary students in many ways, but most of all it has affected our education. Not being at school for over a year has meant some of us have lost our ability to wake up early. Studying from worksheets given by the schools hasn’t been regular either and we had to do them largely on our own, especially when both our parents were busy with their own work. Having an older brother helped in our case as he helped with marking.

Zoom classes of forty minutes were held once a week, and was the highlight of our long school break. “My first class was exciting as I got to see some of my friends and our teacher left us to play around with zoom and talk to each other after our first class”.

As 2022 began, we prayed all was going to be normal again, but now we have a third wave and we have had a cyclone with floods and classes have all been cancelled again.  I do not blame the teachers of my school and these are tough times and everyone has been affected in many ways. From my point of view this is quite bad. I do hope things change sooner than later.

There are other children out there, whose parents do not have jobs and who do not have food or internet. These are the children who have been affected the most as they have had almost no schooling. That schools have closed again may be okay since many of us have not been vaccinated as Fiji ran out of the Pfizer vaccines for primary school-aged children last Christmas,

Conclusion: A plea to parents

When the internal exams started for secondary students, most students were stressed out. It was frightening as we were sitting full scale exam papers, even though we missed many classes after the shutting down of schools, with the lockdowns and related experiences.

When receiving our results, we had dropped drastically in our performance as most of us received marks that were surprisingly low, by our own standards. Due to the current circumstances, one must empathise that while everyone has been affected by the pandemic, we students have lost on almost a year of schooling. The expectation from the school and parents remain high though. We did our best and we will try to do better.

 “I do not expect things to calm down just yet but it would be better if things calmed down sooner than later,” said Lotarakuita Saurara, a Year 7 student. But this pandemic is part of all our lives. It is up to us to see whether it affects us negatively or if we can rise up against it and make the best out of it. It has been noted that the sooner we learn to live with this scourge the better it will be for all of us. It is necessary that the people of Fiji and of Earth must come together (not literally) and implement ‘herd immunity’ against COVID-19. To do this, we must all get vaccinated, including our primary school-aged children and those others that make up our population.  Only then can it be regarded in the same way as, say, the common flu; that is something that is always there but is no longer life-threatening.

If there is one glaring thing with education under COVID-19, it is the huge information divide in Fiji between the vast majority of ordinary Fijian students who go to public schools and those that go to the few private schools in Fiji. Our Government and parents should invest in and make information technology and online learning a part of our normal learning from primary schools. If we fail, then the ordinary students of Fiji will be left behind while the rich move ahead, as will the rest of the world. Investment into student information technology classes will go a long way to meeting the challenges and disruptions caused to education due to events like COVID-19. It will also make bring some equality to education among all students in Fiji. This is important as education is one of the great equalisers of the conditions for all humankind.

Epeli Vakalalabure is a year 12 student and Lotarakuita Saurara is a year 7 student in Suva. Epeli is currently
preparing for his final external exams.

This article originally appeared in our January issue and is part of a package on education in the Pacific Islands.