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Devastating impact of COVID-19 on Schools, Education and Children in Maldives

An overview of the arguably marginalized effect on Maldives’ Public-School Students wrought by the ongoing global COVID19 pandemic.

Fathmath Shaahunaz
04 June 2020, MVT 15:46
A student learns an Islam subject lesson from the government-initiated television based education delivery programme 'Telekilaas', from home during lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. PHOTO/EDUCATION MINISTRY
Fathmath Shaahunaz
04 June 2020, MVT 15:46

As the government of Maldives commenced a phased easing of lockdown measures on May 28, which were in effect for more than a month across the Greater Male’ Region, the country saw, with some modicum of relief, the resumption of virtual education for students in the public education sector.

However, to the concern of parents and educators employed at government schools across the country, these virtual lessons recommenced after a void of nearly two months without any form of formal education provided for students registered in Maldives’ public schools.

This lies in stark contrast to the situation of most private schools in the country, where students have been continuing education in the form of online classes, leading one to ponder:

Are students in Maldivian public schools being marginalised over the COVID-19 pandemic?

Unsatisfactory responses evade responsibility

A global look at the responses to ensuring education amid this health crisis indicates that numerous countries opted for various remote learning solutions, to provide children under lockdown with formal education in as fair a manner as possible.

While countries with low internet connectivity chose to broadcast lessons via television and radio, those with internet connectivity above 40 percent have been providing classes by utilizing both broadcast and online platforms.

In the beginning, Maldives also appeared set to embark on trajectory.

A few weeks after the nation’s first ever State of Public Health Emergency was declared on March 12 and the closure of schools followed, the Ministry of Education launched the television-based education delivery programme, ‘TeleKilaas’ (Teleclass). The initiative would provide formal education for over 70,000 students across some 200 islands. Initially geared towards grades 9-11, the ministry announced Teleclasses for grades 1-8 in early April. With lessons carried out by Public Service Media (PSM)'s 'YES TV', Google Classroom, Youtube and 'TED-Ed', and the government working towards launching its educational platform 'Filaa', the Maldivian public education sector appeared intent on seeing the new challenges through.

However, the ambitious TeleKilaas programme soon came to a screeching halt, leaving the future of public education lost to murky waters over the past two months.

Within a fortnight after the lockdown was implemented across the capital region following the first local transmission of COVID-19 detected in Male’ on April 15, Maldives announced the cancellation of the 2020 Cambridge O’ Level and local SSC examinations. Rescheduling the exams for May/June in the coming year, the education ministry further declared that all students would be promoted to the next grade in 2021.

In the dark, concerns grew among students and parents throughout the archipelago. As doubts increased over the government’s dubious decision to halt its remote learning programme, the adverse effects are already evident.

As 70,000 public school students fell behind not only their private sector counterparts but the majority of the global student population, Education Minister Dr Aishath Ali offered a feeble explanation: parents were too stressed.

During a sit-down with the parliament’s National Committee on Development and Heritage earlier this month, Dr Aishath stated that the government had commenced plans for remote learning well ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak in Maldives. However, the nationwide TeleKilaas programme was discontinued upon receiving many calls from parents requesting the classes be stopped as they were under stress, she claimed.

Despite inquiries by the parliament members regarding scientific evidence to support her decision, Dr Aishath failed to make it clear whether the ministry had conducted a thorough survey of the psychological state of parents, or whether the number of phone calls represented the view of the majority of parents in the public education sector.

Education Minister Dr Aishath Ali (L-5) and President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih (R-5) pose for a photograph with students that achieved top marks nationwide in the 2018 GCE O' Level examinations, during the Top Achievers Awards ceremony held in September 2019. FILE PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

In stark comparison to the public education sector, a glance across some private institutions in Male’ shows that their students have been receiving formal lessons since the first day of school closure.

“The school has been holding lessons and sharing materials online for both of them”, shared a parent of two with The Edition. The students are enrolled in tenth and sixth grade respectively at Ahmadhiyya International School.

“There was a little hiccup and they temporarily stopped during Ramadan, but they have renewed the initiative and its presently ongoing”.

According to The Edition’s sources, these private schools are successfully sustaining interactive online learning using internet-based tools and platforms such as Zoom, Edupage, and Google classroom among others.

“The online classes are very interactive, they keep all the students engaged with stimulating activities. They are held regularly and in addition to lessons, they give the students homework as well as exercises to do for Physical Education”, added another parent of a student attending the second grade at Finland International School.

“It’s our first online education experience and to be honest, I initially thought it would be very difficult. But contrary to expectations, they are extremely well organised. Most importantly, they allow the children to meet each other virtually; they are given time to talk to each other and my child looks forward to lessons everyday. I’m very appreciative of what is being done for the students”.

The widening gap between rights and education

The government recently resumed Teleclasses across the grades LKG to Year 12. They announced on June 2 that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is also offering assistance in mitigating the impact of the pandemic on the Maldivian education system, including financial and technical assistance for the Telekilaas programme, identification of challenges associated with online learning in Maldivian schools, as well as resources and training for teachers to address such challenges.

However, following the two-month void in education prior to lessons resumption, students in public schools have already fallen sharply behind their peers in the private sector, as well as much of the international student population.

As a consequence of formal education having been placed on the backburner for months, there are heightened fears that public school students, particularly those that are vulnerable, may find themselves facing a learning gap that is both unfair, and near-impossible to overcome.

Studies into the consequences of prolonged school closures in the aftermath of previous epidemics, such as the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak in Asia and 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Africa, indicate that the absence of formal education results in serious learning gaps that teachers struggle to fill.

Countries around the world have adopted unprecedented remote learning solutions to provide education to as many students as possible, in order to reduce the inevitable gaps in learning when schools reopen. These tools also allow teachers to engage students despite the social restrictions resulting from being under lockdown, while positively contributing to their psychological well-being.

When one considers the developing country of Maldives, we have enjoyed strong radio connectivity since 1980 and nationwide television coverage since 2006, in addition to relatively high internet accessibility.

Furthermore, as revealed by the education ministry during the parliamentary committee meeting stated above, a survey to which 70 percent of public sector students responded, 72 percent of the participants affirmed they had access to broadband internet. The National Institute of Education (NIC) further disclosed during the meeting that public schools had covered most of the GCE O’ Level and SSC syllabuses prior to the COVID-19 crisis.

These facts beg the question - why was the government unable to deliver lessons to 70,000 students via online platforms, television or radio for two months, knowing that such a failure would have debilitating effects on students’ learning as well as their social and psychological well-being?

Moreover, is it reasonable to reschedule the Cambridge and local examinations for 2021 when the students in grade 10 have, in fact, already covered the majority of their curriculums?

A student peruses her end-of-semester report form. FILE PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED/MIHAARU

Considering the impact that these decisions will, and already do, have on an entire generation of students and their futures, such questions cannot be taken lightly.

Policy makers and education sector leaders have a responsibility to the country’s younger generation, to engage in serious discourse and take action that ensures an entire student population in public schools are not be marginalised due to this pandemic.

A 'new approach' to move forward

In addition to overcoming an alarming learning gap, like the rest of the world, Maldives’ schooling approach must also embrace the “new normal”.

It should be noted that, as the world awaits a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, no country has yet established foolproof guidelines on reopening schools amid the pandemic.

Nevertheless, some of the common measures to prevent community spread in schools include social distancing, holding multiple sessions with smaller student groups, and the use of personal protection equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves. Safe hygiene practices and regular disinfection must also be enforced, in addition to swift responses to positive and/or suspected cases should they be detected.

Today’s unprecedented circumstances will undoubtedly prove taxing for both students and teachers as they venture towards a new normal. As schools and classrooms in Maldives are not conducive to maintaining physical distancing with ease, it will be a disciplinary challenge for teachers to control the movement of younger children, regulating a distance of six feet between each other at all times.

Furthermore, the new normal will undoubtedly entail heavier workloads for teachers, who face the daunting task of holding multiple sessions of the same lesson within a single day, as well as online teaching for students unable to attend school. The additional fatigue and stress on teachers in the short to medium term could further compound the challenges present in providing effective education.

Students of Aminiya School settle down for breakfast provided under the government-initiated 'School Breakfast' programme, on the first day of the academic year in 2019. FILE PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU

Perhaps the most alarming concern is - even when Maldives succeeds in flattening the curve and curbing community spread, what if COVID-19 proves seasonal and returns the following year before a vaccine is developed? Would the country revert to the same state of affairs, with students missing out on more education?

The aforementioned query is not meant to invoke further panic and alarm, but to gear essential discourse on an admittedly difficult, sometimes harrowing topic. If there is a lesson to be taken from this crisis however, it is that success can only be assured with careful and meticulous preparation, a fact that is particularly vital in the discussion of children’s rights and futures.

Considering the current situation; the government’s casual approach, lack of evidence-based decisions, inadequate preparation to continue education during times of crisis, and the daunting prospect of the new normal - there is a real fear that learning and teaching may be disrupted on a large scale over the coming months and years.

This above all, poses a real threat to the future of public school students. There should be no room left to question whether these children will be marginalised. It is crucial for policy makers, school leaders and the community as a whole to take on their responsibility and ensure a feasible solution before the country’s education system reaches a breaking point.

These concerns were also highlighted on a global scale by Audrey Azoulay, the Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a powerful message she delivered regarding the 1.4 billion then (1.5 million now) learners who were left out of schools across the world due to the pandemic.

In her address concerning the new age of virtual learning, she warned that children from marginalised backgrounds were in most danger of losing out on education, a crisis she emphasised must not be allowed to happen.

“Education cannot stop; it is a fundamental right. Let us be sure to keep it that way. Through this crisis and well beyond”.

The future of Maldives lies in the hands of these young people. Although the interruption to their schooling and normal way of life may be unavoidable under the current circumstances, a loss of such fundamental rights cannot be chalked up to an inevitability.

It is crucial that they receive the education and training they deserve, and that every effort is demonstrated in securing their psychological and physical wellbeing for today especially, in a manner that will prove meaningful for years to come.

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