The onset of COVID-19, which led to school closures throughout the Eastern Caribbean region, pushed digital education to the forefront of the policy agenda. With instructional time seriously compromised and risks of substantial learning loss due to school closures, OECS Member states transitioned to online learning to enable students to continue with their studies.
As the transition took place, Member States were confronted with the stark reality that not all communities have access to affordable internet and not all students have access to suitable devices. In light of this, the Ministries of Education proceeded with distributing paper-based learning materials and were able to provide devices for some vulnerable students. However, these efforts were not sufficient and there remained a large gap. Many students continued to lack access to learning platforms used by their schools, disproportionally exposing them to the risk of falling behind. It was clear that this significant disadvantage, being borne by the region’s most vulnerable students, would widen the achievement gap even further.
A regional response plan to mitigate the effects of the pandemic
The OECS quickly mobilized regional resources and partners to develop the OECS Education Sector Response and Recovery Strategy to COVID-19. A rapid needs assessment and a series of consultations with key stakeholders informed the strategy’s targeted response areas and comprehensive approach. This strategy focuses on 4 core areas including harmonization of policy response among Member States, transition to distributed learning, ensuring the wellbeing of students both in and out of school, and promoting engagement.
A US$3 million GPE grant allocated to the Member States of Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines will support the implementation of the regional response plan, helping to ensure learning opportunities for every child. With support from the OECS Commission, which was selected to accompany Members States in the development and implementation of the program, a series of interventions will be put in place at regional and national levels to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
Solutions to expand distance learning for all and to close the digital divide
To accelerate and support Member States in the transition to distributed learning, the program will make policy recommendations on learning platforms to harmonize curriculum delivery in distance modalities, develop and disseminate digital public goods for use in education, and develop programs for radio and television to complement online instruction. Teachers will also be supported to adapt to this new environment through training focused on evidence-based approaches to online learning, high-quality pedagogical skills, and strengthening resilience for continuing education while schools remain closed.
Given that an estimated 30% of children lack electronic devices and access to online learning, the program will support Member States to procure and distribute devices to at least 12,000 vulnerable primary students across Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The OECS Commission has also forged a strong partnership with international, regional and national telecommunications regulators and providers that will provide various internet connectivity solutions to the vulnerable children who will receive tablets from this program. In this manner, strategic financing and public-private partnerships will come together to close the digital equity divide in the Eastern Caribbean, ensuring the most vulnerable students can continue learning alongside their peers.