When coronavirus hit, the Eastern Caribbean states took bold steps to ensure continuity of learning

With GPE’s support, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) is one step closer to bridging the digital divide, ensuring all children can learn online while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

July 28, 2020 by Talia Miranda, GPE Secretariat
5 minutes read
A Dominican librarian delivers training for parents on how to better support their children's reading at home. Credit: OECS Commission
A Dominican librarian delivers training for parents on how to better support their children's reading at home
Credit: OECS Commission

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.

“Vulnerable children across the OECS have been disproportionality affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are left without internet access and the necessary devices to benefit from teaching and learning. On behalf of the OECS Member States, the Commission thanks GPE for their continued support and partnership, particularly with the provision of this grant which will aid in providing much needed relief to vulnerable children. This support will go a long way in providing the means for vulnerable children’s continued participation in the teaching and learning process during this pandemic."
Dr. Didacus Jules, Director-General of the OECS Commission

Additionally, with GPE’s support, a 6- to 9-month Academic Recovery Program will be launched to target students who have been severely affected by the lack of learning devices and the unavailability of in-person teacher support. This program is currently being developed and will be conducted using various modalities, where technological and instructional facilities will be provided to students. In some cases, the program will be conducted at schools, using multiple classrooms to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Ensuring students’ well-being when students return to school

When schools reopen, the GPE-supported program will provide students in need with hygiene kits to promote safety practices. Schools that serve vulnerable populations will also benefit from WASH support including improved water supply and sanitation facilities, cleaning supplies for handwashing and maintaining clean premises.

In collaboration with partners from the health and private sector, the GPE-supported program will also launch a communication campaign to disseminate key messages on good hygiene practices and social distancing guidelines. The campaign will offer guidance to parents on how to provide better support to children experiencing anxiety due to the pandemic, while amplifying key messages on the safe re-opening of schools.

Building back better

The GPE program offers a unique opportunity to make transformational changes to the education sector in the OECS and promote equity in education. An estimated 24,300 students and 1,600 teachers will directly benefit from the program, with a special focus on at-risk, marginalized and vulnerable students, teachers and schools.

Looking beyond the pandemic, GPE’s support particularly to support Member States transition to remote learning will not only help to meet immediate education challenges in the region but will also lay the groundwork to face future threats more effectively. With the Caribbean being the second most environmental hazard-prone region in the world, the Eastern Caribbean States need to be prepared to deal with the aftermath of hurricanes and natural disasters, which damage essential infrastructure and close down schools as well. With strong leadership, an active and supportive partnership, and GPE financing, the OECS has the opportunity to emerge from this crisis stronger and to increase the resilience of the region’s education system to a variety of threats, all while ensuring no one is left behind.

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