Pupils of the San Fernando Central Secondary School

KEEPNG A WATCHFUL EYE: Pupils of the San Fernando Central Secondary School follow Covid-19 protocols before entering their classrooms, yesterday. Government announced last Wednesday that pupils of Forms Four to Six, whether vaccinated and unvaccinated, are to return to physical classes. —Photo: DEXTER PHILIP

We belong to a nation whose public health officials have maintained a common thread in their Covid-related communication since March 2020—that we follow the science.

If in fact we are guided by science in navigating our twin-island nation through this pandemic, how can we be in a position where our schools remain predominantly closed for over 600 days?

While school closure was a prudent step taken to protect society in March 2020, some 21 months ago, based on the level of uncertainty on how Covid-19 would impact the health and well-being of our people, this is no longer the case.

The science clearly shows the lowest risk of transmission is in children and that they are not major vectors of Covid-19, even in intergenerational homes that include grandparents.

If we are shaping our decisions and policies around the science, then how can every area of business be reopened but still we justify schools remaining closed?

Is it that our children’s pockets are not deep enough to be heard, their lack of lobbying force or tax-paying status makes their voices inaudible, or is it that our leaders do not have the foresight to see the direct financial impact of sustained school closures in the future?

In September 2020, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) was the first to identify and simulate the economic costs of pre-primary school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Across 140 countries involving 6.4 billion people combined, the IDB used a simple model to show the losses in future income for prolonged closure of education centres.

The results varied based on pre-pandemic enrolment which was directly tied to the socio-economic circumstances of each country. As expected, high-income countries were found to have pre-pandemic enrolment of approximately 93 per cent, whereas low-income nations’ pre-enrolment was as low as 14.9 per cent.

Using this very simplified model the future average loss of only 12 months of school closure in the Caribbean is estimated at an astounding 6.3 per cent decline in future GDP.

This model excluded benefits that were difficult to monetise such as family and health benefits, or a reduction in the cost of crime in society, and as such the IDB’s simulated calculation is quite conservative.

When we extrapolate that calculation to cover the now 21-month learning loss in Trinidad and Tobago how can we justify a double-digit decline in future GDP, when according to the World Bank, T&T’s Government allocated a mere 3.6 per cent of GDP to education in 2019?

Access to quality early childhood education is essential for children’s intellectual development, later academic progress and ultimately lifetime earnings. In children under the age of five years old, the brain is much more sensitive and flexible to learning experiences and stimulation.

According to a study conducted by BMJ Global Health in 2019 about early childhood development, this early plasticity and what is done or not done during early childhood can have long-term influences on the formation of human capital, health and behaviour.

In fact, training and accumulation of skills is key to breaking the inter-generational transmission of poverty, so this interruption of learning has only deepened pre-existing inequities.

In a region as deeply unequal as the Caribbean where one per cent of the richest accumulate 21 per cent of the income of the entire economy, childcare and school centres become a protective space, providing opportunities to deploy, consolidate and strengthen society’s safety nets.

Here in T&T, using information reported from various news articles over the course of the year, in October 2020, seven months into school closure, 26.7 per cent of pupils had no access to online learning.

In May 2021, this number only slightly improved to 20.8 per cent, or 46,770 pupils who never logged in for school during the 415 days our education system remained closed to in-person learning.

The impacts of this have been seen in the sharp increase in failure rates at the SEA level where between 2020 and 2021 there was a 6.7 per cent increase (11 per cent to 17.7 per cent) in pupils scoring below an average of 30 per cent in their exam.

The fallout of children within the education system was further seen by declines in the overall CAPE and CSEC results for the last two consecutive years as well as the recorded 5,000 children enrolled who never attended any of their exams in July and August of 2021.

Beyond the evident disparities in our socio-economic breakout and its direct correlation to resources and support that would have allowed for effective remote learning, the closure of schools and daycares has also impacted the labour force.

Childcare is an essential service for working families. The closure of schools has disproportionately impacted single and working mothers, increasing the unpaid workload in households and affecting women’s labour participation.

A local retail business tracked and logged absenteeism for the three months immediately following the first shutdown. The business experienced 79 lost workdays due to childcare issues, particularly at the showroom level that is predominantly female-based.This loss in productivity continues to hamper economic recovery now.

While our Government has made efforts to allow for the continuation of distance learning, the gap in access to resources and connectivity as well as the extensive limitations of learning at home are more pronounced in vulnerable households, making their efforts insufficient and have led to further increases in social and gender inequalities.

For this reason, it is imperative to develop strategies for the safe reopening of schools even in an imperfect scenario. Prolonged closure is a costly alternative in both the short and long-term for all, and our children are a priority that we cannot continue to ignore.

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