I had no idea what it was like, but I hit a home run

UNICEF The Gambia’s Education Specialist details his first experience of emergency response

UNICEF The Gambia Education Specialist, Nuha Jatta, poses for a photo
03 November 2020

"The presidential declaration that all schools and other education institutions must close indefinitely struck me with high level of uncertainty. I wondered how children would learn, how they would receive remote lessons and how they would write their exams.”

Standing in the balcony of his office, a direct view of the Atlantic Ocean, Nuha wonders the next step for the hundreds of thousands of children who will be forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 restrictions. As the Education Specialist of the UNICEF The Gambia office, Nuha’s work includes supporting the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education to ensure every child is in school and learning.

“As I stood in that balcony thinking about the thousands of children, especially those in the remote parts of the country who are virtually cut off from the internet and have limited access to radio and TV, I wondered how would we be able to reach them via distance learning,” Nuha recalled. “I knew the challenges were enormous, but we had to do something, and we had to do it urgently”.

Later in the day Nuha received a call from the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MOBSE) for a brainstorming session which culminated into a consensus to launch a remote learning programme to be delivered via radio and TV.  This marks the beginning of Nuha’s COVID-19 response journey. “It is my first experienced in emergency response and I think I was ready for it".

The presidential declaration on 23 March 2020 restricting public gatherings and shutting down public facilities, including schools, came seven days after The Gambia registered its first COVID-19 case. Unlike in many other neighbouring countries, the outbreak of COVID-19 in The Gambia plunged the country into its first health emergency in as many decades. The experience was hardly there.

UNICEF The Gambia Education Specialist, Nuha Jatta, receives a call on his desk

The uncertainties

The closure of schools and the subsequent decision to launch remote learning programme came at a time when details about the Coronavirus were still sketchy – there was a lot to be learned and discovered about the virus. But what was also uncertain was how would lessons be delivered via radio and TV – the infrastructure was not there to reach every child everywhere in the country.

“The general purpose of the radio and TV lessons was to keep children learning and also keep them home to protect them from infection,” Nuha said. “What children would lose in terms of school-based services such as meals, health and social interactions with peers and teachers were not part of the discourse, and these are equally important elements of an education.”

As Nuha left the Willy Thorpe building in Banjul, three questions remained unaddressed by the meeting with MOBSE and other education partners: how long will schools be closed? If schools remained closed, how would learning be provided to children who don’t have access to radio or television facilities? If no measures for learning were put in place, what will children be doing at home?

Remote but still accessible

After days of planning and consultations, the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education launched the national distance learning programme. With support from UNICEF and other partners, the lessons were broadcast to students across the country over several radio and TV stations. In homes and across streets, radio and TV sets all had the same broadcasts during lessons.

“I think we probably had way more students during the distance learning programme,” Nuha explains, referring to the many people, including adults and out of school children who tuned in to watch or listen during lesson hours. “I was optimistic that it would work.”

Even though he was optimistic, Nuha knew the remote learning programme was not sustainable. In fact, it was not designed to replace in-school learning. He counted days to the reopening of schools even as the president renewed state of public emergencies as they expired. 

When we launched the distance learning programme, more than 700,000 children were already out of school, there was no clear information on the pathology of the virus, and parents were asking questions which no one could convincingly answer.

Amid the long wait, the distance learning programme was progressing, and the hurdles were beginning to be more appreciable. “It didn’t take long for the challenges to surface: parents struggled to supervise their children during lessons; families were pushing children to work to cover their lost income" Nuha reflects. "The streets were flooded with children involved in petty trading and that was very risky.”

We are in this together 

The MOBSE brainstorming session, which spanned two days, led to the production of a costed Education Sector COVID-19 Response Plan, which was also the first sectoral response plan that was integrated in what became the National COVID-19 Response Plan. The education sector plan also helped the ministry to secure funding for the distance learning programme.

Two months after the imposition of the COVID-19 restrictions, the conversation shifted to exams for the transition classes of grades 9 and 12 which had been suspended indefinitely. As the convener of the Local Education Group, a committee of education stakeholders, Nuha facilitated discussions on a phased re-opening strategy for the transition classes to received four – six weeks of remedial lessons before they write their exams. This strategy worked well, partly because it received strong support from the group.

“When we came up with a strategy to allow students in transition classes to return to school and write their exams, of course with strict adherence to COVID-19 safety precautions, the Banjul office of the West African Examination Council registered more than 38,000 students for both the Gambia Basic Education Certificate Examination and the West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination”, Nuha explains. “I think this is already a major achievement for the country, and I am proud to be a part of this journey.”