Supporting learning continuity during the period of COVID-19
Addressing learning gaps amid the pandemic
Nineteen-year-old Abu Bakkarr Bangura’s bedroom is an impressive showroom of determination and dreams for the future. On one end of the room is a shelf of neatly packed books and a table which he uses to study for the upcoming Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). On the floor and on the bed lay remnants of electronic materials, which he pieces together to form ingenious prototype robotic inventions which he dreams of taking beyond his neighborhood of Goderich in Freetown.
“I am building a robotic device which will help provide security in the home,” says Abu, as he proudly shows one of the prototypes, he is finalising. “I love creating models of new inventions, which I hope to perfect one day when I become a mechanical engineer,” says Abu, who looks forward to getting through school and ensuring that he can further his dreams of building electronic inventions to make a difference in the lives of people.
Sadly, Abu’s journey towards completing school has been riddled with misfortunes and sad events. In 2014, he became orphaned as both his parents died of illness. In the same year, schools closed because of the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease.
Unfortunately, when classes resumed three months later, there was no one around to help with payment of his school fees, resulting in him missing school for about three years. Now back in school thanks to the support of his brother, another health emergency is again affecting Abu’s pursuit of an education.
“I am due to write my exams next week, but my learning this year has been greatly disrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic. It has been difficult for me to study by myself at home for the last six months as schools have been closed,” says Abu as he shows some of the latest chapters he has been reading through in the last week.
According to a recent UNICEF global report, more than 1 billion children around the world are at risk of falling behind due to school closures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19. Many of the world’s children – particularly those in poorer households like Abu, do not have ready access to the technologies needed for home-based learning and often have limited means to continue their education.
In Sierra Leone, quality of education remains poor with only 12 percent of children 7 – 14 years demonstrating functional numeracy skills, and only 16 percent with functional literacy skills. Therefore, keeping students positively engaged with learning has been critical during the time of COVID-19. As a member of the Education Emergency Taskforce, UNICEF has supported Government to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on learning through various activities.
The Government also continues to provide a national teaching radio programme for children to ensure continued learning during the ongoing crisis. Daily, the teachers deliver the structured lessons which target approximately 2.6 million students with lessons on the core subjects, English Mathematics, Integrated Sciences and Social Studies. However, there have been challenges with remote learning, including limited or no radio network coverage in some areas and the lack of the usual supervision and guidance that comes from a classroom teacher.
“My brother is the one who has been encouraging me to remain focused on studying and he is the one who tells me to schedule my time between learning and the pursuit of my hobby of building robotic devices.”
In July, UNICEF and other education partners further worked with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary to support the partial reopening of schools, wherein students like Abu, who are due to sit for public examinations, could return to school for lessons. To ensure the safety of students and teachers, schools were supplied with handwashing buckets, soap, masks, thermometers and copies of the Safe School Protocol and Psychosocial training manuals.
While UNICEF supported a training of trainers on the use of the school safety protocols and training manuals, district level training for teachers and school authorities is yet to be rolled, pending available funding.
“The longer children stay out of school, the more they are attracted to explore other activities which will keep them away from learning and from attaining an all-important educational qualification. UNICEF has therefore been working closely with Government to prioritise continuity of learning and subsequently the safe reopening of all schools across Sierra Leone,” says UNICEF Representative, Dr. Suleiman Braimoh.
Abu is happy to be back in school and is glad that the prospects of attaining his future dreams are now within closer reach than before. To help support the dreams of Abu and his peers, who have missed almost a one – third of the academic year, UNICEF plans to work closely with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, supporting remedial and catch up classes to give extra support to the many children who have fallen behind during the pandemic. In addition, UNICEF aims to support the Ministry with ensuring schools are safe for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year and that students and teachers have much needed teaching and learning materials.
“UNICEF looks forward to continue providing important support to the government so that the various gaps in learning during times of health emergencies, can be addressed. This will help ensure that at all times, children are able to access quality education across Sierra Leone,” said Dr. Braimoh.
Meanwhile, Abu says he is all set for the exams and looks forward to passing with flying colours.
“The partial re-opening of schools has really helped to revive my hopes to excel in the upcoming examinations. I am very happy that I am going to write my examination and move on to the next level of learning,” says Abu, as he dons his uniform and facemask, ready to go for a few last lessons before the examinations begin.