Teachers feeling pressure from COVID-19 ‘learning gap’, compressed semester, school inspections

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Some public school teachers are reporting a decline in student performance and behaviour this year, following last spring’s COVID-19 lockdown.

They’re also expressing concerns about the timing of school inspections so close to the resumption of in-person learning, and say their preparations have been negatively impacted by the extended Christmas holiday.

Citing fears over job security, the teachers would only speak to the Cayman Current on the condition that they remain anonymous.

On Tuesday morning, the Current requested comment from leaders in the Ministry of Education, Department of Education Services and Office of Education Standards, but as of the time of publication they had not responded. We will update the story with their comments when they are received.

Learning and behaviour

Multiple studies in the US, UK and elsewhere have attempted to assess the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on students’ academic progress. (See examples here, here, here and here.)

Common conclusions are that students have fallen months behind where they would have been without school closures, and that the ‘learning gap’ is even larger among minority and low-income students. No report has been published on the COVID-19 learning gap specifically in the Cayman Islands, but local teachers say it is a reality, particularly among students who didn’t engage in virtual learning this past spring.

“Yes, it is of great concern that we are to be inspected, having had such a downturn in both behaviour and performance from students,” a teacher said.

“Obviously, the students are now behind in their expected level of attainment at this juncture,” they said.

Another teacher said, “The learning gaps are evident as we progress through the year. The learning gaps are obvious mainly because student achievement is being measured using pre-COVID-19 standards. Some students were not engaged during distance learning so it is hard for them to catch up.”

They said, “At this point, it feels we assess the students more than we actually teach and teachers are pressured to deliver results similar to school pre-COVID-19.”

They said, “The behavioural challenges continue to escalate mainly because the students were not reintegrated into schools appropriately. We returned to school and got back to the same routine with all activities and assessments. Moreover the specialists’ services are underutilised and in some instances, they believe behaviour management is the class teachers’ problem.”

Christmas holiday extension

In early December, Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly confirmed that public schools would have their Christmas holiday extended by 2 weeks, with school resuming 18 Jan. instead of 4 Jan.

That resulted in the elimination of the half-term holiday in February, the truncation of the Easter Break in April and the extension of the school year to 9 July.

Teachers told the Current that while the initial announcement of the Christmas extension was welcome news, the negative consequences of adjusting the spring schedule outweighed the benefits.

“The biggest concern I would raise is the misconception that teachers in government schools, especially John Gray High School and Clifton Hunter High School, were satisfied with the adjustment at Christmas,” one teacher said.

Another teacher said, “The main issue with the extension was that teachers were not consulted. Yes there was a survey, but the data was not utilised as with most surveys sent out to the teachers.”

They said the extra Christmas holiday “sounded good until the schedule to compensate for the break was published. Teachers are giving back more than was taken.”

Worries over inspections

The fallout from COVID-19, the compressed spring term and other factors, such as the rollout of the new curriculum, getting students ready for external exams, and pressure to improve their schools’ OES rating, have amplified some teachers’ anxieties about school inspection reports.

John Gray is set to be inspected the week of 26 April, followed by Clifton Hunter the next week and then Cayman Prep & High School.

They said teachers were weighing whether to work during the public Easter holiday or to ‘cram’ their preparations in before the inspections. “We are shattered but dedicated,” they said.

Specifically in regard to secondary schools, some question the timing of the new inspections, saying their schools should have had a longer gap between inspections regardless of COVID-19.

John Gray was last inspected in October 2018, when it received a ‘Satisfactory’ rating.

Clifton Hunter was inspected in September 2018 and received a ‘Weak’ rating. The school had follow-through inspections in March 2019 and November 2019, with inspectors finding the school had made ‘Weak’ progress on their recommendations.

Cayman Prep was last inspected in March 2019, receiving a ‘Good’ rating.

One teacher said, “In my opinion the inspections took place too soon post-COVID-19.”

They said, “Having gone through the inspection, it felt as though there were missing parts since the students barely got back into the school mood. We also needed time to continue with the implementation of the new curriculum. In short, there was little evidence to be presented to the inspectorate considering that we were out of school for quite a while.”

In a previous story, the Current wrote about factors teachers cited when leaving Cayman’s public school system, including personal stress, bureaucratic frustrations, low morale and complaints of poor communication. Read it here:

Love it or loathe it — Departing teachers’ thoughts about Cayman’s public schools

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