OES report: COVID challenges schools, creates opportunities

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***Editor’s Note: The Office of Education Standards has completed its one-day ‘thematic visits’ to Cayman Islands schools. This is the fifth and final story in a series looking at the OES reports from a comprehensive perspective.***

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all stakeholders in the Cayman Islands education system — including teachers, parents and students — forcing them to adapt to new systems, routines and technology.

But while the disruptions have in some cases led to negative consequences on the mental health of adults and children, as well as academic progress among students, many lessons learnt from COVID will be carried forward to improve the education system going forward.

Those are some of the observations made Office of Education Standards inspectors in their analysis of the 2021/22 school year.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic tested the mettle, resilience and resolve of school leaders, teachers and students globally. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in the Cayman Islands in March 2020, school leaders had worked tirelessly to promote continuity of learning for all students in government and private schools delivering compulsory education,” according to the ‘Thematic School Visit Report 2022‘ that was recently published on the OES website.

Consequently, school leaders had sought to evolve or adapt their management of the learning environment to mitigate the challenges to students’ learning presented by the pandemic and to create a safe and supportive environment for students and staff,” according to the report.

Leadership and change

OES inspectors conducted one-day ‘thematic visits‘ to 34 schools (16 public and 18 private) in the Spring 2022 term. They also surveyed more than 3,000 students, 2,000 parents and 900 members of school staff. That represents more than one-third of Cayman’s students and 60% of Cayman’s educators.

The focus of the visits was on safety and support for students, leading and managing schools, and developing links with the community.

In their feedback to OES inspectors, school leaders and staff most-often referenced leadership qualities (41% of respondents), care and commitment to well-being (39%), governance and accountability (9%), and support from the Ministry of Education and Department of Education Services (6%).

“During the thematic visits, a number of teachers made highly positive comments about the professional competence demonstrated by school leaders during the pandemic. It was noteworthy, that across settings, staff expressed the view that most senior leaders had managed the changes brought on by the pandemic with a calm and measured approach,” according to the report.

“Notwithstanding this, there were instances where staff had complained about the quick pace at which changes were implemented and the ensuing costs to their own well-being.”

Inspectors noted that a few schools had new leadership, which affected their ability to respond to pandemic challenges.

“Inspectors noted that where a distributed model of leadership was well-embedded in schools, this had promoted a partnership approach to managing the challenges to students’ learning during the pandemic,” according to the report.

In both public and private schools, about 80% of parents and staff agreed their school had a clear strategy in place to promote learning during COVID.

Tired teachers

Extra duties, staff attrition and difficulties with recruitment stretched many teachers thin during the pandemic.

“Although school leaders had placed a focus upon staff well-being, a number of staff interviewed had reported feeling overwhelmed and fatigued due to the additional roles and responsibilities they undertook during the pandemic,” according to the report.

In both public and private schools, about 50% of staff agreed they received support for their emotional health and well-being.

“A number of staff had expressed that they were exhausted, and a few had suggested that the current arrangements for staff cover were unsustainable in the long term. In a number of schools, staff had reported that their non-contact time had reduced or was non-existent,” according to the report.

(‘Non-contact time’ is time used by teachers for preparation, assessment, correction, etc., without needing to supervise children.)

In particular, the loss of specialist staff negatively impacted support given to students with additional learning needs or SEND.

“It was normal practice for senior leaders, including Principals, to cover for absent colleagues in the classroom, although this often meant that other administrative tasks had to be sacrificed or postponed,” according to the report.

“Inspectors highlighted that effective covering for absent colleagues was often more difficult in smaller schools. The smaller schools had fewer resources to draw upon and thus it was not unusual for these schools to report such a situation as being unsustainable.”

Overall, 53% of staff agreed that their school had sufficient staff to deliver the curriculum effectively, with more staff agreeing in private schools (62%) than in public schools (46%).

“Staff’s commitment and efforts were beyond question, but some school comments addressed the issue of staff exhaustion, fatigue and ‘burn out’,” according to the report, which notes that only 65% of staff said they felt optimistic about the future.

Student absences and ‘learning loss’

The pandemic’s negative impacts on students’ academic progress were not limited to the closure of school campuses in Spring 2020, but extended to individual students missing days or weeks of school from Fall 2020-Spring 2022 while in quarantine with COVID.

“Inspectors reported that learning loss was variable across the schools. Where schools had been successful in maintaining progress, this was often due to strategic planning and increased focus on learners’ strengths and addressing new challenges,” according to the report. “Where learning loss was evident, inspection comments suggested this was attributed to the variability of moving in and out of isolation and remote learning, resulting in some schools and students being in a constant state of ‘catch-up’.”

Inspectors said student attendance was “inconsistent and tended to track with community transmission level rates”, so some schools experienced very little absences while others had ‘dramatic’ numbers of absences.

According to the report, “Some absences were caused by ‘fear of COVID’. This term was used when students and their families were afraid to attend school for fear of contracting COVID-19 or transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members in the home. It was reported that work to integrate the students back into face to face lessons had been
completed with varying degrees of success.”

In terms of whether they felt it was safe to be in school, 83% of private school staff agreed, compared to 65% of public school staff.

Among parents, 93% of private school parents felt schools were safe, compared to 86% of public school parents.

Among students, only 41% of private school students felt schools were safe, compared to 58% of public school students.

Overall, 63% of schools in 2021/22 had attendance rates below 94%, which normally would be considered a ‘satisfactory’ level of attendance.

The government’s free laptop programme for public school students received positive reviews, although some staff said repairs and replacements were taking a long time.

Similar many private school staff said they appreciated the government’s reinstatement of the private school financial grant programme.

“During the pandemic, student access to remote learning was generally accepted as being a strength and inspectors did comment on specific aspects, such as gamification, as being of particular potential benefit,” according to the report.

“However, some connectivity issues both at school, and in student homes had sometimes hindered the effective delivery of, and access to, remote learning.”

Overall, 82% of students agreed they had appropriate IT resources at home to access remote lessons, and 86% of parents said the school had given sufficient guidance to support their children’s learning.

Inspectors noted that schools used a wide array of learning platforms and applications, listing 51 different tools.

“The majority of comments regarding the use of platforms and applications were extremely positive. Inspectors noted that schools had started to rationalise and standardise the vast number of applications across their school,” according to the report.

Improved communication

After the pandemic ends, many schools intend to continue to use technology to facilitate communication with parents and remote learning when appropriate.

They also noted improvements in hygiene and health procedures, better management of student behaviour due to class ‘bubble groups’, and reduced congestion due to altered drop-off/pick-up procedures.

“Over half of the comments reported that there had been improvements with the engagement with parents as a result of the pandemic. Schools reported that the relationship quality had improved, some parent attendance had improved, and online parents’ evenings had provided parental choice and flexibility for both parties,” according to the report.

Inspectors said school leaders are looking, in general, to do or offer more things online, including training events, parent meetings, and student events like concerts, plays and productions.

“Finally, a number of school leaders wanted a more blended learning model of teaching and learning to persist post pandemic, although it was unclear how exactly this would work. Many stated that synchronous and asynchronous learning provided options and flexibility both in and out of school allowing learning to potentially continue even through absence,” according to the report.

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