COVID-19 and Education: A Local Snapshot from The Gambia
June 16, 2020
The pandemic has created serious difficulties to education around the world, but particularly for low-income families in The Gambia.
The compound where my parents live with 11 other tenants is home to several school-age children. Their parents are small business owners and constantly work, so my return home to The Gambia in April, after studying and working abroad, was greeted with relief. My parents and neighbors all welcomed me and thought I would organize classes for my cousins and include all the kids in the neighborhood. Indeed, some of the neighbors came to me to formally request that I organize classes, but I had to say no. I could see the disappointment in their faces, and I understood. They want the best for their children. I struggled with my decision, knowing I had to choose between my health and helping these young children with very limited resources. The situation in my compound is very similar to many compounds in the neighborhood and in our nation in general.
The coronavirus pandemic has created serious difficulties to education around the world, but particularly for low-income families in The Gambia. This is true especially if you live in densely populated areas such as Brikama, Serrekunda and the provincial areas where some families are struggling to put meals on the table. The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest nations, ranking 174th out of 189 countries in the 2018 Human Development Index. The poverty rate may explain why The Gambia was already struggling with its educational system, which serves close to 652,000 primary school age children in government and grant aided schools, Madrassas (Arabic for any educational institution, secular or religious) and private schools, before COVID-19 hit.
Under the current lockdown, no one can go out and it seems life as we have known it has come to a standstill. The pandemic has forced the government to issue strict social distancing guidelines. The social distancing policy means schools, markets and places of worship have all been asked to temporarily close to stem the flow of the virus transmission. To keep some level of educational continuity, the government of The Gambia instituted a national TV and radio learning program to be supervised by parents at home. However, in a family where both parents are lacking formal education, they may not have a TV, and access to electricity is entirely unstable. This makes distance learning under parents’ supervision inefficient and ultimately, ineffective. This is the situation most families are enduring in The Gambia.
According to a local teacher, “the system the government implemented can only work effectively if all parents are educated and are directly participating in their children’s education.” The Gambia adult literacy rate was 50.78 percent in 2015 and not much has changed in the past five years. Most Gambian parents exclusively rely on teachers to deliver education to children, and with the current pandemic that situation has become impossible. Despite the lockdown, many students are out and about roaming the streets. Brikama Town, my neighborhood, is a good example of that, where kids are playing in the street or at nearby football fields, playing soccer.
Additionally, the school system primarily focuses on keeping students busy to avoid having them become involved in criminality and other societal vices. “We used Dara (Quranic schools) and the school system to keep our children busy, but since both are closed due to the coronavirus, we don’t have many alternative choices,” said Lamin Fadera, public health officer with the Ministry of Health.
One of the main reasons the Education Ministry went with the plan to teach on television is the realization that students are avid TV watchers. This approach has proven less effective than it could be. Lack of development in some areas, including the number of households without TV and electricity, has been a constant challenge and it fails to reach those families who are most in need. In urban areas, which are generally better equipped and have better access to electricity, they too suffer from a lack of appropriate technology, and students are quickly losing interest in learning. The effectiveness, usefulness and outreach of the teaching methods to support poor families in rural areas, where electricity is not available or not stable, is even more questionable. In a recent discussion with a parent I heard a hard truth: “When you cannot put enough food on the table for the family, do you think of buying a smartphone/laptop or internet? Absolutely not.”
While this is a challenging period for families, there are still some students—mostly in private schools—who continue to have access to quality education despite the ongoing health pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed the greatest weaknesses and inefficiencies in our education system, and it is a common challenge around the world—equity.
Equitable access to education is not something new. In fact, The Gambia has faced the same challenges for almost four decades, as have so many other nations. Aside from access and quality issues, if we are to move forward and innovate, school lessons need to be made relevant to students’ interests. Curricula must capture their imaginations and give them a reason to want to learn. Greater investment is needed in technology, the hiring and training of skilled teachers and the overall quality of the school system must be addressed if it is to prepare Gambian children for the future. If we do not take the opportunity to build back better now, when will we ever do so?