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  • Writer's pictureAmrita Maharaj-Dube

Rebooting education in a pandemic

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Refurbished desktops give rural students a fighting chance

Mary (not her real name) has a son in Standard Five (Grade Five). When the virtual school term began in September, he logged on to class whenever Mary's thinly stretched funds allowed for data on her phone. To exacerbate her problem, when the connection fluctuates, so does her son's attention span. With the gruelling SEA examination (Secondary School Entrance Assessment) coming up next year, her anxiety deepens.

Mary is one of thirty-five persons who recently received a refurbished desktop, thanks to the tireless lobbying of Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporation Councillor for Longdenville/Talparo in Trinidad, Ryan Rampersad. During the early stages of this pandemic, I interviewed Ryan on a worsening food crisis faced by his constituents. Last week I followed up on this story, only to find a new gaping hole - access to online learning.

The pandemic has worsened inequalities across education, healthcare and the labour market. For the unemployed and minimum wage employees barely scraping by, poverty is becoming a permanent state of being. The ones who may have been spared the brunt of COVID-19 are those with stable or flexible jobs. They are also likely the ones with proper internet connectivity.

When the country's Ministry of Education announced that the new school term will run virtually, thousands of parents were scampering to find laptops, desktops, or tablets to keep education on the table. Suddenly, five-year-olds were being thrust into online classes via Zoom and Microsoft Teams; things reserved for adults. There was an outpouring of donations from Corporate T&T and ordinary citizens, giving disadvantaged students a fighting chance at learning. However, some were still left behind. For them, the comforts of a teacher, classmates, and school- sometimes the only place they'd receive meals, were all stripped. Their entire educational experience was reduced to printed text on paper; worksheets to be completed and returned to school every two weeks. Their circumstances robbed them of simple joys- watching friends giggle on Zoom or storytime with teachers. Ryan is now prioritizing equal access to education in his laundry list of responsibilities.

Thankfully, his colleague Ravi is a computer technician. Ravi's employer, Lasersave Ltd, has lots of used desktops and believe in Ryan's vision. They all team up to breathe new life into these old, discarded PCs. "With minimal purchases for new parts and peripherals, we get them back up and running. My electoral district is a predominantly rural community, and with a higher demand for online learning resources, this project was born."

Mary is grateful for Ryan's support, which enables her to leap over one hurdle. However, there are many more ahead. "We use our internet connection at home now, but I cannot always pay the bill. I am a single parent living with aged parents. My father is 76. My mother is 80 and has a pacemaker. They both need their pension money to cover medical expenses, which is often insufficient. My son's father has his own chronic health challenges. It's a tough place to be in."

Mary graduated with a Degree in Social Work in 2019 and is hoping to find a job in her field. She wants gainful employment over handouts. She is eager to use her academic skills to alleviate her family's financial woes.

Her story is not unique. Ryan says there are students still attending school in rubber slippers. Rare, but still a reality.

Funding for his "trash-to-treasure" project has been forthcoming, but he is appealing to corporate citizens to give whatever they can. "We collect funds from kind donors to purchase webcams for these desktops, new surge protectors, speakers, and often replace the power supply in the system units. The refurbishing cost for each computer is around $500 to $1000 TT."

Ryan has a close relationship with school principals in his district and keeps abreast of the needs of vulnerable students. "It's not always easy distributing these computers. We have to ensure that recipients have a Wi-Fi connection, cables and other infrastructural necessities. When we set up the machines, we install all the necessary apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Edmodo, and Pennacool. We also provide follow up servicing where needed. The hard truth is that many impoverished families often have challenges with printing the hard copy assignments they receive from school. We don't want any child being left behind. We are social beings and students really need to stay connected with their teachers and classmates. It creates a conducive environment for learning."

I interviewed the principal of a primary school in Ryan's constituency. He disclosed that in some families, one device must be shared among four children. Out of around 300 students in his school, about 50 are still challenged by online learning. Cognizant of these disadvantaged families, the school has scheduled classes at different time slots so that each child can have screen time. "We have students living in makeshift wooden houses. Students whose parents aren't really interested in this new mode of learning. Parents who are struggling but still make the effort to keep their children online. We try to reward those families who make the sacrifice. It's hard all around, but we have been receiving support from businesses." He also praises his academic team for going above and beyond. "I honestly cannot complain. They (teachers) are working day and night to make this happen."

Ryan knows of the importance of providing opportunities for students. During his own days at Queen's Royal College, he was almost certain that he would have been rejected from the Form Four (Grade Nine) IT class. "I simply did not have a computer at home. Out of 120 students, only 30 were accepted into the CXC class. I was, fortunately, one of them. The rest of my classmates were mostly from the West and they had access to computers; I was from Todds Road and had none. That's why I have such vested interest in this project. Access to education is just as important as a vaccine. There are many businesses that either have or know someone with a used computer. We do not need to expend a lot to bring about change to these impoverished students." He says that "one man's trash is another man's treasure. Tech is going to play an even bigger part in our children's future. We must prepare them for it, all of them."

If you wish to support Ryan's project, please contact him at 1-868- 379-2035 or reach out to him on Facebook.

(Photo- With a computer tower in hand, Ryan walks up the stairs of one of his constituent's home. He is determined to connect each child to online classrooms).

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