Return to classrooms begins new phase of Panama’s recovery in education

By Giovanna Ferullo M.

Panama City, Feb 28 (EFE).- Two years after schools were closed in Panama due to the Covid-219 pandemic, some 950,000 students will return to their classrooms starting on March 7, thus beginning a phase of recovery in the educational system that will last more or less for the same amount of time as the pandemic has lasted, UNICEF said Monday.

“We had two years during which the majority of children and teenagers received long-distance classes and this did not compensate for the learning that can be provided through in-person education,” UNICEF education official in Panama Francisco Trejos told EFE.

He said that a World Bank study found that about “90 percent of the students who have received long-distance education have (received) poor learning.”

“The recovery of learning is going to take the same or more time than the pandemic has lasted. That is a reality, but we have to get started. The first step is for us to start with in-person classes all around the country,” Trejos said.

In 2020, classes were provided online in Panama, which came to be the country whose schools were closed the longest. Semi-present learning began in mid-2021, although many parents didn’t send their children to schools out of fear that they would become infected with Covid-19.

The UNICEF official noted that before the pandemic “Panama had big challenges with regard to the quality” of education. International and local tests “indicated that about 70 percent of the children were not managing to develop the minimum required competence” in reading and mathematics.

That is why the United Nations entity emphasized the need for a new focus, including a period of adaptation that would include prioritizing the basic skills like learning how to read.

During the school year that will start on March 7, classrooms “are going to be multigrade because they’re going to have students with different learning levels. It’s key that the evaluation be seen as a process and not as a test, above all so that those individual needs can be identified,” Trejos said.

The lack of social interaction over the past two years of long-distance or semi-present learning, in particular, has affected the younger children, because “it has an impact on the development of their socio-emotional abilities and in the development of their language ability, which is the basis for learning how to read. We have to see how we can recover that,” Trejos said.

UNICEF has information from different sources indicating that “teenagers have been very much affected” in this aspect of their mental health, the official said.

“The condensation of content. Practically, the Panamanian curriculum is overloaded and transferring all that to the virtual realm created pressure on teachers and students. Stress was created,” he added.

Also, one must not forget that school “is a protective environment, perhaps the only one that can provide to many children the chance to receive a school lunch, the support of a psycho-pedagogical department, to identify when there is abuse or mistreatment and (provide) access to vaccination programs,” he went on to say.

According to figures from the Education Ministry, some 950,000 students, more than 840,000 from the public sector and more than 113,000 from the private sector, will begin in-person classes between March 7-14.

Panamanian authorities in January began vaccinating children between the ages of 5-11 against Covid-19 to break down the barrier of fear among parents regarding sending their children to school where they might become infected.

“We know that starting with the beginning of the school year some infections could surge” but there is a series of measures and protocols in place to mitigate those events. “Educational activity must be a priority,” the UNICEF official said.

EFE gf/rrt/bp

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