ICampus kicked off the first of three COVID-19 Learning webinar discussions designed to engage citizens and stakeholders on the Corona Virus' impact on education, the media and access to information.
"The Short and Long-term Impact of COVID-19 on Liberia's Education Sector" was the focus of the first discussion aired on ICampus' Monitor TV on Facebook with support from USAID Liberia Accountability Voice Initiative (LAVI). The remaining two discussions on the media and access to information are planned for July.
Matthew Karley, Senior Program Manager of YOCEL (Youth Coalition for Education in Liberia), one of the partners in the More4Education campaign supported by USAID LAVI and Goto Cooper, executive director Educate the Future Liberia (ETF Liberia), discussed Monday's topic. Janet Kamara, of ICampus, moderated the discussion.
The panelists agreed that the government's plan to reopen schools in July amid the pandemic requires the collective efforts of government, civil society organizations, educators and students to keep schools healthy and safe for learning.
Karley and Cooper said the government can develop the best plan for the reopening of schools, but if resources are not allocated to implement the plan, schools will not be prepared to function in the midst of the increase of COVID-19 cases.
Karley said the government needs to take lessons from the systems developed to prepare schools to reopen after Ebola. For example, government and donors ensured that handwashing stations were posted at all schools after the Ebola crisis.
If the government intends to reopen schools, handwashing buckets must be posted at all schools in the country. Also, the government must seriously think about how it plans to enforce the compulsory wearing of masks and monitor physical distancing, Karley said.
"'What happens if parents cannot afford masks, will the government provide masks? Physical distancing will be a challenge," Karley said. "I think the approach is good, but with COVID-19 cases increasing, the government needs to redesign the strategy."
The Corona Virus pandemic has exacerbated Liberia's educational problems, he said. For three years, the More4Education Campaign has been working to increase the education budget to 20 percent. The campaign influenced the Legislature's decision to increase the education budget by about two percent, from 13.7 percent in 2017-2018 to 15.8 percent in 2019-2020.
As a signatory to the 2005 Dakar Protocol which requires governments to allocate 20 percent of their national budget to education, Liberia needs to comply with the 20 percent budget allocation requirement, Karley said.
"We are trying to hold the government accountable for the agreements they signed," he said. "We need to see how we can mitigate the challenges, the quality of teaching and learning outcomes. We want to ensure that the education funding will increase in the 2020-2021 budget."
Cooper, executive director of ETF Liberia, said COVID-19 has heightened the need for Liberia's schools to enter the digital age. Children in developing countries and some parts of Africa are learning at home on the internet, but Liberian students are far behind. Teachers, he said, need digital skills to operate in the classrooms.
The education by radio program has had little or no impact on students, said Cooper, whose organization monitored the program for three weeks. ETF Liberia's findings showed that most students in grades 9-12 did not have access to radio, he said.
"How do we expect these students to get back to school and focus on their schoolwork when they have been sitting home for months?" he asked. "Some teachers might not return to school. Students will be returning to schools with no teachers to teach them."
Before the COVID-19 lockdown, Cooper said his organization was tutoring students for the national exam. Students will not be fully prepared to take the national exam, he said. He reechoed Karley's point about the lack of resources to improve learning outcomes.
Education, he said, is one of the major pillars of the government's Pro-Poor Agenda, but it is not fully funded to have an impact.
"We need students to get back in the classroom, but the government needs to support the schools," Cooper said. "It is time to change the dynamics of education. Our students deserved better. We need to educate children not by documents, but with implementation."
Luther Jeke, Director of iCampus, said the Learning Webinar discussion will bring to the forefront the major challenges that have affected the proper functionality of key sectors of the social ecosystem in Liberia, including education and the mass media.
"We hope that policy actors and CSOs can strategize their approaches in implementing the sectoral interventions, during and after the coronavirus pandemic," he said.
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