Wet weather has always brought with it the anticipation of drier days. On rainy mornings I would watch the rainwater puddle while the sounds of the downpour hummed through the roof and walls. To dislodge the apprehension of being splashed while walking to school, I would visualise my mother singing “I can see clearly now” from the kitchen, while my sister and I settled around the table for breakfast. That would be a charm enough – the rain would ease, the runoff would lessen and the splashing would never come to pass.
This week, when the 2020-2021 academic year began, there was no such ritual for my sister to activate. When the rain eased, I excused myself from her virtual orientation, stepped through the door and drove slowly to work, doing my best not to splash anyone. The filtered hum of the rain settled inside the cabin, while I thought over the fate of the current batch of students. Reflexively, I hummed another of my mother’s favourite Johnny Nash songs – “There are more questions than answers.”
The educational experience for students has violently collapsed into a much narrower channel than any other academic year in their living memory. Some implications of this narrowing will be played out in the longer run, while others are more immediate.
To begin with, academics will have to be the primary consideration for students this year. As far as the eye can see, the year belongs to those who have the resources and wherewithal to secure the best grades possible. While academics never stopped being the lynchpin of the education system, being “involved” in non-academic activities opened many important doors for both students with above and below average academic performances. This is good news. There are many legitimate and valuable contributions which students make, and should be encouraged to make, outside of academics.
However, with the late start of the academic year, and as the list of viable non-academic activities narrows, it is likely that academic performance will be the dominant measure against which student are judged. This may hurt students who were previously active outside of academics, and will thus be depending totally on the weight of their academic purchase to secure scholarships, internships and other limited opportunities. Competitiveness may simultaneously increase if there is a larger pool of students performing at the highest possible standard.
Even so, structured non-academic student activity remains important. The Inter-Secondary Schools Association (ISSA) has rightly pointed out that such activities contribute to the physical, mental and psycho-social development of students (particularly sports, in their case). With doubt hanging over inter-school sporting seasons for this academic year, virtual, school-based co-curricular and extracurricular activities which can be accommodated virtually should be mobilised to help fill that vacuum. Students who desire to be constructively engaged in non-academic ways need room to establish a rhythm that resembles what they are used to.
For the athletes, among the options available are private training, and creating a reel which showcases individual skills and past match experience. This can go a far way in distinguishing oneself. Again though, it is not worth putting all eggs in this basket. With contracting budgets, scholarship opportunities for student athletes may dwindle until there is a clearer path forward.
At this time, student networks can be very valuable. Student leaders can still find opportunities leading initiatives which maintain support groups and student networks that keep the social aspect of school alive. This may encompass general discussion groups, tutoring arrangements, or even competitive e-gaming to replace popular activities such as afterschool scrimmage football. Performing and visual arts groups can take up weekly challenges and share their progress in mastering techniques, and skill sharing could become a popular student engagement, where willing students display their skills in an educational way to help others learn and develop similar skills.
Parents can also contribute through domesticating some activities. Physical playing and structured extra-academic development can be encouraged in homes with multiple children. Mini-projects can be conceptualized, timetabled and roles can be assigned, with the intention of filling vacuums of boredom and inactivity with constructive tasks that teach new skills, develop team synergy, and even go further to increase physical activity, strengthen the immune system, heart and lungs, and reduce stress – which are important for fighting off the COVID-19 virus.
Every period of life comes with its own challenges. This does not allay my concern that this may be a dysfunctional school year for many. Students will likely face increased academic pressure at a time when most will also be contending with dynamic learning environments, lack of access to reliable internet, sharing digital devices and the removal of important elements of their educational experience. Students must take their schoolwork very seriously to succeed this year, while everything must be done to ensure that relevant non-academic activities are identified and supported by parents, students, student leaders and school administrations. To secure the best outcomes, we will have to accept the reality of our times, but also take every opportunity to improve otherwise harsh experiences.
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