COVID-19 is not only a health crisis. In The Gambia, Schools were closed for almost a year. The closure of Gambian schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more than 674,000 learners remaining at home, According to The Gambia Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE). Many vulnerable families removed their girls and young women from school. Where these girls were allowed to pursue their education, they were the last to return to classes.
Almost all Senior and secondary schools and other higher learning institutions across the country moved their school lessons online to minimize the spread of the COVID-19. But with the lack of internet coverage in certain areas, most learners could not join the online classes as expected.
When schools finally reopened, The Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education began using innovative media platforms for children to have access to education while being at home.
The academic authorities encourage the use of a learning App known as iLEARNGambia. This online distance learning platform seeks to digitalize the school curriculum to ensure equitable and quality education for all in the country.
Education authorities struggle to keep track of learning.
The Communication Unit of the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE) created and developed it to allow students to learn anywhere at any time.
Fatoumatta Gaye, a Grade 12 Arts Student with St. Peter’s Technical Senior Secondary School, said that it was complicated for her to stay at home the whole day without school and fellow students when schools were closed. “It was boring at first, and at one point, it nearly affected me mentally and psychologically.“
She revealed that even though the closure affected some of her fellow students, she did not impact her performances. “I made sure I studied even harder during lockdown to maintain my good performance when schools finally reopened.“
The biggest worry was about the special needs for children who do not have access to media platforms at home, as often these children are left to play in the streets, which is extremely dangerous and unproductive.
At the launch of the iLearnGambia, Claudiana Cole, The Gambia’s minister of Basic and Secondary Education, said her ministry had a swift response to the situation and instituted an education emergency response team comprising diverse education stakeholders to find solutions and ensure that the closure of schools did not disrupt the children’s right to learn.
Mrs. Cole said the iLearnGambia is a digital platform that provides a safe, accessible, and centrally monitored system for teachers and administrators to uphold and host instructional materials, including tailor-made video lessons customized across grades and subjects to support distance learning for students.
The principal education officer at MoBSE, Kaddy Bah, said in Science and Technology Education, the authorities are vigorously making efforts to strengthen ICT integration in teaching and learning for the education policy 2016-2030.
She added that The directorate has designed and implemented numerous interventions geared towards promoting and improving the teaching and learning of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and English Language.
“Before the government decided to close down schools as a measure to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the directorate was already at an advanced stage in the use of technology in teaching and learning,” she disclosed.
The head of Communication at MoBSE, Emily Gomez, said that the iLearnGambia would have 600 topics of various subjects for learners to access.
“We have provided Radios and TV sets to various schools across the country to be able to access the app in various ways.” Added Mrs. Gomez.
Rohey, a teacher said she was often confronted with noise in attending online lectures because she lived with children in the house. “They are usually playing when l am attending class. This has affected me greatly because all I do is to mute my microphone all the time .”
Young female students became the most vulnerable.
Ellen Gomez-Bagaley is a school administrator at St. Peter’s Technical School. She said when schools were closed, few of their female learners got pregnant and were married off. “One of them has delivered off their babies and are back to school, but few of them did not come back.”
Mrs. Gomez now provides counseling and sanitary pads to all the 250 female learners in the school to keep them in school while on their menstruation.
Marie Mendy, one of St. Peter’s brightest students, was allegedly raped and killed by a man in Busumbala early this year during the school closure. The Marie was a Niece to Mrs. Gomez
She described the late Marie as a very ‘smart and collective’ girl who was always ready to learn new things.
“She used to go to school in Banjul because Banjul is very far from where she lives, and I wanted her safe. That’s why I transferred her to my school (St. Peters’) to monitor her performance and encourage her to work even harder, but her life was cut short just like that.” Added Mrs. Gomez
Ellen revealed that the late Marie was also very involved in all extracurricular activities in the school, and everyone in the school loves and adores her. “To this day, some of our students are yet to come to terms with her death because they were all close to her.”
Teen school pregnancy rises during the pandemic.
Rosemarie, a Brikama Upper and Senior Secondary teacher in the West Coast Region, said the officially known pregnancy cases among school girls students are much less than the actual real numbers.
“During this coronavirus pandemic, we did have a few of our girls impregnated. These are so many innocent girls,” she said.
She further reiterated that most of the cases were a result of defilement by close family members.
She added that about five of these girls are aged 14 years and below. “How can a 12-year-old girl become a mother?” she posed.
“All the people who have impregnated these children need to be arraigned, but it is becoming a challenge. We need special court sittings to address and deal with these cases,” she appealed.
She further blamed the parents and the ineffective justice system for the prevailing crisis. How many rape cases are still going on in our courts? She questioned.
“In most of these cases, we discovered that the victim children were taken from urban centers in the wake of Covid-19. Parents left them in the hands of their grandmothers in the countryside, as the parents returned to the cities.” She added
Nyimasata (not her real name) said she married an older man when school was closed. “I was lucky in the sense that the man I was married to was not living in the country at the time.”
She said she resolved to tell one of her female teachers about her situation, and the teacher was able to convince her parents that it should be ‘Education first before Marriage.’ “Eventually, my marriage was nullified a few months down the line.”
After reopening schools in the country, some female learners did not return to school because they were married off or felt pregnant. But the Gender Education Unit at the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education said they could not confirm how many girls were married off and became pregnant due to school closures.
“Yes, it may be true that quite some female learners did return to school because of those two reasons. My Unit will survey to be able to tell that .” Said Mustapha Drammeh, Technical Director, Gender Education Unit, MoBSE
Mr. Drammeh urges schools and teachers to report female learners who were married off and fell pregnant during school closure to MoBSE Gender Education Unit.
For girls across the globe, the impact of education loss during and even after COVID-19 closures is even more significant. According to Malala Fund, research estimates that 20 million girls in developing countries like Africa may never return to the classroom due to the pandemic.