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Education during & beyond COVID-19: Equity as Innovation

(Translation in Haitian Creole available here | Tradiksyon an kreyòl)

During the 2019–2020 school year, many schools in Haiti were closed for an average of six out of ten months, due to political unrest and now the current COVID-19 pandemic.

· “Did we lose this school year?” is a common question asked by students.
· “I am not sure I will survive months without salary,” shared several teachers, most of whom were struggling economically even before the pandemic.
· “I am scared,” said one member of our parent leadership program.
· “Who were they thinking about when they made that decision? Why must we expect so little for our schools and students?”

Teachers, parents, and school leaders have shared these thoughts and more since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Haiti on March 19. In the weeks since then, public and private efforts focused on public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Decision makers focused on hospitals, businesses, transportation, and financial ramifications of the pandemic. Schools in Haiti were announced closed as of March 20. The Ministry of Education has decided on a scenario to reopen schools during August 2020, issuing guidelines about health and safety requirements as well as social distancing. Questions remain about the feasibility of these important guidelines, due to limited access to supplies, the high number of students in most schools, and the economic precarity of schools especially in rural areas. Concerns also exist about teacher retention and student dropout rates in the aftermath of this pandemic.

As co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti (APA), I am honored to work alongside hundreds of Haitian teacher-leaders, community members, and team dedicated to co-building our nation’s first real public education system. At APA, we work with communities to create a network of civic leaders through long-term fellowship programs for teachers, parents, and school leaders. Together, we are building an equitable education system based on shared history, values, and vision because we believe in a culturally responsive approach to local capacity building. Since the closing of schools in March, education leaders across the public, private, and non-profit sectors worked to stay connected, continue teacher training (including helping teachers adapt to distance learning options), and explore tech or low-tech approaches to student learning while out of school. Some groups also served as a bridge between public health officials and families, raising awareness about COVID-19 especially in rural areas. But in the midst of good intentions, new ideas, and a “can do” spirit — one must stop and wonder: what are we really doing? How effective are we really?

The education system in Haiti is one of the strongest remaining vestiges of our colonial past. It reinforces much of the trauma and divisions within our communities. Approximately 90% of schools in Haiti are private institutions. When paired with low oversight, outdated instructional methodologies, weak infrastructure, and abysmally low teacher salaries, many school leaders and parents feel at a loss. Times of crisis shine an even brighter spotlight on the disjointed nature of our education system. These challenges are faced by countries around the world. During this global pandemic, we must ask: Who decides what students should receive even when schools are closed? How do we decide to reopen schools?

To address these challenges, our instinct may be to provide quick solutions. The need is undeniably urgent, especially with over 40 percent of the population in Haiti under 15 years old and only 41 percent of children successfully completing primary school (and 1 percent reaching university). Unfortunately, our efforts are rarely systemic nor sustainable. This pandemic has only aggravated the difficulties of our education system.

The good news:
This time we can get it right. Let us not wait until the next pandemic, the next natural disaster. This will be a missed opportunity if we resume activities as before. Or if we do not address why some students continued to learn while out of school, while others cannot. Why some students have continued access to their salaried teachers, while others do not. And more generally, why an investment in education systems — not supplies, not experiments, not short-term projects — is still not an urgent necessity. Fortunately, solutions already exist.

To seize this moment requires a different approach. First, let us define innovation as equity. The rush to create something new is not innovation. Equity must orient all efforts. We must prioritize talent in rural communities rather than assuming talent is isolated to the capital of Port-au-Prince. We must build roads and other infrastructure, rather than blaming inaccessibility. We need new systems. Otherwise, we are tinkering at the edges of an existing system that is destroying our genius, our potential, our power. Let us not keep rearranging the furniture in a house that is on fire. We must instead determine why the system is rigged, why it was designed to exclude — and then dismantle it. We know what core investments matter — including dignified jobs, safe housing, accessible healthcare, reliable access to electricity, and an ongoing investment in quality education for all. Imagine shifting how we operate in education based on an uncompromising set of principles oriented toward equity. Invest in people, communities, families, children. Investments that are not equity-centered are ultimately not innovative. Because even when we manage to succeed in some cases, islands of excellence will not survive if the system is still broken by design.

I am not a supporter of checklist activism, but perhaps it would be helpful to identify equity principles that guide all decisions. Some principles that guide our work at APA include:
· Radical inclusion: Constantly asking who is excluded, even unintentionally. Dedicating resources to attain radical inclusion. For instance, facilitating parent leadership and student input prior to making school-based decisions.
· Lived experience: Making sure we are always listening to and following community members with lived experience of the issues. They must also be at the decision-making table.
· Human-centered partnerships: Building community-based relationships that help redistribute power now and into the future. Establishing mutually transformative partnerships that lead to coalition building.
· Depth of change: There is no express lane toward systemic dismantling of oppression. At APA, we are scaling deep.

Secondly, the ends do not justify the means. During and after this pandemic, we must reject the underlying premise that we can run experiments in certain classrooms and communities — because the ends justify the means. For example, the idea that recruitment and ongoing leadership training of excellent teachers is too challenging for underserved communities across the global South. Therefore, the shortcut of packaged, scripted lessons is used instead, with word-for-word scripts for teachers to use each day. This approach is inconceivable in wealthier communities. Similarly, avoiding the work of identifying hyper-local solutions because an approach works in another country is inexcusable — particularly when shortcuts are based on not trusting people to lead the way forward in their own communities. We must reject the mediocrity and incremental improvements that are normalized for certain children, while others can expect excellence. We need systemic shifts in our thinking, and the outcomes we demand for our education system. We must radically raise the bar.

I am inspired every day by the hundreds of APA civic leaders and community neighbors, well on our way to becoming a movement of 50,000 civic leaders by 2025. Based on our focus on civic leadership, we reject the insidious beliefs of “not possible here” and “too radical” and “good enough.” I am inspired by the power of us.

Do we have the courage to take this opportunity to change the core paradigm of our work? Orienting all efforts toward equity and justice will literally determine if we can fight another pandemic in the future: It will determine if our economy regains its footing; if political unrest does not become the norm every few months; if we have a skilled workforce ready to compete in the global economy. Getting it right for a few isn’t the answer, because inequity will snowball. Educational equity is the war in which we are not mere casualties — rather, every single citizen is a soldier. Haitians are in the unique position of having shown the world what a people can do together in the fight for liberation. This time, we will do it with educational justice as the next cultural revolution.

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