After more than nine months of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, various educational institutions across the country fully reopened in January 2021 to allow for academic activities to continue.

While this allowed for the resumption of at least some form of face-to-face interactions between students and their teachers, the pandemic forced innovations that have gravely changed education in Ghana. As we mark a year of the devastating coronavirus, JoyNews’ Manuel Koranteng zooms in on Ghana’s educational system and how it’s been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

2019 was a year that put Ghana on the map. With an economy projected to be the fastest-growing in the world by the International Monetary Fund, governments Year of Return initiative did not only make the country the preferred investment destination that year but also drew tourists from all over the world to the shores of Ghana.

In December 2019, local beaches were packed, pubs overflowed with patrons and outdoor events, simply over-subscribed. With the launch of the Beyond the Return initiative, 2020 was to be an even bigger year. At least, that was the expectation.

Then just before the end of the first quarter of 2020, this happened.

“The Ministry of Health has confirmed two cases of Covid-19. The cases were confirmed on the 12th of March, that is today, 2020. And the first cases to be reported in Ghana,” Kwaku Agyeman-Manu, Health Minister.

This announcement on March 12, 2020, signalled the arrival of a virus, which, having been first found in China, was in to ravage every sector of Ghana’s economy, as it was doing with all of its other host countries.

First, the educational sector. Prof. Ebenezer Oduro Owusu is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, where one of the country’s first two cases was recorded.

“A few cases of Covid-19 have been identified in Ghana, including a case involving one of our non-resident students who returned… For those residents on campus, remain on campus as we go through the required protocols of contact tracing to avoid any spread to the immediate and large communities. Non-resident students are required to keep away from campus until further notice,” Professor Ebenezer Oduro Owusu, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana.

That was only a cue to what was to follow from the presidency.

“All universities, senior high schools and basic schools are in public and private schools will be closed Monday 16th of March 2020 till further notice,” President Akufo-Addo.

The next few weeks after this would see hostels vacated, classrooms abandoned and academic work totally grounded. About 8.5 million learners were affected in the closure of schools which resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 hours of learning time. Almost immediately, the search was on, for how to continue academic instructions remotely with students at home.

The result was Ghana Learning TV/radio and other virtual learning platforms which were adopted to keep students engaged momentarily. This was definitely not without operational challenges. Kofi Asare is Executive Director of Africa Education Watch.

“It looks like in urban areas like Accra for instance. The urban areas in Accra. When we’re collecting data in Ga AMA, pupils were not able to access Ghana Learning TV because there was very little tradition from parents even where TV access wasn’t an issue,” Kofi Asare, Executive Director of Africa Education Watch.

At the tertiary level, the online teaching and learning module was largely deployed in spite of initial opposition from students who were concerned about the inequitable distribution of internet resources across the country.

“It hasn’t been easy at all because I was having challenges online and I came here. It wouldn’t be very easy because I am coming from Accra and I’m a little bit okay with it. As in the IT system. But those coming from the villages who had admissions here would find it very difficult because they don’t know much about the system and how the school runs,” Student.

“It’s not all that easy for me because from SHS, we were not equipped to that online programme. So since we are doing it through online, it’s somehow difficult for me. I prefer this to the manual system. But due to the pandemic, how will we do it,” Student.

Even lecturers had challenges too. Dr. Samuel Nkumban is President of UTAG-Legon.

“It certainly has been challenging for some of our colleagues. We joke with them by referring to them as analogue professors in a digital era. However, the university computing system has been has been on hand to support us. Before school resumed, we had three weeks of training for all the lecturers on the use of the e-learning platforms. Those who took part certainly got acquainted with how to navigate around the online learning systems.

“In the case that the face-to-face contact with students gives you a better perception of how people are receiving the lecture. I mean somebody’s facial expression in class can give you an idea that this person is either not understanding or is understanding what you’re teaching. Unfortunately, that is what we are missing out on,” Dr Samuel Nkumban, President of UTAG Legon.

Soon the trending phrase became ‘the new normal’. Government, acting on science and data had allowed for a phased reopening of schools, starting with final year students who were due for their terminal exams. They will be provided with free facemasks and other PPE by government as they headed back for school for the task ahead.

Many things had changed. In the universities, lectures were being held virtually together with rituals like graduation ceremonies. For Ebo Daniel and other members of the UG Class of 2020, the pandemic stole too much.

“Well, I didn’t expect my final year to end this way or go as it did. When the pandemic came, we all thought it would last but for a few months as we’ve seen bird flu and other diseases do. But it turns out that it lasted longer than we expected. And for me as a final year student who has toiled for four years here at the university and expecting to graduate at the Great Hall and have a grand ceremony. Personally and a lot of friends that I know of we’re not happy about it,” Ebo Daniel, member of University of Ghana Class of 2020

But an initial assessment conducted by Africa Education Watch on the re-enrollment of students into schools revealed serious challenges at the pre-tertiary level.

“The greatest in pregnant re-enrolment when schools reopen after 10 months of closure is definitely going to be teenage pregnancy and then early marriage. Indeed, when we did our first research in August, in the school reopening process. Out of 200 schools that we sampled, there were 20 per cent of the schools that indicated that between 1 and 3 girls did not return to school,” Kofi Asare, Executive Director of Africa Education Watch.

Kofi Asare believes increased community sensitization will get more pregnant teens to return to school.

Meanwhile the GES is currently rolling out the Ghana Accountability for Learning Outcomes Project (GALOP) in basic schools to help students settle smoothly back into school.

This follows the full reopening of schools by the President on January 15, 2021. For now, laptops and mobile phones are replacing the conventional notepads and marker boards while zoom and Google Meet have become the new classrooms.

“I have lectures online with a lot of internet issues and having problems, especially if you have a problem with your laptop or your phone. It’s been very difficult adjusting to the online, I use my phone for the Zoom meetings. But if I want to check something on the internet, I use the school’s Wi-Fi,” Student. 

“Face-to-face is quite better. Some courses like this, it can’t be done online. The math courses and science-related courses cannot be done online. You need to see the lecturer face-to-face to be able to interact with the lecturer to be able to get more details,” Student. 

On the flip side, consistent and use of these gadgets has implications for the health of students. Clinical Psychologist, Father Anthony Afriyie Amponsah is a clinical Psychologist.

“We call something the blue light effect on the melatonin of the brain. The melatonin of the brain is the new transmitter that is responsible for your sleep-wake cycle. So most of these gadgets have blue light because combination of all lights is white.

“But a combination of all colours is black, but if you have the light coming from your phone, and most often it’s white light, it’s LED. And it has more of blue light. The more it goes unto your retina, it depletes the production of melatonin in your brain.

“So it disrupts your sleep-wake cycle and at the end of the day, young people are beginning to have effects and symptoms that appear to be depression, stress, and anxiety,” Anthony Afriyie Amponsah.

Indeed, there is no denying the fact that the pandemic has exposed major cracks of inequality in our educational system. But it also has provided an opportunity to make the right investments and provide support for growth.