After nine months of Covid-19-induced school closure, the over 8 million basic school students in Ghana will be returning to school on 18th January 2021, as announced by the Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Service.

The protracted school closure carries high social, emotional, and academic costs for these students returning to school, for which the schools will have to reposition themselves to meet the varied needs the students will come with.

These needs will include; learning loss, social-emotional needs, irregular school attendance, and dropout. Although these dynamics existed in pre-COVID-19 school, the depth and breadth of these challenges in this phase of school reopening require that schoolwork cannot be business as usual. They need a renewed commitment, recovery strategies, an effective evaluation and assessment approach, restorative practices, among others.

Even before the Covid-19 break, students’ learning level varies greatly with an existing widened learning gap among students in a class. However, the break has exacerbated this learning inequality further.

It is expected that when school reopens, most Ghanaian children will return with different levels of loss in knowledge and skills they have acquired prior to school closure. Disadvantaged children such as those from low-income homes and rural parts of the country are more likely to bear the brunt of the learning loss.

Hence, if schools attempt to teach all students at the same curriculum level, it will be non-productive for many learners. Diagnostic assessment will be the foundation for any lesson catch-up effort. Schools must start academic works by reviewing and assessing students’ learning needs to align instruction that ensures all students are learning at the right level. A diagnostic assessment will ensure schools are aware of vulnerable learners and any further assistance required to be directed.

In recovering learning loss, schools should be mindful that it does not necessarily mean students must cover everything they could not cover before school closure. Instead, they could adopt approaches like personalized instruction, differentiated teaching, enrichment experiences, or any focused strategies.

For instance, schools can identify from the core subjects, skills and knowledge that students need as the foundation upon which other lessons can be built, and focus on teaching those areas. Given the current development where students will be promoted to new classes when school resumes, having personalized instruction that focuses on the core subjects’ critical areas could be an idle catch-up option.

That will ensure students acquire the foundational skills and knowledge they need before beginning the lessons in their new class curriculum. That will require the collaboration of the two teachers from the learners’ previous and new classes.

An alternative approach is, instead of each school having its targeted instructions, the Ghana Education Service (GES) can adopt an accelerated curriculum that schools can run for recovering lessons in a short time before returning to the actual curriculum. In that case, GES will have to design simplified curricula targeting topic areas where learning loss will have the most impact on learners’ academic progression for implementation in a shortened timeframe.

Learners will, therefore, acquire an equivalent level of learning (based on lessons lost in their previous classes) before beginning their new class curriculum.

Another priority for schools should be meeting the learners’ psycho-social needs. Studies point that, for some learners, school is an important safety net that the closure of school over the period has disrupted. That has increased the violence, abuse, and maltreatment some learners experience at home. Others also are scared of returning to school, for which they need the reassurance of school safety.

Some will also need help to bond and reconnect with their colleagues and the school environment. Attending to learners’ psycho-social needs is a pertinent issue because there is a connection between students’ psycho-social health and their academic performance that the school must not lose sight of. Instead, they should put measures to address this need that some learners are coming with.

The starting point is to help learners recognize and respond to their emotions that eventually target their self-awareness and management, behavioural competence, re-engagement with the school community and academic works, and building back relationships.

Rightly connected to meeting the psycho-social needs of learners is the heightened need to promote a positive school climate where learners feel safe to remain and continue with their education. In schools where there are no plans to address bullying, corporal punishment, and any other form of physical, sexual and psychological violence, it is recommended that they establish the same to ensure child-friendly and violence-free environments.

That should be paramount to the school since some returning children would have least or no interest in school anymore, and a school environment that is not welcoming and supportive will be a risk factor for them to drop out. It is imperative to mention the need to promote Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in our schools toward facilitating a supportive and equitable learning environment for learners.

Undoubtedly, schools will record more instances of students exhibiting challenging behavior – from low level disruption to disrespects to school authorities and even substance abuse. Teachers will have to adjust their expectations to this, which I believe is the first call of meeting negative behavior that some learners will come with.

The next call is for schools to try to see some negative bahaviours that learners will exhibit as their (learners’) invitation for help because behavior communicates needs. The school has the responsibility of understanding the needs such students will communicate through their behavior, and through the collaboration of teachers and parental engagement, they can adopt appropriate interventions. Besides, this is the time for teachers to improve their behavior management skills.

It is also expected that some students may not return to school when it reopens. The schools’ work will once again, but more than ever, transcend only teaching to helping reintegrate learners that may not return. In cases where learners have lost interest in school because of the prolonged disengagement, programmes such as; aspiration interventions or arts participation could be strategies to get their interest back.

In the case where a parent did not allow the ward to return because of COVID-19 safety concerns, it is ideal for schools not to lose contact with those learners, but rather keep in touch and continue providing reassurance of school safety to the parents. For some girls, pregnancy will be their barrier. Once again, the school will need to be there for them and create a welcoming environment so that they are comfortable returning and staying in school.

As students return to school after such an unprecedented COVID-19-induced break, schools will have to appreciate that the kind of students they will be welcoming back are not the same students they parted company with nine months ago.

These are students returning with varied needs that are greater than what they had before school closure. For a student, all s/he needs is comfort, for another; safety, and for others, it could be a relationship, psycho-social help, or the need to reconnect with school or friends. Whatever the child’s need is, the school should be there for them.

The author, Divine Kpe is an educationist & Africa Education Watch Fellow.

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