A Back-to-School Season Like Never Before

With September in full swing, many of us find ourselves preparing for a school year like no other. Between filling backpacks with new notebooks and pencils, packing bottles of hand sanitizer, and ensuring kids have enough masks for the day, there are a few extra preparatory steps to consider this back-to-school season.

In North America, leaders, parents, and teachers anticipate navigating a new school environment and settling into a new routine to ensure all are safe and healthy, so that students are effectively learning. After months out of school, leaders are setting plans in place to instill a sense of normalcy and provide teachers with the necessary resources to ease this transition. Teachers are tackling the learning curve and working to inspire students in their learning. Students are adapting to a new classroom setting and beginning their learning journey once again.

While these are real challenges in the minority world, our friends in the majority world face both new and exacerbated barriers to quality education that threaten the learning of children, both today and in the future. According to the United Nations, “Closures of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 percent of the world’s student population, up to 99 percent in low and lower-middle income countries.”

Much of the progress that has been made towards Sustainable Development Goal 4—ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all—is at risk, not only for the current generation of students, but also for those to come.

With school closures, new challenges arise for students in their learning journey. Students face strange new barriers to their education as they navigate lessons independently and learn from home without the camaraderie of their classmates, the encouragement of their teachers, and the safety of a classroom. Moreover, the crisis has only widened pre-existing education challenges and disparities among the most vulnerable populations. Between reduced access to learning, a loss of school meals, the high potential of an increased dropout rate, and a widened education gap, the impact of this crisis is a major challenge to the advancement of quality education worldwide. Our friends in Rwanda are no strangers to this harsh reality.

Ensuring the safe reopening of Rwandan schools

Schools in Rwanda have been closed since mid-March. In the midst of an ever-changing and unpredictable pandemic, it is no surprise that there has continued to be uncertainty surrounding when schools can safely reopen. While Rwanda continues to work tirelessly to stop the spread of COVID-19, recent announcements indicate that more time is needed to prepare schools for reopening than the original goal of mid-September.

There are very practical challenges to the reopening of schools in Rwanda, such as high student-teacher ratios and crowded classrooms, the lack of running water in some schools, and high student dropout levels. However, the current investment in Rwanda’s educational infrastructure—the building of thousands of new classrooms, the recruitment and training of new teachers, and the efforts to increase access to water and sanitation—is laying the foundation for a safe and healthy return to school when the time comes.

When investment in educational infrastructure is coupled with a deep investment in the people who provide this education, there is no challenge that is insurmountable.

How is Wellspring responding?

Learning within the walls of Rwandan schools may have been on hold since March, but Wellspring’s work in the pursuit of quality education for students hasn’t stopped once.

Our work with schools usually consists of in-person training sessions with leaders, teachers, and parents to empower them to live out their unique roles in education. However, with schools closed, Wellspring’s Rwanda team had to innovate and find new ways to support each of these stakeholders. Our trainers developed workbooks, complete with activities and thought-provoking exercises, to help leaders, teachers, and parents support children during the pandemic, while also preparing for the reopening of schools.

In addition, with evidence showing that many children are unlikely to return to school following the long gap in their education, our team has been working hard to engage local communities in bringing children back to school once they reopen. Included in Wellspring’s workbooks is practical advice for teachers to reach into the school community to help ensure that students return to the classroom where they belong.

Thinking ahead to the reopening of schools, Wellspring responded to the request of the Rwandan government to support school leaders in the process of developing School Improvement Plans. In August, we began a series of socially distanced training sessions for school leaders in Gasabo and Rubavu districts—the first time we had conducted training in months––and the feedback from participants was very encouraging. Having an effective School Improvement Plan that is championed by school leaders means that teachers continuously strive to deepen their skills, classrooms develop into places of fun and engaging learning, and kids will receive the education they deserve for years to come. In a school year full of unique challenges, it is essential that head teachers feel confident and equipped to lead their schools and help bring students’ learning back on track after months of school closures.

Whenever the back-to-school season comes in Rwanda, Wellspring’s team will continue to support school leaders, teachers, parents, and students to ensure a successful transition. It’s vital that everyone involved feels encouraged and equipped to embark on a school year that is truly like no other. At Wellspring, we are privileged to play a part in journeying with these schools in every situation, no matter how challenging, and we will continue to stand with the children of Rwanda, ensuring that quality education remains front and centre no matter what the future holds.