Saipan—The great Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In other words, having an education— a good kind— is the key for us to continuously advance in life and evolve as productive members of the community.
Right now, this is a huge challenge in the CNMI for reasons brought by about by force majeure, a virus, and men.
Two super typhoons hit the CNMI in recent years: Soudelor in August 2015 and Yutu in October 2018. Both left massive devastation to the islands putting everything on hold including schools.
After Soudelor, 50 Public School System buildings were damaged. Some schools resumed a month later while others resumed five months afterward, but only holding half-day classes while repairs in the schools are being done. After Yutu, a total of 3,400 students were displaced and schools did not reopen until three to four months later and also held half-day classes.
In March, CNMI schools were shut down for the rest of the school year due to the Covid-19 pandemic that shook the entire world. Only Distance Education Program will be taught through the remainder of the current school year. On April 15, hundreds of PSS teachers and employees were furloughed due to the lack of budget to pay their salaries amid a plummeting economy and reduced CNMI education budget.
Trying to collect money due them from the government— an annual budget of not less than 25 percent of the Commonwealth’s general revenue— PSS filed an injunction case against the CNMI government. A ping-pong of statements ensued. Gov. Ralph DLG Torres said that if PSS would insist on the injunction, the government would only be able to fund 75 percent of retirees’ pensions.
With all these pauses in a student’s life, PSS Food and Nutrition Program director Dale Roberts observes the timeline of education lost.
“When Soudelor happened in 2015, imagine a first grader basically missed half of the school year, which is a third of their instructional time. These first graders were in their third [grade] when Yutu hit and lost two-thirds of their instructional time. Today, they are now fifth graders and due to the virus and teachers being furloughed, they will miss literally more than half of the school year and overall, that is a huge amount of school time lost,” he said.
“Because of the circumstances, everyone in the system basically missed almost two years of instructional time… since PSS is strapped for cash every time a storm happens, we cannot offer a summer program to help and get some time of that back,” he added.
Marianas High School teacher Jeremy Rother said the effects of school closures will affect different students differently. “Students often experience regression in their educational attainment over summer break in a phenomenon, which educators refer to as the ‘summer slide.’ Extended periods of time without instruction inevitably produce effects similar to the summer slide and there's a lot of uncertainty about how pronounced those effects will be with current school closures.”
Rother said, “The virus has amplified the effects of socio-economic inequalities in all aspects of American society and student achievement will be no exception. The diversity of home environments during the school closures will reinforce and broaden the disparity between students whose parents and guardians are present, supportive, and actively involved in their education and students who receive less support in the home. A student's potential for success will be determined by several different variables such as their age, capacity for learning independently, and level of support at home. It won't impact students uniformly. Student outcomes already vary significantly, and that's going to continue.”
Another Marianas High School teacher, Dan Wollak, is concerned about how prepared CNMI students are for life after high school. “I really feel for them,” he said. “They have been through so much and missed so much school over the last few years. Not only are they missing out on their education, but just as importantly their social education with their peers—student trips, prom, high school sports, and graduation.”
“I fear for the students who will be going to college, trade schools, military or looking for jobs not fully prepared for what is next for them because of the lost time. I feel for those special education students who are missing out learning functional skills so they can live as independently as possible or the students who need school for guidance and to improve their self-esteem,” he added.
Roberts said that recently PSS released “Learning at Home” packets, which are a collection of enhancement materials in lieu of classroom instruction. “We were surprised with the large participation, as 80 to 90 percent of parents went to schools to pick up their child’s packet(s). I am hoping this summer, a program will be available for the students. If for no other reasons than at least for the students that you know are failing. These children are like free-range kids now.”
“If you can put something together and put the students in that catch-up time, good. But with the furlough and the issues with the budget I don’t know if we can,” he added.
In order to pay PSS teachers and employees to continue with services and programs, the CNMI Board of Education made known their intentions to borrow over $3 million from the Marianas Public Land Trust. At the CNMI Board of Education meeting held April 21, the vote to affirm a board resolution required by the MPLT to process the loan ended up in a deadlock. Board members Andrew Orsini and Phillip Mendiola-Long voted yes to approve the resolution, but Board Chair Janice Tenorio and Vice Chair Herman Atalig voted no, thus keeping the furlough of PSS personnel in place.
With the ongoing furlough and the lack of support from some PSS officials and the CNMI government, Wollak believes that students who need school as a support system are being let down. “There are still some students that will be able to catch up with school because they are extremely driven and come from families that really promote education and have strong support systems, but many will not.” Wollak continued, “Who knows what will happen with the next school year and if CNMI students will continue to fall behind in education?”
“As the world recovers from Covid-19 and schools open back up, I am not sure ours will. Or if they do, it will likely be with reduced hours, shortened school week, and extremely large class sizes, which will cause them to fall farther behind,” he added.
On April 22, the CNMI Board of Education convened and this time, all board members voted to approve the resolution and borrow the money from MPLT.
As calamities, the lack of budget or foresight, the ping-pong game of statements, and roller-coaster policy rides continue to plague the CNMI educational system, what lesson does this send to the children, and those who will someday be our leaders?
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