Conversations with educators, parents, and students about the past year of missed school reminded me of my own education, interrupted by war in my home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in a refugee camp in Uganda. Seeing students graduating on Zoom last summer, unable to hug their friends and teachers, take photos, or have their families cheering their hard work was disappointing.
Even before the war, students often experienced a “dead year” away from school because their parents could not afford tuition, an ill parent needed someone to care for them, or labor was needed on the farm. Starting in 1990, rebel attacks closed most DR Congo schools for weeks or months. In 1996, I had finished my primary education and was looking forward to secondary school, but my excitement to graduate to long pants was short-lived. After rebels attacked my village, I did not return to school until 2000, when I was in a refugee camp in Uganda. More disappointment awaited me. I was pushed many years back to lower primary grades because of my inability to speak English. I felt overwhelmed and unable to understand my teachers. In addition, malaria kept me out of school for many weeks.
During the past year, the pandemic has disrupted education in the United States and around the world —1.5 billion students have been out of school. Students I work with have told me that they are bored and exhausted from studying online. Some asked about the effects of staying on the screen for long hours. With colleagues, we consulted doctors at Yale New Haven Hospital who told us that hours on the phone, computer, and TV screens have a huge impact on sight, sleep, and general body function. Teachers are also exhausted and miss their students.
Despite these setbacks, my experiences tell me that students will be just fine. We are fortunate to live in a country with structures —technology, well-trained teachers, libraries, and financial resources— to revamp the educational system as schools return to in-person learning. Now that we are accessing vaccines, the situation might start returning to normal. At least kids in the United States have had access to some form of learning.
When I was a young student in Congo, we had a class called “African Tradition.” At the end the school day, we took turns telling funny stories and riddles. One kid told a story about a man who was carrying a sack full of problems to the district authorities for help. On his way, he met a man pushing a bicycle burdened with three sacks of problems. The man with one sack felt pity and returned home to give the other man a chance to get his problems solved. On his way, the man with three sacks met a man driving a truck full of sacks of problems. The man with three sacks returned home because there was someone with many more problems.
It is human nature to be blinded by our own problems and to forget about what is going on around our neighborhood or the world. Yet it is also important to be happy with what we have because millions of people do not have what we have and pray for a better tomorrow. Look at the children and families on the Mexican border hoping for a better future. What about millions of refugee kids in camps with no access to education? We should think about these issues as we reflect on our own situation. Our students will just be fine.
A UNESCO report identifies some of the challenges and gaps created by the pandemic —poor nutrition, parents’ unpreparedness for distance and home learning, stress and confusion among teachers, and high dropout rates, among others. These are serious concerns, but young people are resilient and with hard work will no doubt achieve their goals. Still, students will need support from educators, parents, and community to move forward.
For me, spending years out of school, learning new languages, and adjusting to new education systems was overwhelming and traumatizing. I remember seeing failing scores on some of my exams and running to the toilet to cry. It is my hope that teachers will give students some time to adjust to in-person learning without feeling pressured and overwhelmed. Students’ mental health should be incorporated into learning, and schools should pay keen attention to each student and address mental health issues as they arise.
At least most of today’s students are not going to have to learn a new language or transition from one education system to another. The return to in-person learning might be challenging at the beginning, but I’m confident that students will do well.
Bahati Kanyamanza has been a refugee for more than 20 years and was resettled to the United States in 2016. He is an educator and activist in New Haven.