Back to school!

Back to school!

Students at 17 institutions to resume face-to-face classes on trial basis

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, October 29, 2020

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AFTER two planned reopening of physical school structures were beaten back by the onslaught of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Government has decided to pilot the resumption of face-to-face classes with 17 institutions across nine parishes.

The pilot will run for two weeks — from November 9 to 20 — in 12 primary schools and five high schools in the parishes of Clarendon, Manchester, Portland, St Ann, St Elizabeth, St James, Westmoreland, St Thomas, and Trelawny. More than 5, 000 students are enrolled in the selected institutions.

The selected schools are yet to be named.

Education Minister Fayval Williams made the announcement last evening at an Office of the Prime Minister press conference, at which Prime Minister Andrew Holness said some administrators have been clamouring for the physical reopening of schools.

In the three weeks since the virtual reopening of school, the majority of institutions have reported less than 50 per cent attendance of students at online classes, as pupils and parents continue to face a range of challenges, Holness said.

The prime minister said the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the education system, pointing out that, “Already, we had an unequal system, and what is going to happen now is that the problem would be exacerbated... Many of them were not able to access the best education, now moving them from physical delivery to a virtual platform, again you see the inequalities.”

According to the education minister, the decision to resume face-to-face classes was informed by public health and other sound data on the risk profile for each school.

Seventy-three schools were assessed as having a low risk profile, based on several factors, she said, but the decision was made to start with 17 as a low-risk model.

“Focus will be placed on phasing the reopening of school for face-to-face teaching and learning based on there being active or non-active COVID cases in the first instance, the total profile of schools and their communities, and approval from the Ministry of Health and Wellness in terms of their physical inspection,” Williams explained.

She said the ministry considered the vulnerability scores for the communities in which the schools are sited, the number of students enrolled at the schools, their capacity compared to enrolment, Internet access and reliability, water supply, the distance students travel to school, and the number of communities through which students must traverse.

She pointed out that the COVID-19 crisis is a fluid situation, and that the circumstances can change at a moment's notice.

Minister Williams noted, too, that the current audiovisual approaches will still be available to all schools, but outlined a number of issues plaguing the virtual teaching approach, notwithstanding the other two modalities of printed learning kits and free-to-air broadcast of lessons.

These include lack of connectivity; devices and online etiquette; as well as lack of safety in instances in which children are left alone, as parents must work; and high electricity bills.

She stressed that attending physical school structures are an important part of life, as it is not just an environment for learning but for personal growth and development.

Holness made the point that: “The Government can't, overnight, solve this digital divide problem, even with the generous allocations that we are making towards the provision of tablets and computers... We have to move quickly to a solution where we can safely return children to the classroom. It is not something that we are proposing to do overnight, but to do it in a strategic, well-thought-out way, which protects teachers and the children and the parents, and prevent any exponential spike in our numbers.”

In the meantime, Williams said the education ministry will be working with parents to ensure that students are prepared for the face-to-face reopening, and will use the two weeks of the pilot to examine and address emerging issues.

She stressed that school administrators must exercise due care, and that all stakeholders must practise personal responsibility in adhering to the safety protocols.


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