JTA welcomes resumption plan for schools

JTA welcomes resumption plan for schools

Institutions restart classes October 5 on virtual, electronic platforms

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS
Senior staff reporter
saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

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THE Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) says the Government has taken the only option it could at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic to formally reopen the school system on October 5, but instead of physical reopening as was initially being planned.

Education Minister Fayval Williams yesterday announced the measures intended to “return” students to the classroom without the risk of further spread of the virus, as feared by many parents, some of whom have vowed not to send their children back to school any time soon.

This is the second time the Government has been forced to abandon attempts to reopen schools in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says has had the most devastating effect on the education system in history.

JTA President Jasford Gabriel told the Jamaica Observer shortly after Williams's announcement at a Jamaica House press conference that, “We fully appreciate the challenge that the ministry is facing. There is no perfect fix as far as school opening is concerned but we really would have had serious concerns about any face-to-face in light of the kind of numbers we are seeing from COVID-19.”

He said that some progress has been made with virtual learning management in the education system since schools were forced to close on March 12, noting a UNICEF/Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) study which found that about 89 per cent of students have some level of Internet connectivity, and 65 per cent had intermittent access, while only 34 per cent had full access.

“So it (Internet access) was not disastrous...although we know some of them were left out of the loop. But there is no option that you can pick now [that is perfect]; we need to make use of all the options while we seek to get better control of the pandemic, and more importantly while the Government seeks to hold the communications providers to a higher level of accountability in terms of rolling out internet across the country,” he said.

Minister Williams stressed that the ministry had arrived at its decision to use a combination of approaches to effect the resumption of formal teaching and learning, after wide consultations involving all stakeholder groups.

Come October 5, students will remain at home, accessing lessons virtually through the ministry's online learning management system, free to air television, and radio. Williams advised that approximately 20,000 teachers have been trained in the use of the cloud-based learning management system.

She said said the ministry has also undertaken to provide printed material for students — particularly those without Internet access — along with their textbooks and worksheets at home and at agreed drop off points.

Gabriel said this mixed approach is a good investment in the education system which goes beyond the COVID-19 crisis. “It ensures that when we do open under more controlled conditions with the pandemic that schools can actually remain open for longer, and we can recover in terms of some of the damage that would have been done,” he said.

The JTA president, meanwhile, said some students students may still have been at a disadvantage in some regard even if the Government had decide to do physical reopening. “Even if it was going to be physical, we still would have a number of our students outside the loop because there are students who would have had to stay home; it is something that we must grapple with,” he stressed, adding that a number of teachers have throughout the crisis continued to go beyond the call of duty to keep students connected. “So with the online options we still would be able to reach more students than if we were to do the physical, because amongst some of those who would have had to stay home are students who would have had no issues in terms of connectivity anyway,” he stated.

Meanwhile, the education minister said the ministry is targeting approximately 240,000 students in grades four to six and 10 to 13 for distribution of devices, and that it has discussed reverse billing with telecommunications providers for access to its learning management system. This will see charges being made to the Government, and not the users of the platform.

Additionally, she said eLearning Jamaica has confirmed that all 25,000 teachers have been issued with tablets, and that the ministry will also be engaging community centres and churches to facilitate Internet connectivity to assist students. She also advised that the ministry will be paying for the cost of access to its learning management system for students with devices and connectivity.

The “Bring your own device” draft policy, she said, is now ready, which will enable the Government to assist students who are not on PATH to purchase their own devices. She said providers have already indicated that they are willing to provide payment plans to facilitate purchases.

The minister said distribution of textbooks to public schools has begun, and 20 per cent of books on the approved Government textbook list are now being procured in electronic format for secondary schools. In addition, she advised that the third tranche of regular grants totalling $1.4 billion has been disbursed to primary and secondary schools while regular grants for independent and special needs schools are to be disbursed next week.


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