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Reopening of schools for face-to-face teaching too risky

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

I am not aware of a single school administrator in the entire spectrum of the Jamaican education system who would not gleefully welcome a full-scale reopening of the school system for face-to-face instruction. But pandemic pedagogy has been teaching us many touch lessons about adaptation, resilience and making virtuous choices.

The United Nations rightfully described the novel coronavirus pandemic as fashioning “the largest disruption of education systems in history”, distressing nearly 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries. Some 94 per cent of the world's student population has been impacted and, in low- and middle-income countries, 99 per cent of students have been affected. What is important, though, and has been validated by Human Rights Watch, is that school closures caused by the pandemic have exacerbated previously existing educational inequality.

We are pivoting at an important point in history and a generation of young people has been stuck in a rut largely caused by the ravenous COVID-19 that has infected almost 31 million people around the world and has struck down nearly one million people in its wake.

Jamaica, while nowhere near the pinnacle of coronavirus infections, has been inching upwards on the world ranking of COVID-19 infections with over 5,000 cases and a daily increasing death toll. While the State has deployed well-defined policy protocols and resources to tackle this miserable pandemic, Jamaica has entered full-blown community spread six months after the first single case was reported.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information's press release issued Friday, September 18, 2020, titled 'Phased reopening of schools to be guided by risk ranking', is deeply bothersome and, in my considered view, sends an imprudent signal about administering public education in a time of crisis and could be at risk of flunking the test in managing pandemic pedagogy.

The ministry's plan appears to be hemmed on ranking communities, protocol readiness, state of infrastructure, adequacy of staff, and quality of Internet connectivity to the planned phased reopening of public schools.

While I heartily welcome the thrust of the newly installed minister, Fayval Williams, and her state minister, Robert Morgan, to crank up the state of readiness of the education system by setting up a task force of important educational stakeholders, this move to open for 'face to face' is dangerously risky and ill-advised at this time. I cannot fathom the impulsion to open for face-to-face instruction while many countries that were easing restriction have been brought to their knees by COVID-19 and have had to reimpose some degree of lockdown or containment strategy orders to slow down the spread of the dreaded virus.

For example, many school districts in the United States have decided to cancel face-to-face classes for the fall due to the risks imposed by the dreaded COVID-19. According to Inside Higher Ed, “As many reopening plans were finalised the coronavirus pandemic surged across the United States. North-eastern states, home to the first viral hot spots including New Jersey and New York, have largely quelled their worst outbreaks, but case counts have spiked in the southern and south-western states over the past month.”

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who superintends the largest school district in the United States which caters to about one million students at the middle and high school levels alone, himself has had to walk by plans for face-to-face teaching in September after school leaders barked back, concerned about the lack of health measures to protect teachers, students, and staff from the coronavirus.

On the east coast of the United States, cases have been swelling in California and realising new peaks in Colorado, Louisiana, Washington, and Wisconsin. Many colleges, too, that had planned to bring students back to campuses for the fall semester have reversed course entirely and chosen online-only instruction citing “new scientific evidence, as well as recent and troubling trends nationally and in Massachusetts”. Days later, Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts announced that it would not reopen for in-person instruction this fall. I cannot fathom the logic of opening the school system in the community spread phase of the pandemic with daily triple-digit increase in new cases and the number of deaths rising.

While I appreciate the science of using geographic information system (GIS) technology to evaluate schools in determining risk ranking, this approach in my view is patently misguided and is incongruent with the guidelines for reopening schools by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency was very clear that implementation of mitigation strategies for the safe reopening of schools must be guided by:

1. consistent and correct use of masks;

2. social distancing to the extent possible;

3. hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and disinfection; and, importantly,

4. contact tracing in collaboration with local health department.

What is the likelihood of exposing staff and students to moderate to high risk of transmission in schools if only few of these guidelines are consistently followed? Do we have adequate staff in the school system to effectively monitor mitigation strategies to ensure very low risk?

In the scheme of things and local cultural norms, how can we rely on GIS mapping of schools to determine risk when the very stakeholders being served are from the said community where COVID-19 has broken out of control. The reopening of schools for face-to-face instruction being promulgated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information has been silent on contact tracing as is provided for by the CDC guidelines.

Ridership on public transportation is vital to the public education system. Certainly mass transit is likely a very important gateway for the transmission of the highly contagious virus. The Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC), in the 2019/20 Public Bodies Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure, anticipated an increase in total passengers carried to approximately 53 million from an average daily bus run-out of 385 for the period, up from 49 million during the last fiscal year. But we are only assuming that people only use JUTC and the assumption is confined to the Kingston Metropolitan Transport Region. Thousands of our students traverse the snaking network of rural roadways, but many misguided and indiscipline people have themselves to be blamed for the spread of the virus by not wearing masks and social distancing. Social distancing on public transport is patently impossible, let alone for our students. We should not be tasking this risk, not least in the middle of a community spread.

We must protect our teachers in the pandemic.

Recently, I completed a special training course in Virtual Instructional leadership, underwritten by the Dr Tanesha Ingleton-led National College of Educational Leadership (NCEL). One of the biggest takeaways in Module 1 of that course was the emphasis on leading with care. Maslow Before Bloom, a psycho-educational concept that embraces the need for leading with care and compassion, and understanding the importance of basic need before emphasising the prominence of educational attainment and scholarship in a time of COVID-19. I beg the ministers to listen to voices of reason from those who lead and manage our schools. Leading with care means that our political leaders listen and make good judgements that protect citizens and stakeholders.

No doubt, the needs of our teachers and students must be met. The concerns about educational lag impacting our children are well noted, but that can be remedied by smart educational policies in the short to medium term. However, it is way too risky to expose our staff and students while the spread of the virus ravages our country and our economy.

The school system should only be conditioned for remote-led instruction come October 5, 2020 and for the remainder of the term, and explore some meaningful face-to-face strategies that will be feasible and workable for January 1, 2021. In Germany, for instance, school administrators have divided students into “cohorts” of several hundred students. Cohorts are prohibited from mixing with one another and teachers are assigned to specific cohorts. The goal of the model is to prevent entire student bodies from needing to quarantine in the case of an outbreak. We are not short on models that we can explore for face-to-face instruction. But we need to plan! But, for the time being, remote learning does not only include online instruction which is synchronous, but educational programmes can be tailored creatively and smartly to meet the needs of our learners while all stakeholders remain safe.

Schools should only be opened when the community spread of the novel coronavirus has dissipated with significantly reduced risks to all our stakeholders. Now is not the time to be fancy with GIS mapping technology, but instead pivot the focus on optimal remote instruction and community outreach teaching, smart use of radio and television and recorded teaching, the safest and most equitable way possible, while re-examining all risk factors that can inform a safe reopening for face-to-face instruction.


Darien G Henry, PQP, is principal of Cumberland High School in Portmore, St Catherine. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or .