Principals back Fayval
Most agree to cutback of face-to-face classes but concerned about children who could be left behindThursday, February 25, 2021
BY KASEY WILLIAMS
MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Education Minister Fayval Williams' announcement yesterday of an immediate end to face-to-face classes for students in lower grades in primary and secondary schools has received support from a number of principals.
Addressing a post-Cabinet media briefing Williams said that, effective immediately, only students who are to sit exit external exams are to be allowed in schools for face-to-face classes as the country continues to grapple with the brutal effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“For schools that are operating in the face-to-face mode we have made an adjustment, and we have directed that those schools in the face-to-face mode only have students from grade six, which is the exit for our primary schools and students in grades 11, 12 and 13 in our secondary schools,” said Williams.
“All other students will stay at home and utilise the online learning platform or the audiovisual approach, which will be watching the lessons on television [and] listening to lessons on radio, and we do have a national schedule published to inform all our students and parents as to what time these lessons will be on,” added Williams.
The education ministry later clarified to the Jamaica Observer that this did not apply to private schools, whose administrators would make individual decisions.
This sparked a host of calls to the Observer from parents questioning the differentiation.
“Is it that COVID will only impact students in public schools? What is good for one should go for all,” said one parent who has two children in the lower grades of a popular Corporate Area private school.
“When schools were closed last year the ministry said it was for all schools, and when face-to-face resumed last November the ministry spoke to all schools, so why the difference this time around?” the parent asked.
Another parent questioned the suddenness of the decision. He said he had just resumed going into office now that his young children had face-to-face classes and would have to suddenly resume working from home.
“What would have happened to cause this announcement today [yesterday]? The number of cases has been going up since last week, so why this announcement could not have been made on Friday?” argued the obviously angry father.
In justifying the decision yesterday, Williams told journalists that she had communicated the change earlier during a joint meeting of the E-COVID-19 Task Force and principals of the schools approved.
“Our risk-based model that has guided us in our process continues to be used. We continue to input new data that we receive into the model, and as we analyse the data, and as we go along, we cannot ignore the caution lights that we are seeing from this data.
“And so there has been a discussion with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, there has been a discussion at the Cabinet level, and so this morning [yesterday] we called together our major stakeholders in the sector... to give them an update as to what we are seeing in our schools from a global perspective,” added Williams.
She said more than 400 schools have been approved for face-to-face classes so far, but only about 300 actually opened their doors.
According to Williams, the administrators of the schools are the ones who decide if they want to resume face-to-face classes, and they make the decision to close their doors based on the circumstances they face.
The education minister told the briefing that since the resumption of face-to-face classes 47 students have tested positive for COVID-19, while there have been six suspected cases. In addition, 23 members of staff at schools have tested positive for the virus with 18 suspected cases.
Williams said, as of February 21, a total of 41 schools would have reported confirmed or suspected cases of the virus.
In the meantime, some school leaders welcomed the announcement by the education minister.
Principal of May Day High School in Manchester, Stanford Davis, said even before the announcement, only upper-school students were being facilitated for physical classes at his school due to ongoing construction.
“...Only fifth and sixth-formers I have at my school, and I have to rotate them, but I have a special circumstance in that construction is going on, so I have a number of classrooms that are out of commission,” he explained.
The students, he said, have been divided into two groups with a high number of them turning up for face-to-face classes.
However, he is concerned that although lower school students will no longer be attending face-to-face classes they have not received assistance in terms of digital devices similar to that given to upper-school students on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH).
“My major concern is those who are not getting online… and the fact that the laptops that the Government is giving for PATH students is for the upper-school students and they are the ones who are allowed to come to school. They are getting double, while the lower-school [students] are getting nothing,” he said.
Black River High School Principal Christopher Romans endorsed the ministry's decision.
“We have to support it because of the cases and the level of infection as it relates to COVID-19 and the likelihood of students and teachers coming in contact. I understand it is necessary to reduce the numbers,” he said.
“I also know that face-to-face for some of the students is really the only option that is available, so we know that some students will again be disadvantaged based on the inequities that are currently in the system. It is one of the minimum things that they can do at this time to say that they are responding to the present concerns,” he added.
He said almost 75 per cent of students would have been attending face-to-face classes.
“We have chosen to offer both online and face-to-face [classes] because a student may be able to access the Internet with a cellphone, but they may not be able to use that phone to do an exam,” he said.
Holland Primary School Principal Simone Doctor said her school has remained online for all students.
“Given what is happening with the spike in cases, that is the best decision so far…There is a high risk in the schools. It is a wise decision at this time and given the situation with the hospitals being overcrowded now,” she said.
“Our health system cannot manage, so this is an action that we welcome from the ministry at this time,” she added.
Plagued by connectivity issues in rural St Mary, principal of Mahoe Hill Primary and Infant School Arlene Ashley has been working to get her school of 50 students approved for face-to-face learning for some time. Though the education ministry's decision renders her plan void, she said she supports it.
“I don't have a problem. Whatever they say, I am willing to work with that. I am not disappointed because you have to think about the students' safety. I really wouldn't want anything to happen to my staff or the students. I am just waiting on COVID to go away.”
Likewise, Ardenne High School Principal Nadine Molloy, one the most vocal educators who championed the return of face-to-face learning, said the recent COVID-19 statistics pushed her to rethink her position.
“When I looked at the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Jamaica, it gave me a reason to pause and to consider if it would be a good thing to have more, rather than less students on the campus. So, what I did after consultation with the staff and consultation with our parents, via a Google Forms survey, we came out with the decision to have the exam students in a blended format for the next week,” said Molloy.
In Spanish Town, St Catherine, Jonathan Grant High School is also on board. Principal Dr O'Neil Ankle revealed that he has never really pushed for face-to-face learning.
“If you ask me, the ministry is trying its best to help the situation. It is what it is as of right now… I don't know if it will get better. I'm not one of those principals who was calling for full-scale reopening of schools. Spanish Town is a hotbed for the virus right now. We're still online from October.
“It is smooth sailing for those who are on. The data is showing that we are reaching a maximum of 65 per cent of the students online. We provide academic content packages for those who are not online, and that means that we reach another five to 10 per cent. We're really trying our best,” Ankle said.
Principal of Cumberland High School Darien Henry described the decision as bittersweet.
“Under the circumstances, it's the best that can actually happen at this point in time. My worry, though, is what is happening particularly with grade seven students who are really falling behind. At my school, in particular, we have seen the significant effects of the learning loss. That is what worries me,” he said.
“A lot of us were very anxious to get our children back in the in-person kind of learning, because that is the best kind of experiential learning. But, truth be told, you're trying to balance educating people's children with trying to prevent the spread of a virus.”
– Arthur Hall and Romardo Lyons contributed to this story
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