AFTER almost two hectic years outside the classroom, there is great concern that Government's relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions could jeopardise the 2021/2022 academic year.
Various players in education told the Jamaica Observer that they fear a spike in novel coronavirus cases by September, which could possibly force the country back into the dreaded virtual learning, with the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) calling for a review of the measures.
JTA president Jasford Gabriel told the Observer that the relaxation of measures has gone too far and could set back plans for a return to in-person teaching. Gabriel said that would be “most unfortunate” and could signal disaster for an already crippled education system.
“Considering, one, we have not sustained a positivity rate of below five per cent long enough, as recommended by the World Health Organisation. Two, illegal parties have continued throughout the pandemic anyway. The authorities have not demonstrated the capacity or capability to control these, and this should be clearly demonstrated before giving more latitude to this sector,” he lamented.
According to the JTA, the possibility of new variants, denial of vaccination for many teachers due to shortages, the propensity most school-aged students have for partying, and no signs of herd immunity are among the reasons the association is calling for a review of the relaxed measures.
“The stage seems to be set for a rerun of the 2020/2021 experience in our education sector. Our experience with the virus suggests that once there is a spike, it will take time, discipline and more severe measures to control. The Jamaica Teachers' Association is calling for a review of the measures with particular consideration for the education of our children who are precariously positioned at this point in our history.”
Janet, a mother of two primary school students, said the opening of several sectors suggests there is scant regard for education.
“All of us sacrificed to get to a point where cases and deaths are down. And we should sit back and watch people party and send them back up again? And then these same people will be outraged and saying that kids can't go to school because the virus is spreading. It is hypocritical, and our children have been suffering for too long. We are returning to normal now and by September, we are back in hell,” she argued.
Vanessa Webster, a teacher at Clan Clarthy High School, told the Observer she believes the adjustments to the protocols should've been in June.
She said: “As an educator, I am deeply concerned about the relaxed protocols put in place. With the aim of reopening schools in September, I strongly believe that with these relaxed measures, there is a high possibility that there will be a spike in September. My only suggestion now, since the measures are already out there to be relaxed come July 1, is that they could relax the measures for only a month. Then they'd have to re-tighten the measures to curtail the spike.”
“What I was thinking is that what the prime minister should've done was relax the measures from June so that the measures could be tightened again for August, so the numbers can go down in time and school can resume as planned,” Webster said.
Arlene Ashley, principal of Mahoe Hill Primary and Infant School, said she hopes all goes well so that a resumption of face-to-face classes can be facilitated in three months' time.
“I am very hopeful. I am looking forward for the reopening of school. I am in full gear for the reopening of school, and so I am not going to allow that to make me think otherwise. I really want to see my students back at school face-to-face and I am in the preparation mode for that.”
Ashley said connectivity and Internet issues have been plaguing the Broadgate, St Mary school, so virtual learning was not an option for the coming term.
“We still don't have any Internet. We still need that to be fixed. Even the other day when we were doing diagnostic tests, each teacher had to get data on their phone and provide hot spots for the students to complete the online tests. I want the face-to-face classes in September. I am very hopeful for that.”
In addition, Adriana Broderick, a lower-sixth form student at Ardenne High School, had similar concerns.
“Many students still do not take the coronavirus serious and tend to refrain from taking necessary precautions like hand sanitising when they touch public surfaces, and may contract the virus. I fear that if students don't take the necessary precautions, it will affect all of us in the upcoming school year,” she said.
Broderick described herself as a physical learner, and pointed to various challenges she experienced with virtual learning in the past academic year.
“Face-to-face classes are very beneficial for me, so even being aware of any cases that may arise during the school period, I would still attend school physically as my education is a big priority,” she added.
“Some subjects can't be taught virtually. For example, physics. It was really difficult for me as I had to teach myself in most of my subjects. Another challenge was Internet issues where either me or the teacher was unable to attend the class period. I am also a student that is easily distracted when not being interacted with. For instance, if the teacher is just explaining power point and not asking questions I will not be paying attention in the class.”
Kenneth Brooks, another parent, said: “It pains my heart knowing how far back my child has fallen. I don't lie when I say it pain my heart when I ask my son questions and he just stares back. Just a blank stare. He knows nothing! COVID has destroyed everything that was being built on in terms of education, and right after we have sacrificed so much it feels like we were slapped in the face.”
In the meantime, Raymond Treasure, principal of York Castle High School, said a surge in cases by September is possible. However, he said he understands and agrees the Government's decision.
“The bottom line is we can't keep the country on lockdown for so long. This has been going for some time and the prime minister really does not have a choice at this point. He has to open up somewhat. It is true that opening up the economy in this way may lead to a spike, and I guess that is why he would be pushing teachers, front-line workers and others to be vaccinated so that we have herd immunity.
“How much longer can we do this? The responsible thing is for us to encourage our people to get vaccinated. As teachers, we can look forward to our salary every month. But there are a lot of people who can't. So, it's easy for us to say keep it locked down. But there are a lot of people who can't. I couldn't join some of my colleagues and say that we must continue in a lockdown.”
The longer strict measures remain in place, Treasure said, the more people will die, not just from COVID but also crime.
“People are losing their jobs and becoming frustrated. So, if I were the leader of this country, I'd probably be doing the same thing in order to get people out. People are literally frustrated and want to be out there working and make a living,” Treasure said.
Shaheem Rouldson, a grade 11 student at Wolmer’s High School for Girls, fears that the opening up of the entertainment sector stands between her and in-person learning.
“I have concerns about the possible delay of face-to-face classes in September, due to the relaxed COVID-19 protocols. The entertainment industry is [opening], and across all social media platforms, many people are expressing their plans. These plans range from small community parties to stage shows. It is no secret that events are not strict with the necessary protocols such as the usage of masks, as has been seen on social media for the past months,” Rouldson stated.
“And so, it is safe to assume that there will be a spike with the virus. This spike will now intercept the plan to recommence face-to-face classes. Therefore, it will lead to more issues for future examination students.”