The school reopening challenge

ON SATURDAY, Prime Minister Dr Rowley announced a further acceleration of the relaxation of restrictions and a schedule of relaxed measures beginning with the reopening of retail businesses and a resumption of public sector services subject to staff rotation. Over June, additional restrictions will be lifted as the country is guided to a complete return to the new normal.

All the measures introduced so far allow commerce to resume in controlled environments, but the larger issues of businesses which attract larger gatherings are still to be comprehensively addressed. The reopening of places of worship has been pushed to June 22 and the reopening of bars is not on the schedule yet and is expected in later phases of lifting restrictions when guidelines are clearer.

The staged implementation of these processes must guide and inform the largest strategic relaxation on the Government’s agenda, the reopening of schools, planned for September. The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education are collaborating on the planned reopening of schools and are being guided by the World Health Organization's published guidelines for schools during the covid19 pandemic. Those guidelines are extensive, and both ministries will be challenged by the existing reality of the school system in TT, which finds many of these institutions underfunded, understaffed and overpopulated.

Last week, Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram was cautiously confident about the handling of the cases that the public health sector has dealt with so far, noting that the country had gone more than 30 days without an identified case of infection. Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh’s early warnings about the challenges that are anticipated with the reopening of houses of worship, which are heavily populated by the elderly, are only one vector of concern.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are preschools and primary schools, where active, enthusiastic contact is the rule and remains difficult to imagine how controls will work in spaces that were overcrowded even before social distancing came into common conversation.

Primary schools and preschools as they are constituted locally are, unquestionably, a Petri dish for germs and viruses. Existing sanitary measures in schools will have to be amplified significantly, which will call for infrastructural changes that must be planned properly before schools reopen. Some private institutions are already having conversations about alternating student presence at schools, creating a three-day alternating cycle for students attending in person to enable suitable distancing in existing classroom spaces, with Saturday being pressed into service as a school day.

The need to be innovative in considering the needs of students and the challenges of education, particularly among younger students, will persist as this country continues to manage the spread of covid19.


"The school reopening challenge"

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