SEVERAL hundred parents and children dotted themselves around Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain, displaying placards expressing their frustration at the ongoing closure of the nation's schools owing to the covid19 pandemic (except for forms 4-6 allowed back to secondary school.)
The placards read: "Free our children," "Remote learning is not education," "Mental health crisis" and "600 days and counting."
Newsday met Lara Littlepage, of Open Schools TT, protesting outside Whitehall, the seat of the Office of the Prime Minister.
She told Newsday the group was founded in September when it had become clear that most schools would not yet reopen.
"I think parents at that stage realised we had had enough, particularly because the economy was opening back up, we had to go back to work so what were we to do with these children who were home. Originally we were waiting on vaccines, but now vaccines are here so what are we waiting for?"
Littlepage said there was nothing else to wait on.
"The pandemic is here to stay. Covid19 is here to stay. We are not asking for irresponsibility in reopening the schools.
"We are asking that a plan be shared, particularly for daycares, pre-primary and primary schools. Right now we've been told no information on when they will be coming back out and it is a very big concern."
She said global child advocate groups have attested that much development takes place before age eight – cognitive development, self-esteem, self-confidence, working together "and many things you can't do online." Littlepage said, "So we've been very concerned nobody is addressing those issues."
She said the school closure was also tough on adults, as often mothers worked and both parents but without any schools or daycares to care for their children.
"Parents are really struggling to balance both. Children and parents are suffering mentally. The exhaustion...
"I'm a teacher as well as a parent and I say that I just can't do this any more.
"What happens is that somebody is suffering. Either I have to take a mental health break from my students or I tell my kids that we'll do the next assignment because right now everybody is tired."
Littlepage said it has been very hard on children. "It has been hard for them to stay engaged with online schooling. They are not able to do sports or see friends. It's been tough. We have a lot more depression, cutting, pulling out hair."
She said doctors were now seeing children not for physical sickness but mental illness, saying this was disheartening.
"And you have the big inequities in online teaching. You have some of us whose kids have somebody teaching them three-four hours per day, but some kids are not getting any teaching at all. They may get a worksheet or something at the end of the week.
"Six hundred days later, that creates a divide. What do we do when we have such high drop-out rate at forms four and five? What are we doing with these hundreds of thousands of kids who are unemployable because they don't even have five CXC passes?"
Littlepage said fallout from school closures was now and in the future.
"I don't think parents have had a seat at the table and have not got a chance to say their piece."
Littlepage said two years of being told to fear the virus has institutionalised people to stay home as their new normal.
"We believe schools could open safely, whether or not students are vaccinated.You would follow the same protocols you follow when you go to a grocery or to a mall. We are asking school reopen where people will still be able to social distance and wear a mask, and have ventilation. We are not asking for classes to be filled up with 35 people.
"It'll have to be a rotation system, a phased system. We did the first phase with forms four-six for two months, but from the press release from the stakeholders' meeting last Friday, it seems like we are sticking there."
Newsday asked about the high death/infection rates in the past ten days. Littlepage replied that a child's death last week had hit hard.
"With parents working and the economy opening up, I don't know if kids are at any more risk being at home than at school, as parents are bringing home the virus anyway."
Littlepage hoped schools could be opened safely, to look after children's education and mental health.
"We are the only country in the world now that has never opened primary schools through the pandemic. Kuwait, Philippines and Venezuela were with us up to September, but then they opened their primary schools."