THE PRIME Minister’s address to the nation on November 25 summarised the pandemic from the very beginning, walking us through details of the international as well as our own response to managing the covid19 virus. The PM went on to reference 13 countries across the globe, noting the strict measures put in place to safeguard their people, economies and schools.
TT boasts about following international best practice issued by WHO, PAHO and several other UN agencies, looking at what has and has not worked in other nations in order to guide informed decisions about what we should do. Why then have we not followed international best practice when it comes to managing schools and safeguarding education?
Prioritise primary schools and early childhood care centres
Despite the authorities’ obstinate insistence that upper secondary school students be the only ones allowed to attend school in person, best practice shows us that it should be the younger years at the top of the list. Children under five are at a key stage for critical brain development and formation of social and cognitive skills, all of which are crucial for a person’s academic and later economic success. The pre- and primary schools and the seemingly forgotten day care centres should be the very first to reopen.
In his address, the PM named four other Caribbean countries, including Barbados, which, after initially closing all schools in March 2020, reopened preschools in June and primary schools in September that year. January 2021 saw all schools closed again. However, after just a few weeks, preschools once again led the way with reopening.
Primary schools remained online for that term (January to March) but went back to in-person classes after Easter. Although this current term (September to December) has seen Barbados schools back online, it is critical to note that not only have Bajan preschools been open all along, but the government has put forward a clear plan for the resumption of in-person classes in January.
Preschools and Day Care centres are essential services
Barbados’s approach, much like that of a majority of countries, has been to prioritise in-person education as much as possible. In mid-2020, the government began training caretakers in the public and private sectors to safely reopen day care centres and preschools, understanding the key role that safe and reliable childcare plays in workforce participation.
When Barbados recently had a spike in cases, schools went back to online learning. However, the day care centres remained open with Prime Minister Mottley recognising the essential service they provide – looking after the children of essential workers.
Last to close and first to reopen
School closures have indeed been necessary as part of an overall strategy to manage covid19. However, during periods where TT’s case numbers were little to none, one wonders why schools were not at the top of the priority list for reopening. To ensure the covid19 crisis did not become a child rights crisis, UNICEF promoted the policy of “schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen when it is safe to do so.” In the larger countries such as the US, Australia and Canada, no city, state or territory has seen the prolonged closures that TT is experiencing.
Innovative approaches to ensuring maximum in-person school days
The government of Singapore took swift, co-ordinated action to manage schools from the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Out of a total 200 school days per year, Singapore enabled students to attend 150 days in person in 2020. To avoid loss of school days, a blended-learning model was integrated along with an adjusted holiday schedule. Is this kind of adaptability and resourcefulness too much to ask for TT?
Some countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, India and Brazil and several in Europe, have adopted localised approaches to managing schools. For example, by allowing schools in rural areas where case numbers are consistently low to reopen while other schools in centralised urban areas where case numbers may be rising to go online as needed. This can certainly be considered in TT, especially for schools with very small student populations and/or where internet connectivity is often inconsistent.
Cocid19 is here to stay; we must move forward
Covid19 is not going anywhere. There will be spikes and lulls in cases and we need to act accordingly, taking a proactive, informed and innovative approach to managing schools. I am not suggesting all school doors be flung open tomorrow in a vie-ki-vie manner and we send our children to fend for themselves in dramatic flair. A planned, informed reopening that pays attention to the specifics of each school needs to be rolled out and led by the Ministry of Education in close collaboration with the Ministry of Health, TTUTA, school principals and other stakeholders.
Factors including physical school size, school population size, number and size of classrooms and number of sinks or sanitisation areas need to be considered. This is not a mammoth task and can be accomplished with concerted effort in the right places.
UNICEF has reported that it is “the most vulnerable children who are the hardest hit by school closures, and we know from previous crises that the longer they are out of school, the less likely they are to return.” The poor turnout of students in Forms 4 to 6 (only 53 per cent as reported by the Ministry of Education in October 2021) is a furiously waving red flag.
We can reopen schools safely. The world has shown us that school closures have a marginal impact on controlling transmissions. We cannot afford to have our youngest children out of school for another term. Instead of making sweeping and misleading statements referencing international “best practices” in the regional and global education landscape, let us examine what has worked in other parts of the world and work together to ensure all students have the opportunity for in-person schooling in January.