BUT, BSTU agree to Feb 21 restart of classes

The two main teachers’ unions have welcomed the phased return to face-to-face classes starting next week but have taken contrasting positions on some educators being permitted to resume instructions at a later date.

On Tuesday, Minister of Education Kay McConney told a press conference that schools will resume physical classes on a phased basis, beginning February 21, including flexible accommodation for certain teachers.

During that same conference, Chief Education Officer Dr Ramona Archer-Bradshaw explained how that flexibility would work, as she declared that the Ministry of Education values teachers and principals.

“The Ministry of Education has done all that it can do up to this point to ensure that the plant is safe. However, we have come to understand, through discussion with the unions, that there are some members who are not quite comfortable with the return to school on the 21st.

“Because we have an understanding of this pandemic and the morbid sensitivities that persons may have on returning to school, we have allowed for flexibility with regard to the return of some classes, or maybe some cohorts, on the 21st February, 2022,” she said, adding that this would not hinder those who are ready to return on that date.

Commending the teachers for their hard work and dedication to duty over the past two years and having considered their concerns, Archer-Bradshaw announced that those sceptical about resuming face-to-face instruction on the set date, for safety reasons, would be given a one-week hiatus to “settle themselves to return at a later date”.

But newly-elected president of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT) Rudy Lovell expressed reservations about having some teachers start in-person teaching on February 21 and others the following week.

“Essentially, one can say being delayed with the option being given to some teachers who are not comfortable to return. But on the other hand, you cannot have teachers given an option to return when they feel comfortable and still expect the schools to function efficiently,” Lovell, who had called for a two-week delay to the start of classes, told Barbados TODAY.

However, he has given the assurance that BUT members will turn up for duty and hope for the best.

“The Barbados Union of Teachers is hoping for a safe return to face-to-face classes and we will monitor the situation as things progress,” he said.

“We would not want a situation where schools would have to close for any given reason. We are hoping for the best and that our members and our students can feel comfortable in the surroundings that they will be occupying.”

President of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union (BSTU) Mary Redman embraced the phased return to the physical classroom and the flexible arrangements for its members who have been pushing for a delay to the recommencement of face-to-face classes due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, particularly among those of school age.

“The BSTU is satisfied with the provisions for the phased return to face-to-face instruction and the flexibility allowed for the timing of the return to school by its members and the phased nature of the return of students,” she told Barbados TODAY.

“This agreement between the two entities came about after hours of vigorous negotiations between the BSTU and ministry officials. The BSTU reconsidered the two-week delay based on the provisions put in place by the ministry, which the union had recommended.”

Redman acknowledged that the Ministry of Education was willing to accommodate the call for attention to be given to the mental health of teachers.

“There was concession and accommodation on both sides, that augurs well for the building of goodwill and trust necessary to overcome the novel and profound challenges facing us in these times of COVID,” the union leader declared.

She observed that the ministry had implemented many of the BSTU’s recommendations, such as the random testing and safety monitors at secondary schools.

“They have increased the support staff, the people who will sanitise and keep the schools clean, they have spoken to the Transport Board to see how best they can monitor and regulate the children’s use of public transport, and they have put things in place for the isolation of students who may be sick at school. Those were some of the things that we have been asking for that they have paid attention to,” Redman disclosed.

Earlier in the press conference, the Minister of Education traced the level of dialogue which has taken place with all the stakeholders to reach the point where a phased return to school could be achieved.

She said during discussions with all the unions, “there were a number of concerns that were raised, and the ministry has at every turn sought to respond”.

“There was the question as it relates to random testing and we have assured them, through the Ministry of Health and Wellness, that we will ensure that there is random testing once the resources are available,” McConney said.

She said the unions had also expressed concerns about the provision of masks for their members.

“The ministry has committed, along with our…international partners who have assisted in providing masks in the past, who have agreed that they will continue to work with us so that we can ensure that all schools are provided with extra masks,” she pointed out.

“So, the ministry has committed that we will make masks available at all schools for those persons who need them; and where, through our own investment or through the contributions of our partners, we are able to secure additional masks we will make sure that they are made available to the teachers and the students and the staff to the extent that we can do so.”

As for concerns regarding physical distancing in schools, the Education Minister said those have been settled by the Ministry of Health and Wellness which gives guidance on those protocols.

She disclosed that her ministry had taken into consideration all the issues related to the resumption of face-to-face teaching and proposals submitted by those who felt a longer time was needed and others who believed class should restart immediately.

“And all of those perspectives have to be taken onboard, and that is the reason why we will officially go back on the 21st,” Minister McConney said.

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