New JTA president-elect concerned about teachers’ safety

NEW president-elect of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) Winston Smith has expressed concern for the safety of teachers as the country continues to record new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), especially since more schools were approved this week by the Ministry of Education to resume face-to-face classes.

“We have a conundrum because the safety and security of our teachers are of paramount importance to us. We are not sure we want to have our teachers being exposed to COVID-19, traversing the length and breadth of Jamaica to get to and from work,” Smith told the Jamaica Observer yesterday after his confirmation as president-elect for the 2020/2021 period, at a special general council meeting at JTA headquarters, downtown Kingston.

“We understand that the ministry expects us to do the duty of care in educating our children. But it has to be done in a manner that will allow for the safety of all concerned,” he added.

Smith stressed that he would be working with current JTA President Jasford Gabriel to continue talks with the Ministry of Education on matters relating to the country’s response to the impact of the pandemic on the education sector.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Fayval Williams announced in Parliament that 22 of the additional 125 pilot schools have already resumed face-to-face classes, having been approved to start on December 7 through to December 18.

Williams said the Government made the decision after a satisfactory completion of the pilot reopening of 17 schools, across nine parishes, in November.

Schools selected for the pilot programme are institutions that have been deemed low risk and compliant with COVID-19 safety measures.

However, Smith was adamant that even with COVID-19 compliance at the approved schools, consideration must also be given to areas outside of the institution where teachers and students have to traverse.

“I’m not saying that having students return to face to face is not a good thing. What I am saying is that if the Ministry of Health says it is okay, it means that the physical school is okay. But then we have the challenge of how then do we get to school.

“The teachers and the children have to move around to get to and from the institution. So whereas the institution is safe, having passed the test from the Ministry of Health, my concern is what about the extended areas from which they come?” said Smith, adding that, while he supports the approach of face-to-face learning, teachers must first be reassured of their safety and that of their students in and outside of the classroom.

He said that teachers at the Golden Spring Primary School in St Andrew, where he is principal, have expressed their desire to have face-to-face classes. But with infrastructural challenges at the school exacerbated by the pandemic, Smith said face-to-face classes will not be feasible until those issues are resolved.

“I am in full support of face-to-face learning if checks and balances are done and we have the reassurance that it is safe. My teachers have asked if they can have face to face, but the reality is that it is not safe at this time for it to happen. My school, for one, needs some infrastructural changes and improvement. The ministry has promised to fix those things before we can take back the children,” Smith said.

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