Reopening schools amid COVID-19

We can’t begin to imagine the nightmare that the island’s education authorities are having over the reopening of schools next month amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equally, we can understand the anxiety among parents, even as scientists studying the virus suggest that children appear to be at lower risk for contracting COVID-19, compared to adults.

Last week Dr Kasan Troupe, the acting chief education officer in the education ministry, told parents at a back-to-school virtual town hall meeting that 569 schools will resume full operations when the 2020/21 academic year commences in September, and some will operate normally.

“This means we will have everybody in the same space, every day, and observing the physical distancing. With the infrastructure that we have in place in these institutions they will be able to accommodate their fully enrolled students,” Dr Troupe is reported as saying.

In what she described as a blended learning approach, Dr Troupe said some schools “will establish temporary learning spaces, to include tents, rental agreements with nearby institutions, such as churches or places that have conference halls”.

She also said an additional 303 primary and secondary schools will resume operations under what is termed a rotation model, meaning that “some days students will operate in the virtual space from home, while others are at school”.

The schools that have opted for this approach, she said, are the very large high and primary schools, “because it would be very difficult to keep everybody in the same space and keep them safe at the same time”.

Dr Troupe also spoke of an extended day model, which will accommodate students going into classes from 8:00 am to 2:30 pm. Additionally, several high schools will be using the online modality for most of their engagements with grade 12 and 13 students.

It would be wise, we think, for the ministry and school administrators to engage in some sort of stress test of the these measures to limit confusion and possible chaos at the start of the new academic year. This is, after all, a new environment in which to function, and it will present challenges.

Great consideration must also be given to children with underlying medical conditions that place them at added risk.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness should also look at expanding its already excellent COVID-19 public education programme, giving special focus to schools and how students, teachers, other staff, and school gate vendors must behave to prevent spread of the virus.

As we have said, the thought of reopening schools is difficult, and with the island now seeing an increase in infections an argument can be made for a rethink of that decision.

Any such assessment, though, should take into account the short- and long-term implications of closed schools on the behavioural, emotional, and social health of students, as well as on their economic well-being and academic achievements.

Additionally, we should not ignore the fact that after the closure of schools in March many students lost out on classes because they do not have access to the Internet, thus highlighting the value of face-to-face educational instruction, especially for children from low-income households, as well as those living with disabilities.


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