T&T Year In Review: Major adjustments in education as schools remain shuttered

The world’s education system is in crisis and as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on without an end date in sight, there have been calls for the reopening of schools as the evolution of this life-threatening virus continues to change daily.

According to a UNICEF release dated September 17, officials said over 77 million children worldwide had been away from school for 18 months—and had lost more than two trillion hours of in-person learning due to country-wide lockdowns resulting from COVID-19.

And as new variants continue to emerge, stifling hope that a new normal can be achieved, UNICEF wrote, “This generation of children and youth cannot afford any more disruptions to their education which is why we’re calling on governments to #ReopenSchools as soon as possible and get education back on track.”

Students return to the classroom

The decision by T&T’s Ministry of Education (MoE) to follow first world countries and allow the resumption of face-to-face classes for secondary school students in Forms Four to Six on October 4, was not done lightly.

Neither was the intent signalled by both Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly to have students in Forms One to Three join their peers in the classroom this past term.

During a media briefing on October 20, Gadsby-Dolly said, “Though we are forging ahead towards normalcy, we must be mindful that we are still operating in a pandemic, and all decisions must be contextualised by this reality.”

It is to be noted here that only vaccinated students were brought back out in the first instance on October 4.

The vaccination of minors in T&T between the ages of 12 to 18 years, began in August.

Following a two week analysis of daily attendance records from public and private secondary schools which confirmed low levels mostly within the public school system—the MoE ordered the unvaccinated cohort of students in Forms Four to Six, to return to the classroom from October 25.

Guided by the Ministry of Health (MoH) as this country is currently experiencing its third wave of the virus, the MoE was unable to move forward with the plan to bring lower form students back out as more than one dozen schools reported COVID-19 outbreaks between October 4 and December 10.

These outbreaks led to more than 100 students, teachers and auxiliary staff having to be quarantined after they either tested positive for the virus or was faced with potential exposure.

On October 8, a teacher at the Shiva Boys Hindu College tested positive for the virus, resulting in an unknown number of staff and students having to be quarantined.

On October 19, a second staff member at the Princes Town East Secondary School tested positive for the virus, which followed two weeks after a colleague contracted the COVID-19 virus.

On October 28, five cases were reported at Iere High School, leading to over 60 persons having to be quarantined.

On October 29, a parent of a student attending the Mason Hall Secondary School, Tobago tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the school having to temporarily close its doors.

On November 7, a teacher at the SAGHS tested positive, leading to nine students having to be quarantined.

On November 10, officials at SWAHA Hindu College denied teachers had tested positive and also refused to confirm students had been exposed—although the vice principal said several students had been quarantined out of an abundance of caution.

On November 11, a teacher at the Chaguanas North Secondary School tested positive for the virus, and potentially exposed over 30 pupils.

The global cost of school closures since the pandemic was declared in 2020—on students’ learning, their health, and their well-being has been devastating and it is no less so in T&T.

UNICEF wrote, “The repercussions for every child, their family, their community and their economy will be felt for years to come. Many children will never catch up.”

The international body claimed, “At least 1 in 3 schoolchildren had no access to remote learning during school closures.”

Lack of devices

hamper online learning

While some students have been able to access remote learning during school closures, many of them have struggled due to a lack of support.

UNICEF declared, “At least a third of the world’s schoolchildren had no access to remote learning at all.”

This was a challenge encountered in many countries including T&T, where approximately 63,369 students were without devices at the start of the pandemic in July 2020.

In April 2021, Gadsby-Dolly estimated this number had come down to 35,448—which included a mix of both primary and secondary school students.

The smooth administration of online classes was also disrupted due to a lack of internet connectivity, leading the MoE to purchase over 10,000 MiFi devices to be distributed to schools and students. The first phase of distribution of these devices began in September 2021.

Physical constraints

force innovation

Aware that a recommended return to the classroom for both primary and secondary school students would require an innovative and unique approach as many of the schools in T&T are old and unable to properly accommodate all students within the parameters of social distancing, the MoE proposed a hybrid system inclusive of two days of classroom teaching, with the remaining days online.

In a 57-page draft guideline document issued in August 2021 relating to the reopening of schools, the MoE recommended that

Standards Four and Five students in primary schools be allowed to return to the classroom during academic Term I which concluded on December 10.

They were intended to function simultaneously in the lower school, with the Forms Four to Six secondary school students performing in the upper school.

In March 2020, former Education Minister Anthony Garcia said a technical team from the MOE had been mandated to explore if and how physical reconfigurations at schools could be done to accommodate the safe return of students—the findings of which were included in the draft document.

Negative impact of schools closure

The prolonged closure of schools has had an adverse impact on the student population leading to increases in poor nutrition; anxiety/stress; suicidal thoughts; domestic violence; child labour; and a reduction in physical activity.

The negative impact on the adult population included higher rates of unemployment as some persons had to leave their jobs to become stay-at-home teachers after schools and daycares closed; higher rates of homelessness as some were unable to satisfy their rental obligations which in some instances, saw students dropping out of school to take up jobs to help pay the rent, buy food, pay utilities, and even care for their younger siblings so the parents could continue working; and the lack and access to a device and/or internet connectivity.

In May, Gadsby-Dolly confirmed that over 2,000 primary and secondary school students appeared to have dropped out of the education system since the pandemic began in March 2020.

In September, the minister said the ministries of National Security and Social Development had been drafted to help in locating these persons and addressing the cause of their absenteeism.

In October 2020, Secretary of the Association of Psychiatrists of T&T, Dr Varma Deyalsingh claimed suicide was now the second highest cause of death in children aged 15 to 29 in T&T.

At that time, his remarks were in sync with that of another medical professional attached to a public clinic in Port-of-Spain, who expressed alarm after an increase in “suicide intention” had been observed in many of the young people attending the facility which catered to persons on the lower end of the economic scale.

Back then, the anonymous official reported the pattern observed in youths over several months included aggressive behaviour and attitude changes; increased anxiety; schooling/educational difficulties; families where relatives remained incarcerated; and those whose relatives at home were substance abusers.

A third official who requested anonymity also reported then, “In my practice, I am seeing a lot of persons with sleep disturbances and eating disorders…these are all signs of depression manifesting itself physically.”

In his younger clients, he found children were behaving peevish or becoming extremely irritated quickly and refusing to calm down; displaying increased temper tantrums; and some had even stopped eating and sleeping; or were over-eating due to boredom; and a general reduction in the lack of exercise.

What will next term look like?

As teachers, students and parents waited anxiously to hear what academic Term II would look like as this third wave of COVID-19 infections continue, several denominational school boards said this might not be the right time to allow students in Forms One to Three back out, as they are still struggling to get a handle on ensuring Forms Four to Six can continue as is.

In an interview on November 26, acting secretary-general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS)k, Vijay Maharaj said the very concept of “social distancing and school are direct opposites to one another. It doesn’t exist, you cannot maintain it. It is impossible.”

Also on that date, Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Education Board, Sharon Mangroo said the recommendation to have Forms One to Three students join their Forms Four to Six peers in school at the start of the next year, she said, “Our recommendation is no.”

On December 22, the MoE announced it’s plans for Terms II and III.

The Education Ministry said all post-secondary and tertiary students will be allowed to attend physical classes for teaching and practicals from January 2022. 

All students of Forms 4-6 or equivalent will attend school physically for teaching classes, practicals and school-based assessments from January 3, 2022. 

Students of Forms 1-3 or equivalent will engage in remote learning in January 2022, allowing schools to plan for their return to physical attendance in February 2022, on a rotational basis. 

Primary schools will continue to operate remotely in Term II, except for Standard 5 students, who will attend school physically from February 2022. 

The SEA examination, the ministry said, will be held on March 31, 2022. It said having the exam later in the year results in challenges. 

The Education Ministry also said Early Childhood Care (ECCE) students, along with Standards 1-4 will resume physical attendance, on a rotational basis in April.

Parents were encouraged to vaccinate their children before they return to the classroom.

The Education Ministry cited a UNICEF report which said keeping schools closed for a long period was having a detrimental effect on the well-being of children. 

But it also assured that it had implemented measures in schools to maintain a safe environment.

These include the provision of sinks for handwashing throughout school compounds, free-standing and handheld temperature scanners, cleaning and sanitisation materials and the implementation of entry protocols.

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