By Kadeem Joseph
Two days after scores of disgruntled protestors picketed the Ministry of Education, the Cabinet has announced that both vaccinated and unvaccinated students in public and private schools will be allowed to return to face-to-face learning as of Monday.
Cabinet spokesperson Melford Nicholas announced the relaxation of the government’s vaccine mandate for schoolchildren during Thursday’s post-Cabinet press briefing.
He explained that “more than 80 percent” of eligible students have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
“So far, we are tracking that, of an approximate population of about 7,200 eligible students in the secondary school system, more than 6,200 of them have already been vaccinated or have at least taken their first dose,” he added.
During Tuesday’s picket, the protesters registered their objection to the mandate which sought to have all children aged 12 and over jabbed against Covid-19 before they can return to face-to-face classes. That edict took effect on November 11.
The picketers took the stance that education is a right and not a privilege, and should not be treated as such.
Following yesterday’s announcement, the organiser of the picket — United Progressive Party candidate for St John’s City South Franz deFreitas — said that the change is an indication that when people stand up, governments acquiesce.
“We saw in Antigua and Barbuda the people getting up, rallying and pushing back against what was an unfair and discriminatory mandate in Antigua and Barbuda,” he said.
“The people thought that it went a step too far and that caused the government to sit back and look again at the policy and change the policy.”
DeFreitas is calling on residents to continue to advocate for the changes they want to see.
Principal of the Ottos Comprehensive School, Foster Roberts, expressed his objection to the mandate on Sunday, labelling it discriminatory.
He also shared his concern that students would not get access to the best education possible as a result.
Yesterday, Roberts told Observer that he welcomed the government’s decision.
“It is welcomed news for the students in the country that everybody is now allowed to earn a right to an education … that has always been my concern,” he said.
He added that if one considers every child to have the ability to learn, then every child should be in school to have the opportunity to get educated.
During his presentation at the press briefing, Nicholas said the government did not want to see further disruptions to the teaching and learning process, maintaining that accommodating unvaccinated students through virtual means whilst hosting students on site for in-person teaching would be too burdensome for the education system.
However, while the government has allowed for the return of unvaccinated students to the classroom, the decision comes with an additional stipulation.
The minister explained that the caveat would be that these students would have to present a negative antigen test and submit to Covid-19 testing every two weeks.
These tests will be provided to public school students at no cost.
“We are hoping it will become a matter that is reduced because more and more parents will be persuaded that the best option will be for their children to become vaccinated,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Nicholas disclosed that “more than 90 percent” of teachers in the public school system have been vaccinated.
The Cabinet has also agreed that officials will continue to conduct sessions with parents of un-vaccinated students, with the object being to inform them of the necessity to act on getting their children vaccinated.