By Orville Williams
The Ministry of Education is set to deploy more than 100 substitute teachers into the school system, following authorisation from the Cabinet to hire a batch of temporary educators.
This week’s post-Cabinet report stated that “the Cabinet was presented with a list of required teaching staff, numbering 109, to meet the shortfall experienced by the absence of those teachers who have not taken the [Covid-19] vaccines”.
It went on to state that “the Cabinet authorized the three-month hiring of those 109 substitute teachers”.
This announcement coincided with another, that face-to-face learning will resume shortly for students at the exam stage in both primary and secondary institutions. For the primary schools, grade six students will be allowed to return to the classrooms, along with forms four and five at the secondary level.
According to the report, this proposal by the Director and Deputy Director of Education was made “on the basis of their analysis of the current vaccination status of teachers and students”.
So far, 85 percent of teachers in the public schools have reportedly been vaccinated, along with 83 percent at the tertiary level. Some private schools, the report added, have already achieved 100 percent vaccination compliance.
Since the public sector vaccine mandate was first announced, the government has been preparing for some fallout, based on the unfavourable commentary from both affected employees and other critics.
Most of the major trade unions in the country oppose the move, including – perhaps most importantly in this case – the Antigua and Barbuda Union of Teachers (A&BUT), which declared that the majority of its members who participated in a vote on the matter were not in favour of a mandatory vaccination policy.
Despite the backlash though, the administration has stood firm, insisting that all public sector employees – including teachers – must adhere to the vaccination policy or find themselves, albeit temporarily, out of a job and a salary.
It declared soon after the initial announcement that temporary workers would be recruited to fill any potential gaps caused by persons failing to adhere to the policy. Just a few weeks later, the Ministry of Education announced that it was beginning to train a group of prospective temporary educators.
Education Director Clare Browne told media yesterday that they are pleased with the level of training done initially to get these teachers ready for the classrooms. He noted, however, that the profession is one that requires constant development.
“In terms of the initial training, we’re satisfied, but even after 10 years the professional development of teachers is an ongoing thing. So, even after you have been in the service for a number of years, you have to continue to study [and] you have to continue to prepare.
“Education is a dynamic thing and there are many new things that come to the fore, so training will be ongoing. Once we acquire the teachers, the initial [idea] is to get the funding and we have done so.”
Browne indicated that the number of teachers that will be required is subject to change, based on the impact of Covid-19 infections which could medically prevent some persons from being vaccinated for a longer period of time. Those persons, he said, were not included in the initial number presented to the Cabinet.
He also spoke on those teachers who have applied for vaccine exemptions and how that process might affect the personnel requirements.
“That’s not a fixed number, because the 109 would be based on those persons that we know definitely have not taken the vaccine and would not have made any kind of application for exemption.
“We cannot assume that all the applicants [for medical or religious exemptions] are going to be favourably considered, so once the process goes through and the results are returned, then we will know who has not made it; if they didn’t get exemptions; whether or not they are going to take the vaccine and return to the classroom.
“Then, the numbers can go up, but we don’t envision that that is going to be a huge number of persons,” Browne explained.