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By Orville Williams

With the official commencement of the 2020/2021 academic year just days away, the principals of some of the island’s secondary schools are expressing a collective state of readiness.

The education sector was widely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, resulting in the complete closure of schools, the cancellation of internal assessments and the rescheduling of external examinations.

Now, several months after the initial impact, schools across the island are gearing up for sweeping changes in the new school year. These changes include a phased reopening – which will see students return to the classroom based on their form placements – along with social distancing stipulations and a blended, online/face-to-face system.

Speaking ahead of the reopening, the Principal of the Princess Margaret School, Dr Colin Greene, explained that most of the infrastructure work has been completed, along with the important human resource planning.

“We are working smoothly toward the plan that we would have submitted and things are going relatively smoothly. We’re actually towards the end in terms of execution of what we’re doing. Right now, we’re engaged in pre-school planning, so we had a staff meeting on Monday, [on Tuesday] we had head of department meetings and yesterday we had level heads meeting.

“The physical touches have been put in place – hand sanitisers, handwashing stations – we are doing some additional outdoor spaces that have been completed and cast today, and generally speaking, we are way ahead of where we had planned to be.

“Our final inspection from the Ministry of Health and the joint team from [the Ministry of] Education and the Teachers Union is going to be on Thursday, so we’ll see what happens after that inspection,” Dr Greene explained.

The Principal of the Antigua Grammar School, Samuel “Sam” Roberts, shared similar sentiments.

“Preparations are going well. In terms of the staff, we had our general staff meeting on Monday via Zoom and we went through the protocols with teachers and what is expected when they come to school. We’re working on a timetable that sees about half the school being on the school compound at any one time. So, what will happen is, it will be one-day-on, one-day-off for the students.

“We’ve installed hand sanitizers throughout the school, so that they’re within easy access. We are [also] going to be increasing the number of handwashing stations we have at the school, so those will help. The Ministry [of Education] has promised to install additional spaces, we should get two additional spaces and that should help take off some of the load as well,” Roberts disclosed.

The Principal at Clare Hall Secondary Ashworth Azille also noted that the majority of their plans are already in place, with the exception of some additional spacing facilities, similar to the Antigua Grammar School.

“At the moment, we’re just trying to ensure that we finalise all of our preparations for the return of teachers and students. There is some remedial repair work that has been taking place here for the last couple of weeks and [that’s] quickly coming to an end.

“Most of our classes have been set out, the plans and programme for the new year is already in place, timetables are done, so it’s just a matter of ensuring that the students come out, the teachers come out and everybody can continue to remain safe with the protocols that we’re put in place.

“We were anticipating some additional learning spaces, clearly with the financial crunch, some of those things are slightly delayed, but we have been able to map out the quality use of space based on what we have thus far,” Azille said.

While bearing the majority of the responsibility for the schools’ preparations, Dr Greene and Roberts also called on parents to adequately prepare their children for the return to the classroom. While the administrators must play their part, the contribution of the parents they say, will be vital in ensuring the success of the reopening.

“I think, just to say to the parents, they, too, have a big part to play in the success of what happens when the students come out. So, [the students] should have their own personal hand sanitisers and I’m recommending at least two masks that gets them through the day,” Roberts said.

Dr Greene said “we’d just like to encourage the parents to support the initiative, because we’re not going to be able to do this unless it’s a partnership. We know and acknowledge that people are nervous and rightfully so, but when we look at the alternative of having face-to-face interaction with our students, that doesn’t look too pretty.

“So, we just want all the stakeholders, the students, to comply with the new regulations. If we do that, we can’t guarantee what the future is going to be, but we can guarantee that we’re doing our best to make the school a safe environment.”

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