By Carlena Knight
Cabinet has decided that as of Monday, secondary schools will be allowed to return to face-to-face learning once all students and staff have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine.
However, primary schools will remain closed for the time being.
This is the third time that face-to-face learning has been delayed at the junior level. In early September, the official reopening of schools was pushed back a week, followed by a return to remote learning due to the sudden surge in Covid cases.
While speaking at the post-Cabinet press briefing on Thursday, Information Minister Melford Nicholas explained that the opening of the 13 government secondary schools on island will be phased, as determined by the Ministry of Education.
“They have not only to make a determination as to what schools they are going to reopen but they also have to make a determination on the movement of teachers.
“They have got to ensure … starting tomorrow and into next week, how many of the teachers who were previously unvaccinated have now become vaccinated and are available for work.
“So, they have to work through some mechanics and, of course, we are hoping that the ABUT [Antigua and Barbuda Union of Teachers] acts responsibly, but if there is any indication of any curtailment of services then we will have to go into a different type of assessment with the Ministry of Education and to give them the support,” Nicholas said.
Meanwhile, primary school students and teachers will continue with remote learning.
Nicholas revealed that, based on the latest report from the Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas, which indicated that close to 100 children had returned positive Covid-19 tests, and the fact that children under 12 cannot be vaccinated, the decision was taken for the primary schools to remain closed.
“We had to look at the risk involved in having face-to-face learning resumed in the schools where the majority of the students would be below the age of 12 – and because they are susceptible as well to this particular strain of the virus, we felt that the risk was unacceptably high.
“What we did not want is for there to be any spread in the primary schools at that particular level where the children would have been exposed.
“So, not withstanding the fact that a number of the primary schools in the private sector would have achieved the status of having all of their teaching staff and the ancillary staff vaccinated, we made the determination yesterday that we still had to look at the prevailing epidemiological conditions and make the determination that we wanted to suspend that face-to-face resumption of classes at least for another two weeks,” he added.
The same he said will be adopted for preschools.
“What will go for the primary schools will also go for the preschools…and so where provisions were previously granted, it is likely that upon review those provisions will likely be withdrawn.
“We know that this is going to create a problem for parents who have to make the adjustments but we want to call on them for the necessary forbearance because the ultimate goal is to ensure that we do not have any ‘superspreader’ events in these schools with the little ones,” Nicholas said.
This is not great news for struggling parents and students who are unable to gain access to the remote learning sites due to a lack of devices and internet access, and while Nicholas — who is also the minister responsible for technology — noted that efforts will be made to provide these students with devices, he is chiding some parents, saying they need to re-evaluate their priorities.
“We are certainly going to appeal to the value systems of our parents to ensure that rather than give the child an expensive sneaker, the better gift would be an access device and if we make it affordable and accessible to them at incremental costs, then clearly we would want to put those mechanisms in place,” Nicholas said.
However, he also mentioned that parents “can apply to the Board of Education and the Ministry of Education for access to these devices”. E-books, according to Nicholas, are also being re-administered and plans are in the works to seek some assistance from the business community to curb the issue.
This matter is one he mentioned that requires an “all hands-on deck approach, if no child is to be left behind”.
The news was especially disheartening for some private schools who had been given the go-ahead to resume classes.
One such school is the Island Academy, whose Executive Principal, Portia Moursy, shared her disappointment over the news but said she understood why Cabinet took such a stance.
“Although we are disappointed that the primary schools will remain closed for at least two weeks, we do share in the government’s mission that our top priority should be keeping our younger children safe.
“So, we understand the choices that they have made. We are hoping to open in person to some secondary grades with the priority for our exam classes,” Moursy said.