The new academic year is fast approaching, and government announced this week that all private and public schools will be permitted to have students return for in-person instruction.
The recent surge in Covid-19 interrupted summer programmes and other activities, but Cabinet decided that the situation is stabilising enough for schools to go ahead with plans for reopening next month.
As long as schools follow established health protocols to help protect students, they will be allowed to bring students back, Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said Aug. 10 during a live broadcast on Facebook.
“This decision has been made because we recognise that there are some students who will benefit from being in the classroom environment, and we are laser focused on our students’ success,” said Dr. Wheatley, who is also the minister of education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture.
However, he said adherence to the safety protocols will be monitored and enforced.
“We cannot afford to take chances with our students’ or teachers’ health,” he added. “The decision to return our children to schools will no doubt cause some trepidation to some parents or even some teachers. We are sensitive to your concerns.”
Dr. Wheatley said his ministry will conduct surveys next week to get a better understanding of those concerns, which will guide further decisions about what sort of online or other options may be needed.
He added, “Teachers with underlying health conditions and other physical challenges who are experiencing some level of discomfort with the idea of face-to-face instruction should write to their principal, who will inform the ministry. Each case will be considered on an individual basis.”
A mandatory professional day for teachers to review policy direction for the new school year is scheduled for Aug. 27. Kindergarten readiness assessments will take place Aug. 30 to Sept. 3. Then new and transfer students will have their orientation on Sept. 2, and returning students will have theirs on Sept. 3. Classes officially start Sept. 6.
Dr. Wheatley urged that guardians finish and submit any incomplete registration applications to his ministry immediately.
Strict safety guidelines will be in place, Dr. Wheatley said, though schools have some flexibility in how to best protect their students.
All students will still be required to come to school with their instructional electronic devices, face masks or shields, personal hand sanitiser, and cleaning wipes, he said.
Parents are still responsible for coordinating school transportation. Secondary students will be able to utilise the organised bus system. Dr. Wheatley reminded parents that students must be dropped off and picked up no more than 45 minutes outside of school hours.
Guardians must also send pack lunches, and breaks will be staggered.
Restrictions will be in place for visitors to campus, he said, but it will be up to the schools to determine how many they can accommodate while following strict guidelines.
The government’s Public Health Team will conduct contact tracing and make any decisions about closures in the case of an outbreak, according to the minister.
He also asked that employers with staff who have school-aged children allow some flexibility as needed when school gets under way.
“With the blended learning approach, onsite learning will be combined with some online learning, and students at home may require parental supervision,” he said. “I crave your support. Let us all work together as a team to make this a successful school year and get through this difficult Covid period.”
Dr. Wheatley also announced that senior Elmore Stoutt High School students currently housed in a temporary facility at Pasea Estate may be moving soon.
He said the Ministry of Finance agreed to finance additional buildings on the ESHS campus, making space for seniors and a growing number of juniors.
“The Recovery and Development Agency is managing this project, and it is expected to be completed early in 2022,” Dr. Wheatley said.
He added that conceptual designs for the new junior school are complete, and government is procuring a contractor for electrical, plumbing and structural designs.
In the meantime, ESHS students will use a half-day shift system, going to school at 8 a.m. or 12:30 p.m., he said.
He also said that furniture for ESHS, procured with part of a $65 million loan from the Caribbean Development Bank, should arrive before the start of the school year.
The addition should allow more students to be in their classrooms, he said.
At H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, classes are set to begin Aug. 25, according to the minister.
Orientation for new students is Aug. 10-11, and returning students can register from Aug. 16-23. The last day to add classes is Aug. 31.
Most classes will initially be offered online unless they require face-to-face instruction, Dr. Wheatley said. He added that on-campus academic support is strictly by appointment.
The minister also addressed ongoing construction work on other campuses led by the RDA.
At Jost Van Dyke Primary School and Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre, designs are complete, and meetings will be held next week to seek approval from Town and Country Planning to start procurement work, he said.
Isabella Morris Primary School was “deemed structurally unsound and will be demolished,” he added.
“We will then begin the process for the construction of a junior school on the west,” Dr. Wheatley said.
On Virgin Gorda, the handover of the completed Bregado Flax Educational Centre construction should happen soon, he said.
The minister also said the longstanding concerns of teachers about the territory’s education system must be addressed, and not just with “lip service.”
He added that Cabinet agreed to a salary review last January. Though the first set of outstanding payments from 2016 and 2017 were made, he said a second round “was interrupted by the pandemic.”
“Has enough been done? The answer is no,” he said. “I agree with our teachers that more improvements must be made, and my colleagues and I will continue to work for better working conditions for our teachers.”