As students head back to class this month, all is not well in the territory’s schools.
First came the case of the Joyce Samuel Primary School, where the opening was delayed because long-needed repairs were not completed in time.
Then came a sit-in by teachers at Elmore Stoutt High School on Sept. 15. Their grievances included excessive heat, ventilation issues, mould, overflowing trash cans, overgrown grass, equipment shortages, internet problems, electrical failures, and others.
Such allegations are extremely hard to hear — especially given the struggles that students have endured during the Hurricane Irma recovery and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those disasters are now in the past, and students and teachers alike deserve better.
Across the territory, comprehensive school repairs were supposed to have been carried out over the summer after the House of Assembly voted to provide funding through a Schedule of Additional Provisions. But this effort apparently fell far short.
In the absence of the education minister, who was overseas on official travel, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley rightly responded to the teacher sit-in. He blamed the issues largely on communication problems, saying that he had not heard about the challenges facing the school.
But Teachers Union President Sean Henry later disputed that characterisation, alleging instead that government has been “kicking the can” down the road for years.
We suspect the real issue boils down to money. Even before Irma in 2017, schools had been getting the short end of the stick as government perennially neglected long-needed maintenance.
Irma greatly exacerbated such problems, which were then further protracted because successive governments failed to access sufficient recovery funding.
As a result, students at ESHS and other schools had to attend classes in makeshift facilities on a shift system for years.
Another major blow came last year, when the territory’s largest primary school — Althea Scatliffe — was condemned after a classroom ceiling caved in (thankfully on a weekend). Several other schools have complained about mould, flooding, leaks and other facilities problems.
This is not to say that no progress has been made in recent months. The new ESHS buildings, for instance, were completed at the start of this year. Various repairs have also been ongoing at schools across the territory, and construction is under way on a new school on Jost Van Dyke and a new Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre on Tortola.
But requiring students to return to second-rate facilities for one more year is not acceptable.
Leaders doubtlessly want the situation rectified as much as anyone. But in the absence of a major funding injection, the best intentions will not repair damaged schools or build new ones.
Meanwhile, if the ongoing problems aren’t rectified immediately, they will snowball and exacerbate other social issues.
Recently, Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Sharie de Castro painted a bleak picture of “extreme misconduct” at ESHS, acknowledging that students had been busted for fighting, weapons, drugs and alcohol.
Uncomfortable classrooms and other subpar facilities will serve as a breeding ground for more such antisocial behaviour.
They will also exacerbate the dramatic shortage of teachers the government is currently facing.
Successive government administrations have neglected education for far too long. A dramatic change in approach is urgently needed to adequately prioritise and fund the sector.
Otherwise, dark days are ahead for all levels of this society.