Two years after Hurricane Irma, public high schoolers are no longer attending class on a part-time basis under a shift system.
This welcome news comes with the long-delayed reopening of a refurbished wing at Elmore Stoutt High and the completion of a privately funded building at Virgin Gorda’s Bregado Flax Educational Centre.
Both of these recovery milestones were celebrated at launching ceremonies this month, and rightly so: Each project was a team effort involving government, the private sector and donor support, and all partners deserve kudos.
Nevertheless, it is greatly troubling that high schoolers had to suffer two years under the shift system, which doubtlessly caused many of them to fall behind their counterparts abroad. Education, after all, should have been among the recovery effort’s top priorities from the start, and the recently completed buildings — with a total reported cost of less than $6 million — are hardly the most expensive projects on the list of urgent needs.
Moreover, there is still much to do in order to ensure a reasonably comfortable environment for high schoolers. About half of the ESHS students are still housed in an inadequate temporary facility in Pasea Estate, and their BFEC counterparts remain overcrowded and under-resourced as work continues on the rest of their buildings.
Substantial progress also has been made at the primary level — including eco-friendly repairs under the “Smart” programme and the opening of the donor-funded Enis Adams Primary School this month — but Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre and Isabella Morris Primary remain closed.
The government, then, has much to do in the education sector.
Tortola high schoolers were overdue for a new facility long before Irma hit. For more than a decade, successive governments have been floating various plans for a new high school on Tortola. Now is the time to move quickly, but amid ongoing funding struggles education officials have not provided the details of any comprehensive long-term plan for the way forward.
They might start by looking backward. Under the previous government, designs were drawn up for a new school at the location of the existing ESHS campus. These plans should be revisited, decisions should be made quickly, and the project should be handed over to the Recovery and Development Agency and fully funded as soon as possible. Similar expedience is needed at BFEC.
Officials have also mentioned the possibility of junior high schools, which might be a sound idea, but consultations are needed first with teachers and the rest of the community.
None of these measures will come cheap, but the state of the territory’s education infrastructure is among the most compelling reasons that the government must quickly source a large infusion of recovery funding either through the United Kingdom loan guarantee or other avenues.
Even before Irma, education had been left on the backburner for far too long. Building schools back stronger is the only way forward.