A “hillside” site has been chosen for a new Jost Van Dyke Primary School, Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said last week when all nine elected government representatives visited the sister island to hold a community meeting.
Residents cheered after hearing the update about the island’s only public school, which was devastated by Hurricane Irma more than three years ago.
Also during the meeting, many of the more than 75 attendees shared their opinions on the economic state of the island and asked questions directly to Premier Andrew Fahie and other government representatives.
Opposition member Melvin Turnbull (R-D2), who represents the island in the House of Assembly, also attended, though he did not sit on the panel with government members.
Held at Foxy’s Tamarind Bar, the meeting began with prayer followed by updates from each government minister on their recent work in the sister island. Then the floor opened up to questions from the audience.
Resident Tina Chinnery compiled a list of questions prior to the meeting and handed out printed copies. She asked for clarification on several topics, including infrastructure, arrival of tourists, work permits, the economic stimulus programme, and the island’s annual Old Year’s Night party.
One question read, “Given that JVD’s economy is almost entirely dependent upon tourism, are there any special support plans in place for the island?”
Junior Minister of Tourism Sharie De Castro told attendees that seaports would open to visitors on Dec. 8.
“I know of course that tourism is the lifeblood here on Jost Van Dyke and I want to be the first to let the people of Jost Van Dyke know that … visitors will be able to enter through the seaports on Dec. 8,” Ms. DeCastro said, giving a preview of the reopening protocols delivered Monday by the premier. “That’s just assurance that we have been hearing your cries. We do understand that the marine aspect of the ports is very valuable to Jost Van Dyke.”
Mr. Fahie also asked for patience, explaining that the government had to revise its budget because of the pandemic, and that many resources had been needed to build a Covid-19 testing lab in the territory.
“Over the last seven months, we have had challenges, because once you shut down … we could not expect the same amount of money,” he said. “We had to roll back. We saw that if the revenues continue to be where they are, we were looking at a $57 million deficit. Thank God we brought it down to a $0 deficit by cutting down a lot.”
He added that he would rather keep jobs and cut funding in other areas while “helping the private sector generate more money.”
He also explained that the re-opening on Dec. 1 will help jumpstart the economy, though concerns remain from residents following his announcement of re-opening protocols this week (see page one).
After Mr. Fahie spoke, he handed the microphone to his ministers, beginning with Dr. Wheatley, who is also the minister of education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture.
Dr. Wheatley told residents that land on a hillside had been chosen for a primary school on the island, though he did not disclose the exact location.
The project has been outstanding since Irma. Last year, Mr.Turnbull grilled Dr. Wheatley about the school during an HOA meeting.
The minister said at the time that an architect was exploring the cost of constructing on the site of the former school or on a new site, and that the findings would be presented to the public. He added that preliminary discussions had been held with prospective donors, and that he was “optimistic” that construction would begin within the first quarter of 2020.
During last week’s meeting, one resident asked him about $400,000 that reportedly was raised during a benefit concert for the school in 2018.
“What happened to that money?” the resident asked.
Dr. Wheatley did not directly answer the question, but said plans to build the school were already in the works when the current government came to power in February 2019, and that additional donors were needed to fund the project.
“We wanted to use a model that was based on the Enis Adams [Primary School] model that the architect [Ashton] McCall came up with. But, of course, going to the hillside there have to be some adjustments to that design,” he said. “But the school has all the bells and whistles, and we will be able to move to a phase that will be able to accommodate all of the students.”
He also announced that farmers and fishers would begin receiving their stimulus cheques this week, and that the people of JVD could “look forward” to some assistance in those areas.
Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone also spoke, telling attendees that government “is looking into” establishing Covid-19 testing centres on JVD and other sister islands.
He also explained government’s decision to place the entire island of JVD on lockdown in July for three days while conducting contact tracing.
This measure came because a JVD resident who travelled to St. Vincent and the Grenadines had tested positive on arrival — a result that Mr. Malone alleged was incorrect due to faulty test results.
“It was easier to test [most residents in Anegada] and here [in JVD] because there’s a limited amount of testing kits that we have,” he said. “We made sure we did all the tests required to keep us safe.”
Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley came bearing news good news for JVD residents: There are plans for the first ATM machine to come to the island, he said.
Mr. Wheatley also said that recent water testing showed that JVD has “excellent water quality.”
Additionally, he spoke about temporary layoffs.
According to the government’s interpretation of the 2010 Labour Code, businesses can retain “temporarily” laid-off staff members for up to three months before reemploying them or terminating them and paying severance.
But in June, the HOA passed the Labour Code Amendment Act, 2020, retroactively extending the three-month time period to more than seven months, from March 14 until Saturday of this week.
Asked about expiration of the extension, Mr. Wheatley said government is considering extending the date further, and he asked for feedback.
JVD business owners pushed for an extension to Dec. 31, but Mr. Wheatley hesitated.
“I have to consider the employee,” he said. “Let’s find a balance.”
Instead, he suggested Nov. 15 as a date that would allow businesses two weeks to train their employees before the Dec. 1 re-opening of the territory.
“We’ll find a compromise,” he said.
The minister also mentioned that all government departments are “moving toward an e-platform for all processes,” including providing certificates of good standing.
Transportation, Works and Utilities Works Minister Kye Rymer told meeting attendees that 30 yards of asphalt to do repairs on the island would be brought to JVD this week, and that between four and six people would be hired to complete road repairs.
Residents complained about the water supply, stating that some people were without water for five days recently.
They also said that two seniors on JVD “desperately need assistance,” and that one of them hasn’t had electricity since Hurricane Irma.
Mr. Fahie said he would look into the issues.