As the number of reported Covid-19 cases in the territory continued to fall during the latest round of lockdown restrictions, Deputy Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley on Friday announced that some students would be able to return to the classroom for the start of the public school year, walking back government’s earlier plan for all students to learn from home through the semester.
On Monday, after being screened and approved by the social distancing task force, private schools, daycares, technical education centres, and colleges were all allowed to reopen, while technical education students, students with special needs, and “marginalised” students were allowed back into the classroom, according to the most recent Public Health Order, which was Gazetted on Friday.
“As a result of the continued progress that the territory has experienced with the identification and isolation of positive cases, with the widespread testing and reduction of new positive cases, and with the many recoveries of infected persons, I am pleased to announce that we are now poised to resume our phased reopening of schools,” said Dr. Wheatley, who is also the minister of education, culture, youth affairs, fisheries and agriculture.
Schools will have to comply with the rules laid out in the ministry’s reopening framework, which requires everybody on cam-pus to wear a mask or face shield and calls on schools to restrict visitors to campus and stagger lunch and break periods so as to prevent students from gathering in large groups, Dr. Wheatley said.
Schools also will have to accommodate social distancing by demarcating spaces for students to sit and learn, and stocking each classroom with hand sanitiser and clean wash basins, the minister added.
In spite of the government’s reversal, the majority of students will continue taking classes from home.
For most of them, school will consist of online lessons administered through a number of platforms such as Google Classroom and Cisco Webex.
However, students who do not have access to the requisite technology for online learning will have to complete weekly work packets instead.
The ministry has not stated how many students lack access to online lessons, and by press time Dr. Wheatley did not respond to requests for these figures.
However, the ministry has started a “loan to own programme” in which parents make partial payments on a laptop until it is paid off, the ministry said in April.
The minister also gave an update on a programme that loans digital textbooks to students.
“The ministry has been able to commence the distribution of Virgin Islands Digital Education (VIDE) ahead of the start of a new school year,” he said.
However, the ministry has experienced some delays in distributing the VIDE devices, in part because of extensive damage to some of the loaned devices in the past, Dr. Wheatley said, noting that some students in grades seven to nine have not yet received their devices.
“I wish to give parents the assurance, however, that the [Information and Communication Technology] Unit is working tirelessly to make additional VIDEs available and to create alternative solutions to the existing challenges,” he added.
In the meantime, he said, parents shouldn’t worry: The first two weeks of school will consist mostly of activities designed to help students process the pandemic and prepare for the rest of the academic year, and all the kinks with the VIDE programme are expected to be worked out by then.
“We are indeed grateful to God for this breakthrough to allow some of our students to return to the classroom,” Dr. Wheatley said.