Our nation’s children have been locked out of physical school for the past year and a half. Resuming face-to-face teaching was never going to be an easy task but the Government’s lethargic approach has further deepened our current education crisis. The new school term is scheduled to start virtually tomorrow and the Prime Minister has proposed to resume physical school in October 2021 based on the COVID-19 vaccine uptake. Meanwhile, the Government has failed to provide timely updates to parents, students and teachers on the planned school safety measures, capacity restrictions to be introduced for schools, arrangements for public school transportation, and possible school timetable adjustments to reduce school population densities.
Businesses face a similar challenge every week with frenzied government-imposed vicissitudes, sometimes without the courtesy of a 24-hour warning. The phrase, “As of midnight tonight” has become a national meme but points to the Government’s flippant disregard for people’s time, which in turn creates uncertainty and chaos for citizens who have to plan their lives and livelihoods around press conferences.
The Prime Minister has pitched the possibility of a parallel education system that will restrict access to vaccinated students at physical school. The Minister of Education is on record saying that online learning is no substitute for face-to-face learning. The introduction of a parallel education system will create inequities in learning, placing the vaccinated at an unfair advantage. The proposal is ill-advised and defies the Sustainable Development Goal of promoting inclusive and quality education for all. Since March 2020, student dropouts have increased because of the digital divide and the Ministry of Education has failed to provide equitable access to all students to learn remotely.
The FDA has extended the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use authorisation (EUA) to include adolescents 12 years and above but this should not be used as a criterion to deny students access to face-to-face learning. I have personally taken my granddaughter to get vaccinated but the choice of vaccination must be carefully weighed by each parent and student at the individual level. I object to forced COVID-19 vaccinations, especially among adolescents. Given the reality of vaccine hesitancy among parents and teachers, consideration must be given to non-pharmaceutical interventions as a matter of priority before the reopening of schools for face-to-face learning.
The Ministry of Education has prepared Draft Guidelines for the Reopening of Schools (September 2021) but there are many unanswered questions that gives the impression that the Government has adopted a laissez-faire posture regarding the safety of our students, teachers and ancillary school staff. Will schools be allocated more funding for sanitisation? Have mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems at schools been brought up to standard during the downtime? Did the Ministry of Education develop a programme to educate young children on the need to wear masks throughout the school day?
The coronavirus variants are much more virulent and the Delta variant has been detected in Trinidad and Tobago. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reports that children (between the ages of one and 18) are susceptible to and can transmit the coronavirus although at a lower risk of occurrence relative to other age groups and also a lower risk of serious health effects compared to all other age groups. However, the centre also states that school closures should be a last resort given the negative physical, mental and educational effects on student development, as well as the economic costs to society.
Meaningful dialogue needed
Schools should be reopened but only based on meaningful dialogue with health officials, TTUTA, educators, parents and students to establish comprehensive strategies to mitigate school-based transmission. The World Bank recommends masking, social distancing and ventilation as key non-pharmaceutical interventions to mitigate the risk of transmission in a school setting.
The Ministry of Education has adopted the CDC guideline which mandates mask-wearing for children above the age of eight, and “as far as possible” for children between the ages of three and eight. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education is silent on its guidance to teachers and parents on the protocols for students who do not comply with mask-wearing. Will an eight-year-old student who misplaces his or her mask during school be referred to the police and charged for breaching the public health regulations or has a more pragmatic approach been considered to continually educate children, especially among primary school students, on the importance of mask-wearing? Will schools have a supply of replacement masks to cater for misplaced or damaged masks–a likely occurrence among young children and teenagers? Has an education campaign been designed to reject bullying of students who are legitimately unable to wear masks because of respiratory ailments, physical disabilities or cognitive impairments? These questions and more occupy the minds of parents, teachers and principals.
The WHO recommends maintaining a physical distance of at least one metre (estimated three feet) apart. The Ministry of Education has adopted a six-foot (head-to-head) physical distancing guideline but fails to address one-directional corridors and walkways to reduce student-to-student proximity along circulation routes. The guidelines from the Ministry of Education also fail to treat with upper secondary school students (Forms 4, 5 and 6) who alternate classes based on subject-specific timetables as opposed to the cohort approach for lower secondary school students.
Contact tracing is challenged in this scenario if a student contracts the coronavirus. The World Bank also recommends the staggering of arrival and dismissal school times or designating grade-specific entrances and exits to avoid congregation and potential superspreader events but this has not been discussed at the national level. These concerns should have been finalised well in advance of the new school term.
The introduction of physical distancing protocols will naturally reduce class sizes and student population densities but ventilation is still a critical consideration. Both the WHO and CDC recommend using HVAC systems at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after school is occupied. Filters are to be appropriately sized, installed, cleaned and replaced on a routine basis to reduce the risk of recirculation of viral particles. The Ministry of Education guidelines state that air conditioning units must be in good working order in schools that do not allow for the flow of natural air. No standards are defined for filters or even what is deemed good working order for air conditioning units. Has the Ministry of Education inspected and funded improvements to ventilation systems at schools? Given the recommended use of natural airflow for spaces, has the Ministry of Education funded schools to procure child-safe fans?
All stakeholders must work together to minimise school-based transmission of the coronavirus. However, the Government assumes an important role in allocating funding, policy direction and setting standards for schools. Given the impasse on vaccination uptake among students and teachers, non-pharmaceutical interventions must also be prioritised.
The existing guidelines for the reopening of physical schools are welcomed but are shamefully incomplete. This is totally unacceptable from the Ministry of Education after nearly 18 months. The safety of students, teachers, ancillary school staff and their families must not be compromised because of the failure of the Government to do its homework.
Former minister of tertiary education and skills training and former MP for Chaguanas East