As T&T prepares to open its schools on October 1, 2021, to fully vaccinate students across Forms 4, 5 and 6 educators are jittery. In Canada, the UK, and the US, where children are back to school, 75-89 per cent of adults and over 12 school-going populations are vaccinated. In T&T only 30 per cent of the population is vaccinated.
The Prime Minister has been calling for numbers to go up before October 2 and has said if vaccinated pupils fall well below the herd immunity of '60-70 per cent' the Government will have to act, though we don't know what that means yet.
Meanwhile, a newly formed PTA group called 'Open Schools TT', who reached out to me are concerned about the effect of a lengthy lockdown and online learning on children's mental, emotional, physical health and academic performance. The group says principals and teachers are not in a hurry to return to classroom teaching.
"No principal wants to be responsible for opening up a school where an unvaccinated child might die. Teachers are not pushing to attend school as they have more time, don't have to drive to work, don't get a pay cut. They don't have to deal with the stress of classroom management and can mute the whole class and even mute the chat. Often teachers are teaching blank screens, as many children don't have cameras. After roll call, teachers have no idea who is present or learning."
The group claim that teachers and students who have not taken the vaccine don't understand that vaccines, even if they don't prevent the vaccinated from getting COVID, are designed to prevent illness and death. But they are also pushing for schools to reopen despite the low vaccination rates in T&T.
"Our children can't go on like this. We are doing a flow chart that allows every principal of every school to put themselves in a situation and follow the chart. It will ask questions like 'Can you bring all students back to school, answer 'Yes' or 'No'. That will take you to connectivity–'Is the child connected to a device? 'Yes?' or 'No?' That takes you to the question 'Does the child want to come to school? 'Yes' or 'No?' That follows with–'Does the parent want the child to come to school? Yes or No?'
"Our flow chart will enable every student to determine their own path. Every school must choose a unique approach that works for them, from the principals' point of view to the parent and child's point of view."
A principal of a Government school of 800 students (who is not allowed to speak to the media but is sufficiently concerned to do so anyway) agreed with the representative of 'Open Schools TT' that online teaching has been tough on schoolchildren, adding that 2,000 students had dropped out of schools during the pandemic.
I put this claim to the Minister of Education, Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, who responded immediately, saying, "It's more correct to say that over 2,000 students on the school register were not accounted for during 2020-21. Some of those would have rolled over from 2019/20, as the issue of student truancy is a long-standing one. So it is incorrect to assume that 2,000 additional students dropped out of school in 2020/21.'"
Either way, we are in danger of losing a generation of children to the pandemic.
This principal gave me her perspective on the future of in-school teaching.
"Flow charts are excellent, but all it takes is one child or children to die in a school of COVID-19 or the Delta variant, and everything shuts down again. The Ministry of Health has flagged an increase in children hospitalised for COVID-19, and this is even before schools have opened up.
"Vaccine hesitancy in parents is the only thing holding schools back from opening up normally as they have in the US, Canada and the UK. Even if the child wants the vaccine, the parents make the final decision. Unless it's mandated for teachers and students, there will be hesitancy.
"Even if we reopen based on the guidelines that only vaccinated students are coming out, we will have a tiny turnout in some schools.
"I would personally support mandatory vaccinations in schools based on our country's history of vaccinations. We have always been a mandatory system. When a child is registered n primary school, they must produce an immunisation card. Those who are not vaccinated have been homeschooled.
"Without mandatory vaccinations, we would have too many incidences of shutting down a school every time someone tests positive. There will be extensive contact tracing, children and parents will have to quarantine, which will happen every two days.
"Currently, there is no public service law on vaccines. The Government can mandate the vaccine for students but can't do so for adults, resulting in industrial action. However, nothing is fixed in stone. The teachers may feel like they can do what they want now, but the Ministry of Education pays our salaries, and like everything else, public service law can be adjusted if public health and education are being seriously compromised by the vaccine-hesitant. If teachers refuse to vaccinate and don't come out, who knows what could happen to their salary?
"T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) has said teachers don't have to come out, so some will just stay home. Some teachers I know left the country and are teaching from abroad, so they may come home to sign the register and stay home if they don't want to be vaccinated.
"In my school, of 800 students, only 20 per cent are vaccinated, and 60-75 per cent of teachers are vaccinated. If we want to teach in schools, we need 100 per cent vaccine compliance. Teaching is not like any other job. I can't put an English teacher to teach a Chemistry class. You need the full complement of teachers to be operational. So if the Chemistry teacher is vaccinated, but the English teacher is not, the children will suffer.
"Teachers who should know better, and lead the way towards science, have refused the vaccine based on social media conspiracy theories.
"They say they are 'waiting'. For what?. It could be for when they are dying, but by then, it will be too late as it doesn't work when you are already sick. The Government has provided us with our pick of vaccines from the FDA approved Pfizer, Astra Zeneca, Sinopharm and Johnson and Johnson. Teachers and parents should know 5.5 million people have died of COVID, that in a small country like ours, 1,368 people have died, five to ten people are dying daily.
"Some hesitancy has to do with people trusting social media over doctors and science. Someone makes the wild claim that people are dying from the vaccine on Facebook, and everyone jumps on that. There have been no vaccine-related deaths in T&T.
"The MOE must have a school-by-school campaign on the safety of vaccines–perhaps with a clinic day so doctors can dispel some of the fears of parents and students.
"A hybrid system of some online and some offline will create chaos.
"Come October 1, if vaccines aren't made mandatory, some teachers and students will come to school, and the ones remaining online will suffer.
"It is unrealistic for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to expect teachers to teach in person and project the class online. We don't have that facility for every single teacher in every single school. It's not sustainable, not conducive for learning.
"Teachers can't be two platforms. We don't have systems in place for what will happen if only vaccinated children come out. The students at home will work from packages placed in google classroom, and they will have to teach themselves.
"If the MOE wants to open schools or have a hybrid system of some online and some in person, then Government must consult with TTUTA, PTAs, principals, teachers and parents. This consultation needs to take place before October 1 to avoid chaos.
"The MOE MOH and other stakeholders have failed to engage with educators regarding pandemic teaching. We have been given no opportunity to have a dialogue, ask questions or come to a consensus. The MOE cannot provide a directive without consulting with educators and expecting us to carry out their policies.
"The sad thing is when teachers refuse to vaccinate, and parents are afraid of vaccinating themselves and their children, they don't make a personal choice for themselves. They choose to deny children an education. The children are always the biggest losers in any battles that adults fight. Without vaccinations, if students can't access devices and can't get in-person teaching, children will lose if they are at home staring into a phone instead of interacting with peers and a teacher. More will drop out.
"Government can save the children by putting out information across all media about the truth of the deadly virus which takes lives, of the vaccines which save lives–not a single citizen has died in T&T of the vaccine.
"People need to realise that even the vaccine doesn't prevent you from getting it but can prevent you from dying, which is the most essential part. You won't die. So vaccinate.
"If you don't want to lose a generation of children, vaccinate."
As told to Ira Mathur by the principal of a government school.