T&T's archaic Education Act of 1966 could be one of the reasons why Ministry of Education officials are now seeking advice from the Chief Personnel Officer and Attorney General on how teachers can be made to account for their work while at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Six weeks after schools across the country were closed as a result of COVID-19, the Ministry of Education and the T&T Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) continue to wrangle about the way forward on the issue of homeschooling the more than 200,000 children throughout the country via online methods.
And there is nothing in the act that can compel teachers to teach students, particularly in an online setting. It also does not address teachers at the Early Childhood Care and Education centres, tertiary level, or any situation during the period of a pandemic.
While TTUTA and the ministry continue this discussion, the student population has been left to suffer, particularly the 60,000 students who remain without technological devices to enable them to e-learning platforms and those who were set to do either the SEA and CSEC exams which were postponed due to the COVID measures.
During a media briefing last month, Minister in the Ministry of Education Dr Lovell Francis said some 60,000 students were without any devices to access e-learning platforms. The situation remains the same some six weeks later. This inability to properly transition to remote learning has now raised issues related to access and equity.
Teaching Service Commission chairman Dr Fazal Ali, who is also a Guardian Media columnist, said the immediate logistical challenge is to guarantee that all students have the tools and technology they need to learn remotely.
The ministry continues to come under heavy fire from parents and education stakeholders for its perceived lack of action in providing these children--and even some teachers--with the necessary technological tools to access the e-learning platforms and continue with educating their charges.
In an unexpected move on Friday, however, TTUTA general secretary Kady Beckles advised members not to sign off on any contract or accept laptops before TTUTA has further discussions with the ministry.
The advice was issued via release late Friday and came hours after TTUTA president Antonia Tekah-De Freitas told Guardian Media the union had an understanding of the ministry's efforts to reach teachers and students during the COVID-19 lockdown measures.
The suddenness of the present disruption in schooling has certainly exposed the shortcomings and how unprepared the country is for digital schooling in particular.
Both the ministry and TTUTA have been caught with their pants down.
The challenges have arisen because the new infrastructure is soft.
"It is digital not concrete," said Ali, who added that "children are digital natives but many adults remain digital migrants."
The forced and abrupt shift to remote learning has not been without disruption and distraction everywhere, Ali observed.
"Students are now expected to adjust and to learn as much as they did in a pre-COVID-19 world without the vibrancy of school life, cafeteria conversations, interactions at lunchtime and those serendipitous moments of engagement ripe with lasting social connections in corridors. The rich bustle and excitement of an in-person learning environment is no more," he said.
But as the challenge continues, Ali said, "Some institutions have managed the shift in an archetypal manner; others are moving with confidence towards success. All, however, have more distance to cover to achieve the brilliance that delineates the experience of remote learning."
For schools to succeed in the new COVID-19 virtual world, Ali said they must identify the tech-savvy students and staff to coach staff and other students.
"Piloting new approaches and building on proven practices builds positive and enduring change. The building of massive open online content platforms (MOOCs) aimed at unlimited participation and open access like edX and Coursera, and Apps like ClassDojo, have taken many learning communities far ahead of the curve," Ali said.
"Numerous internet and telephone service providers have signed the FCC Keep Americans Connected Pledge and are providing benefits like free hot spots with no data caps to support remote learning. Bridging the Digital-Divide is a priority of the new infrastructure. Information highways are needed more than ever. And they must be patrolled."
Weighing in on the issue, former chief education officer Kenrick Seepersad said while it was too harsh to say the ministry had failed, “there is a great concern because you have to look at it from the point of view of the children who need certainty.”
Describing the situation as fluid, he said there needs to be a little more risk and distinctive leadership.
Garcia: We are doing our best
Despite facing a barrage of blows from critics on social media for "failing the nation's children," Education Minister Anthony Garcia has remained adamant he has been trying his best during this crisis. He said the attacks against him were mere UNC propaganda.
On Friday, Garcia said he would not respond to anything that appears on social media.
“We are doing our work and we are confident what we are doing will redound to the benefit of our students in particular,” Garcia said.
Asked to respond to criticisms that the ministry had failed teachers and students by moving too slowly to ensure e-learning took place outside the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia maintained they acted swiftly to mitigate the effects arising out of the closure of schools. He said discussions are continuing with the relevant agencies on how the situation involving the 60,000 students can be addressed without further delays.
“We are addressing that situation and we are confident that a resolution to the problem will be made. We are doing everything possible to ensure that everybody will have access…we are working on that,” Garcia said.
“In areas where there is no internet access, discussions are ongoing with the Ministry of Public Administration and the Telecommunications Authority of T&T (TATT). We have articulated our position and I have no further comment to make on that."
However, Garcia was unable to provide a time line for a resolution to the matter. Asked if his ministry had received any of the emergency funding allocated by Government to ready the nation for the COVID-19 fight, Garcia said, “That conversation again…I will not take part in because it is premised on untruths. There is no $20 billion we have put out for that, that is UNC propaganda. I will not comment on that.”
In 2017, there were 455 primary and 125 secondary schools in T&T with a combined student population of 200,000.
National Primary Schools Principals’ head commends ministry
Meanwhile, National Primary Schools Principals’ Association (NAPSPA) president Lance Mottley has endorsed the ministry’s accelerated efforts to develop online platforms to move the education system into the 21st century.
Saying all school principals were exposed to the Education Management Information System (EMIS) platform when it was launched late last year, he said, “Before COVID-19, we would have seen textbooks online and also, the online engagement of students.
“Parents, teachers and students were also encouraged to go online and populate the site with material, so what COVID-19 would have done is accelerated the process so we are now seeing the School Learning Management System (SLMS) come on stream.”
Mottley commended the ministry for their efforts, even as he admitted, “The entire country is not wired for internet and the economic circumstances of many of our parents do not allow them to have the luxury of having devices such as laptops and tablets for every single member of the household.
“And given the current period we are in, where people are losing their jobs, I do not think that education might be a priority for many of our parents who cannot afford basic items such as food and shelter.”
NPTA: Ministry failed parents, students, teachers
Accusing the ministry of failing the country, including teachers, students and parents, during this difficult and frustrating time, National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) acting president Clarence Mendoza said, “There are no proactive measures being taken by the Ministry of Education, they are now just reacting.
“The MOE has failed the country, and parents and students by extension. And they have continued to fail teachers who are also parents.”
TTUTA agrees to work-from-home policy
TTUTA president Antonia Tekah-De Freitas believes the ministry has so far addressed the situation according to the resources available to them.
She said Garcia had confirmed approaching corporate T&T for assistance in procuring devices and expanding and improving internet access across the country.
“As teachers, we may have to consider lending additional support and making our own overtures but I think the ministry is trying as best as it can within the time frame they have to work with,” Tekah-De Freitas said.
Three days after agreeing to a work-from-home policy for teachers, Tekah-De Freitas said they were yet to provide the ministry with an official document outlining their conditions.
Noting the short period TTUTA had to gather data on how many teachers and students were currently without laptops, she said, “We are concerned about the short time frame given to us fulfill that request and it is putting quite a bit of pressure on teachers, who now have to use their resources to contact parents to get information for each child.”
Tekah-De Freitas said they had since reached out to the ministry for an extension of the May 4 deadline for teachers and May 5 for students.
Following its agreement to the work-from-home policy, she said their next concern was how restructuring of the term will be done whenever schools are reopened.
Decisive action needed: Ex-chieff education officer
Weighing in on the issue, former chief education officer Kenrick Seepersad said labelling the ministry’s actions thus far as a failure was a bit harsh. Instead, he said, “There is a great concern because you have to look at it from the point of view of the children who need certainty.”
Seepersad said while secondary students were happy to have the extra time, – since their exams will not be administered before June/July--it was crucial that primary school students writing the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) return to school by mid-June, with the exam being administered by the first week in July.
He said if the SEA exams are not administered before September it will negatively impact the rest of the education system and set all students back and “everything is going to be topsy-turvy in September.”
“Remember, there are children who need to begin primary school and there are many schools who will not be able to take them because they would not have space for them,” Seepersad said.
“There is need for some kind of planning and direction now, with decisive action needed.”
Seepersad said the uncertainty COVID-19 brings has the potential to derail the Early Childhood Care and Education system and negatively hamper the smooth transition of students into primary school.
Gopeesingh: Laptop programme suspension was retro-regressive
Former education minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh meanwhile blasted the Government for its poor handling of the education sector during the pandemic.
He claimed the ministry had taken a “retro-regressive” step by suspending the laptop programme in schools after assuming office in 2015, as teachers and students had been initiated into ICT in secondary schools.
Former tertiary education minister Fazal Karim. meanwhile. said the ministry had abandoned and neglected tertiary and vocational students.
He said since March, the country's educational system had come to a grinding halt while examination students had been left worried and scholarship hopefuls paralysed.
“Young people have reduced chances of getting jobs and opening businesses given the COVID-19 crisis. This is indeed a worrying concern," Karim said.
When the Sunday Guardian contacted UWI St Augustine's School of Education, Prof Jerome De Lisle said, "The situation of education amidst COVID-19 is a very fluid one and is currently being monitored."
Questions to Garcia
Guardian Media directed these questions, among others, to Education Minister Anthony Garcia in a telephone interview. However, Garcia opted not to respond to many of them.
Have CAPE and CSEC exams been cancelled?
That matter is still under discussion and CXC is a regional exam and, therefore, we have to have discussions with the regional Ministers of Education before we come to any decision. The position of the Government of T&T is not to cancel the exams. Our problem is to reschedule the exam based on the advice we receive from the Ministry of Health, as they are directing us as we move forward concerning exams.
What will happen to those students who have already undergone assessment?
In terms of CAPE and CSEC, most of the schools have completed their syllabus, except that the SBAs have not yet been finalised in terms of giving a grade that will be sent to CXC.
What will happen to those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to have their grades under-predicted?
All these questions are the subject of discussions and the Ministry of Education is doing everything we can so that our students will not be left behind.”
After declining to answer any further questions, Garcia said, “The position of the Government has been articulated to CXC in writing. I made a statement in Parliament on Wednesday, that is, our preference is for us to have the exams in June/July based on the advice of the Ministry of Health.
“The exam should include Paper 1 which is multiple choice, Paper 2 which is the essay-type questions, and also the SBA assessment. Those are the three things that Cabinet has agreed upon and there’s nothing more I can say on it."