Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Editorial | Minister Williams’ difficult task

Published:Wednesday | September 23, 2020 | 12:11 AM

In this environment, Fayval Williams wasn’t going to have a quiet introduction to her new job. But the new minister has to move quickly to engage all stakeholders in the education process, including parents, lest her absence of a honeymoon descend into a wide revolt, from which it might not be easy to recover.

The problems Mrs Williams faces aren’t of her making. She was appointed as education minister only after the September 3 general election, taking over a portfolio in the middle of a worsening COVID-19 pandemic, responsible for policies for the education of hundreds of thousands of children but without consensus on how Jamaica should extricate itself from the crisis.

Late last month, Mrs Williams’ predecessor, Karl Samuda, announced that, after being closed for several months, schools would reopen on October 5, on a tiered system. Some institutions would have face-to-face teaching, others online school, some with a mixture of the two, and still others with a modified shift arrangement. In the latter case, some children might attend schools in the mornings and others in the afternoons, as used to be the case in recent decades when Jamaica was attempting to expand access to education with too few classrooms and/or teachers.

But Mr Samuda and his technocrats, it appears, hadn’t fully determined how the plan would be implemented – which school would be on what system. Last week, though, Mrs Williams reiterated Mr Samuda’s start date, still contemplating classroom teaching on the basis of a “vulnerability index”, which was being developed using a geoinformatics system and utilising health and other demographic data.

FULL ENDORSEMENT

That, on the face of it, sounds good. In the normal course of things, this newspaper would fully endorse the plan. But we, like others, want to hear more.

We appreciate that there is little substitute for the stimulation provided by live, face-to-face teaching in the classroom. This is not only because of what skilled teachers can coax out of, or inspire in, students in this environment, but the possibilities the school environment affords for the development of interpersonal skills and community engagement.

Most teachers, we expect, would agree. Yet, Mrs Williams is facing a pushback. Two critical groups – the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA), the union for more than 20,000 state-paid teachers, and the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools (JAPSS) – say no.

“We think that the risk factor (of classroom teaching and learning) is far, far greater than if we were to continue online,” the JTA’s president, Jasford Gabriel, said. “We watch (with concern) what is happening with the rising cases with the pandemic.”

Mr Gabriel’s fears will likely resonate not only with his teaching constituency but also parents. Two months ago, up to July 20, Jamaica had 809 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths from the disease. A month later, on August 20, there were 1,308 cases and 18 deaths. Confirmed cases had increased by 49 per cent and deaths by 50 per cent. Over the next month, to September 20, the number of cases jumped by nearly 300 per cent, to 5,143. Deaths had increased to 70.

On the basis of this kind of data, Linvern Wright, the JAPSS president, insisted that planned classroom teaching, geoinformatics mapping notwithstanding, was “ill advised” and “flawed”. Or, as Nadine Molloy, the principal of Ardenne High School in the capital, put it: “I refuse to sanction putting the staff and students to this kind of exposure.”

These education leaders, on the face of it, argue a strong case. Mrs Williams will require a cogent, and clearly logical response if teachers, and the parents of nearly half a million students, are to be convinced that it is safe for a return to classrooms.

The first is the easiest: that classrooms have been appropriately retrofitted to meet the criteria for physical distance and frequent sanitisation by students, teachers and school administrators.

MORE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

The other questions are more difficult. Jamaica does not have zoned school or education districts, which means that students often travel long distances to attend school. Which raises the issue of policymakers’ ability to effectively employ geoinformatics and demographic data to determine which schools should have classroom teaching.

In this regard, Minister Williams must have the teachers and other stakeholders at the table with those who are doing these data analyses. Further, most students use public transportation to travel to and from school, in a circumstance where the enforcement of the wearing of masks by the drivers and passengers of buses and taxis is lax. The danger of students being overly exposed to the virus, and also becoming spreaders of it, will be worrisome for many.

All of this is complicated by the fact that, despite the Government’s programme to distribute thousands of tablets to students and teachers, vast numbers will still be without computers and/or Internet connectivity. At the same time, many parents who need to work – which is critical to the resuscitation of the economy – are hard-pressed to keep children at home.

Mrs Williams has a complex set of issues about which she needs to have a serious conversation with all her partners, while at the same time insisting that her Government colleagues hold their end of the bargain to ensure that the education process is, in the circumstances, as safe as possible.