Back to school - 17 institutions to reopen in two-week pilot November
Nearly 6,000 students from 17 schools in nine parishes are to return to face-to-face learning on a phased basis as more than 50 per cent of the country’s pupils have difficulty accessing online education amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The digital divide has wreaked havoc on the educational sector, with Prime Minister Andrew Holness expressing fear that inequality in accessibility disproportionately marginalised poor children.
“The aim was to get children back into the classroom safely,” he told the country during a press briefing at Jamaica House on Wednesday night.
The limited reopening represents an ultra-conservative tiptoeing towards normality, Education Minister Fayval Williams said, citing empirical data culled from geoinformatics and demographic analysis indicating that 73 schools, with an aggregate population of 58,000 students, had hurdled the bar of low-risk indices that would validate the resumption of face-to-face learning.
The 17 institutions, which represent 20 per cent of the allowable 73, include 12 primary and five secondary schools.
The parishes that will form the pilot are Clarendon, Manchester, Portland, St Ann, St Elizabeth, St James, Westmoreland, St Thomas, and Trelawny. The pilot will run from November 9 to 20.
All students must wear a mask, and schools are forbidden from turning back students who are not wearing safety gear bearing school colours or insignia.
“The important thing is that students show up in masks, and if a student does not show up in a mask, one should be provided,” said the education minister.
Williams said that her decision was guided by recommendations made by Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee’s team at the Mona Geoinfomatics Institute at The University of the West Indies and the E-Covid Education Task Force that examined risk factors.
Domestic coronavirus deaths have climbed to 198 and overall coronavirus infections, 8,851.
The policy about-face comes a week after Holness hinted that the administration was prepared to push ahead with face-to-face interaction, emboldened by growing fatigue over connectivity and other challenges presented by online learning.
The reversal was a sign that teachers and principals’ groups, who belligerently resisted talk of in-person classes determined by data analysis, had relented from their initial defiance as inadequate access to laptops or tablets, patchy Internet connectivity, and other factors stymied learning.
Online, audio-visual, and printed material will continue to be available for all schools.
Focus, Williams said, would be placed on how the number and spread of active COVID-19 cases shaped the risk profile of schools.
Williams said that the Ministry of Education was not unmindful of the pain the pandemic has caused the country’s children.
“We are aware that our students being in the physical classroom environment is important. Being in a school environment helps our children develop friendships and social skills,” she said, citing extra-curricular activities such as football, chess, and clubs as vital to holistic development.