Sat | Apr 17, 2021

Prep-school conundrum - Ministry directive can’t compel them to scrap private face-to-face classes

Published:Thursday | February 25, 2021 | 12:18 AMRomario Scott, Edmond Campbell and Carl Gilchrist/Gleaner Writers
Three students from the Lititz Primary School in St Elizabeth walk along the main road on their way home from school yesterday. Education Minister Fayval Williams has announced that only students who are to sit major examinations should be allowed to parti
Three students from the Lititz Primary School in St Elizabeth walk along the main road on their way home from school yesterday. Education Minister Fayval Williams has announced that only students who are to sit major examinations should be allowed to participate in face-to-face learning as COVID-19 cases rise across the island.

Private schools will independently decide whether they will continue with face-to-face classes, dismissing the education ministry’s declaration that only exit exam students should attend in-person sessions as merely “an announcement”. A meteoric...

Private schools will independently decide whether they will continue with face-to-face classes, dismissing the education ministry’s declaration that only exit exam students should attend in-person sessions as merely “an announcement”.

A meteoric rise in COVID-19 infections since February has curtailed face-to-face classes – at least for now – for students in primary and high schools with the exception of those preparing for major exams.

The Government appeared to relent to pressure from the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) to scrap face-to-face teaching altogether because of the dramatic surge in infections, with Education Minister Fayval Williams seemingly striking a compromise on Wednesday.

At a post-Cabinet press briefing, Williams announced that effective immediately, only grade six students at the primary level and grades 11, 12, and 13 at the secondary level should attend school for face-to-face learning.

But the revision of the operating protocols did not fully satisfy JTA President Jasford Gabriel, who said that all schools should have been shuttered.

Gabriel said the February spike was sufficient cause for pause.

“We remain a little disappointed. We continue to call for a full rollback with the face-to-face arrangement,” he told The Gleaner on Wednesday evening.

Gabriel argued that the ministry should revert to using scientific cues from its vulnerablity index to guide its decision and not the need for students to sit examinations.

But it is unclear whether the Government’s statement represents policy incohrence that could see tens of thousands of students still turning up for classes while public-school pupils stay at home.

Jamaica Independent Schools Association President Dr Faithlyn Wilson argued that while the directive issued by the Ministry of Education did not necessarily apply to private schools, they have been reassessing their operations.

“Like any other private business, private schools operate under the Disaster Risk Management Act and, therefore, have to obey the orders that are published under the act,” Wilson told The Gleaner Wednesday evening.

“Now if the Ministry of Education makes an announcement, that is not an order under the act, and, therefore, we are not required to respond, but good sense has to prevail.”

Wilson contended, though, that most private-school students do not use public transportation, which is a high-risk factor.

She also noted that many of the students attending private schools do so because they require special attention and it would be counterproductive if they were not engaged in face-to-face modality.

“If the need is for the children to be in schools and the parents are willing, we have to be prepared to accommodate that,” Wilson said, insisting that private schools would continue to abide by COVID-19 protocols.

The JISA president disclosed that based on feedback from private schools, there was no report of alarming spread in schools.

“We have heard of a few suspected cases and the protocols were implemented. It is not widespread,” she said.

There are an estimated 600 private schools in Jamaica, 150 of them having membership with JISA.

Concerns are bound to linger about the significant learning loss that has been registered nationwide since schools were shuttered in mid-March 2020 when COVID-19 first emerged here.

And that deficit could widen for public-school students, many of whom are already at a competitive disadvantage compared to private students, if face-to-face classes are off-limits for an extended period.

The education minister said that non-external-exam students should be engaged through online or audio-visual instruction on radio and television as well as through drop-offs.

“We ask them to be in touch with their teachers – they have their textbooks, they have their worksheets – and we will continue with our mobile intervention as well in which we go into the communities with our small groups of students who have not been engaged in the school system,” Williams said.

To date, the education ministry has approved more than 400 schools for face-to-face learning, but of that number, about 300 had restarted those operations.

As at February 21, the education ministry said that 41 schools had reported positive or suspected cases of COVID-19.

It is also reported that 47 students had contracted the virus and there were six suspected cases among staff.

At York Castle High School in Brown’s Town, St Ann, where classes were suspended just last week after a student was diagnosed with COVID-19, principal Raymon Treasure said that the new guideline would not directly affect operations there as only students preparing for exams were attending classes.

“Only our upper-school students who were sitting exams, and that was the case for most of the high schools in this parish as far as I know,” Treasure said.

He said that while students have been adjusting to the pre-COVID arrangements and should be ready for exams in May and June, there are some who would be left behind.

“The reality, though, is that quite a number of students are going to be left behind because they don’t have access to the Internet.”

Treasure said students have to make conscious decisions to drop some subjects and focus more on those they have chosen to sit.

Following the suspension of face-to-face classes recently, a resumption of in-person teaching is expected in about two weeks’ time, the principal said.

Meanwhile, at St Ann’s Bay Primary School, where face-to-face classes had not yet been resumed, principal Trevor Cole told The Gleaner that he supported the ministry’s latest move.

“The safety of all must take precedence over all other activities, so in an effort to curtail and to control the spread of the virus, I would be in support of that decision at this point,” Cole said.

editorial@gleanerjm.com