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Despite hiccups, director says Region Four ready for school

Published:Sunday | October 4, 2020 | 12:14 AMMark Titus - Staff Reporter
Residents of Little Bay in Westmoreland collect their children’s schoolwork from Keron King, principal of Little Bay Infant and All-Age School.
Contributed Residents of Little Bay in Westmoreland collect their children’s schoolwork from Keron King, principal of Little Bay Infant and All-Age School.

It is not a welcome start to the school year for Hubert Cassidy*, whose child suffers from disabilities that have made learning a challenge over the years.

His second-born attends the Llandilo School of Special Education that operates at three locations across western Jamaica, and has been making progress since she was accepted for specialised schooling a few years ago, but the out-of-work sous chef is surprised that only some students will receive tablets for distance learning.

“The ministry should have spoken to us from early, not on the eve of the start to school, and that is what has left me disappointed because it is very costly to care for a child that has challenges like my daughter, and COVID makes it worse,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “Some of us have even lost our jobs.”

According to Cassidy, the school recently contacted him to ask if he was in a position to purchase a tablet for his child after receiving devices for just half of the students.

“My child was making steady progress before school was disrupted, and I understand the unpopular decisions that must be made, but why give some and ask others to find money to purchase the device? It is just not fair.”

The school accepts special-needs students from the age of six years old to 21 and offers four core subjects in language, mathematics, life skills and technology.

Interim Principal Greogery Hewitt would not speak on the matter, but sources close to the school’s operation confirmed that 123 of the 254 students were left out in the cold.

When contacted last Friday, Sharon Anderson Watson, the national coordinator and director of the Special Education Unit in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, said she needed permission to speak with The Sunday Gleaner.

During a virtual press conference last Wednesday, Acting Chief Education Officer Dr Kasan Troupe said that the ministry had pumped millions of dollars into supporting 4,000 students in need of specialised training. She also reported that approximately 350 special-needs students were still without their devices.

In addition, Troupe said that the arrangement in relation to the engagement of caregivers for students has been changed as a result of COVID-19, and will require them working on the home level to support the parents.

Dr Michelle Pinnock, regional director of the education ministry’s Region Four, says she is comfortable with the level of preparation by schools under her watch.

“I am at a place where we are comfortable,” she said. “We have had empowerment sessions for teachers and principals, … and we have been having sessions with our parents.”

Pinnock says steps are being taken to establish Internet and Wi-Fi hotspots in communities where broadband is either unreliable or non-existent through partnerships with ReadyTV and the Westmorland-based Cornerstone Jamaica.

“We are working on that, [but] remember now that virtual or distance learning does not only include Internet-based modalities,” she explained. “We have a diverse set of resources – those that will be Internet-based, those that are printed materials and textbooks, which have already been distributed to our principals.”

For the first week, schools within the region – St James, Hanover and Westmoreland – will be focused on the psychosocial needs of each child to ensure that all involved are mentally ready.

“What we are trying to promote in my region is a village approach so we are trying to get the church and private sector group,” Pinnock said.

However, there is no such luck for privately operated schools, a discussion that Dr Faithlyn Wilson, president of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association, was not willing to entertain when The Sunday Gleaner contacted her. But checks at Emann Preparatory School in Montego Bay revealed that parents are now making adjustments for tutoring from home, after the authorities pulled the plug on all face-to-face engagements, which was initially an option for working parents under strict Ministry of Health and Wellness guidelines.

There are also reports that the Government has not followed through on commitments of one-off financial support for educators operating in the private school system.

At Little Bay Infant and All-Age School in Westmoreland, Principal Kerron King, who had been using a motorcycle to deliver worksheets to his students when schools were ordered closed in March, has received a major $300,000 boost to establish a reading room to serve the students and residents of the fishing village from the Digicel Foundation.

“Given the COVID situation, we want to ensure equity and accessibility are met for these students,” said King. “We want to purchase a printer that will assist those students who do not have access to the Internet at home to come here, print and take home reading and learning materials for use during these uncertain times.”

*Name changed.