Fri | Oct 15, 2021

Teacher vax rebellion looms

Published:Wednesday | July 28, 2021 | 12:10 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Linvern Wright
Linvern Wright

School leaders across Jamaica are bristling against Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ proposal to offer preferential treatment to vaccinated teachers as the Government seeks to push ahead with a return to face-to-face classes in September after...

School leaders across Jamaica are bristling against Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ proposal to offer preferential treatment to vaccinated teachers as the Government seeks to push ahead with a return to face-to-face classes in September after reports of staggering learning loss over the last 16 months.

Holness has been warned that his controversial proposition – centred on differentiated remuneration and COVID-19 testing protocols – could stoke a rebellion among the island’s more than 20,000 teachers – historically one of the most volatile public-sector groups.

The prime minister, who floated the idea in a Jamaica House press briefing on Monday, said that the Government would engage in dialogue with union leaders at the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA).

“The incentive structure has to be created in such a way that teachers choose to get vaccinated, and those who get vaccinated could not be treated in the same way as those who don’t,” Holness had said.

But educators like principal of Maxfield Park Primary School, Tracey-Ann Holloway-Richards, described Holness’ proposal as unfair, arguing that some teachers have opted not to get the jab because of risks associated with underlying illnesses.

“It wouldn’t be fair for somebody to get preferential treatment, because you can take the vaccine and I can’t take it. I have quite a few teachers on my staff who can’t take it,” she lamented.

Of the 24 teachers at her institution, seven have been fully vaccinated.

Furthermore, she said Jamaica does not have sufficient vaccines available to inoculate its teachers. That reality is set to change soon, however, with Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton revealing that 1.4 million vaccine doses will be delivered to the island by the end of September. That includes a tranche of 300,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca gifted by the British government that is due in less than a week.

President of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools (JAPSS), Linvern Wright, asserted that Holness would need to consider how preferential treatment affects the rights or morale of individual teachers.

He said the vaccination take-up among principals appears to be high.

The JAPSS president could not provide specific statistics offhand for the teaching staff at William Knibb Memorial High, where he serves as principal, but said many staff members have taken the vaccine, while there are others who remain sceptical.

“The prime minister runs the risk of resistance, as many who are against will be upset regarding privileges for those who are vaccinated and for many it could be read as an attempt to force them to vaccinate,” Wright told The Gleaner on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, JTA president-elect for the administrative year 2020-2021, Winston Smith, said he is awaiting further clarity on the proposed incentive scheme, as he believes all educators should be treated equally on the score of compensation.

Seven of his 23 teachers at Golden Spring Primary School have been vaccinated. He noted that other teachers attempted to get the jab but were turned away from vaccination sites because of shortages.

“Unless there is a saturation of vaccines on the market and it is available for everybody to get at will, it’s a little unfortunate for a conversation like this to be had when there is scarcity of the vaccine. I know there is a promise of vaccines coming into the country, but that is a future activity, not a present one,” Smith said.

That reference underscored Jamaica’s vaccination crisis as epidemiologists sounded a warning of a third wave of the virus on the horizon, with positivity rates rising to the mid-teens after weekend lockdowns from March to May drove down transmission rates to single digit.

Jamaica is a laggard among Caribbean countries in COVID-19 inoculation, with its per-capita vaccination rate leaving it in the lurch with neighbours Haiti, which only received its first doses two weeks ago.

Principal of Old Harbour High School, Lynton Weir, urged Holness to be careful about talk of preferential treatment, as it might further deepen inequity in the education system.

“I understand clearly the importance of us being vaccinated, but I think what our prime minister needs to do is to ensure that we have the vaccines onshore. Having the vaccines onshore, the conversation would be different if individuals were not taking it. It’s not a situation where people are flatly not taking it,” Weir said.

The St Catherine-based principal added that the Holness administration should also be mindful that teachers are not the only staff members who operate within the school environment, as administrative and ancillary staff are crucial to the functioning of educational institutions.

At his school, there are 132 teachers, 15 administrative staff and 22 ancillary staff members.

Four teachers have indicated to him that they have been vaccinated, but he said there may be others who have not shared their immunisation status.

Instead, Holloway-Richards advised the Holness administration to put greater focus on improving Internet access across the island and providing devices for learning – two factors that have been cited for the deficit in learning. Approximately 120,000 students have had negligible, if any, interaction with teachers since schools were shuttered in March 2020.

A surge this summer might scupper plans for the reopening of schools, said Holloway-Richards.

“By now, every nook and cranny should have had a satellite for Internet access, but up to now, we don’t have it. What will happen in August if the cases go back up and we have to go back to online classes? Jamaica is still not ready,” she lamented.

The Opposition People’s National Party seized on Holness’ indication that he would tighten COVID-19 regulations, using a partisan platform on the weekend to cast blame at him for the spike in cases. The new measures took effect on July 27.

Richard Azan, PNP caretaker for Clarendon North West and one of four vice-presidential nominees for the party, told a gathering on Saturday night to hold Holness responsible after he gave the green light for the reopening of the entertainment sector on July 1.

“You see COVID a rise? Because Andrew kip him party. Ah him cause it. And Comrades, every blame must be on Andrew Holness. Everybody who dead from COVID, blame Andrew Holness!” he told supporters at the Manchester Central annual constituency conference held at Manchester High School.

Holness has dismissed as false social-media buzz that he attended a party and has chided the Opposition for seeking to score political points.