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Classroom confusion

The Government is being urged to provide clear directions on the way forward for the education sector following ambiguous announcements over the past week.

Last Wednesday, Education Minister Fayval Williams used a post-Cabinet media briefing to announce that effective immediately only students who are to sit exit external exams were to be allowed in schools for face-to-face classes as the country continues to grapple with the brutal effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“For schools that are operating in the face-to-face mode we have made an adjustment, and we have directed that those schools … only have students from grade six, which is the exit for our primary schools, and students in grades 11, 12 and 13 in our secondary schools,” said Williams.

“All other students will stay at home and utilise the online learning platform or the audiovisual approach, which will be watching the lessons on television [and] listening to lessons on radio, and we do have a national schedule published to inform all our students and parents as to what time these lessons will be on,” added Williams.

Hours later, faced with what is believed to have been push-back from the operators of private schools, the education ministry told the Jamaica Observer that the directive from the minister applied only to State-run institutions.

But on Sunday Prime Minister Andrew Holness used a virtual media briefing to announce that the end of face-to-face classes for lower school students applied to both public and private institutions.

However, Holness said pre-schoolers could continue to attend nurseries which would continue face-to-face for the little ones.

“Nurseries are kept open but remember now nurseries have the very strict and stringent set of protocols and indeed it is so strict that some of them have complained that it is very expensive to put them in place.

“But we have kept them open; we have considered the essential, especially for those people who have to go work in this new regime,” said Holness.

Yesterday, there was confusion in sections of the Corporate Area as some parents were met with closed kindergartens which have nurseries attached.

As the complaints from parents mounted, Opposition spokeswoman on education Angela Brown-Burke urged the Government to provide a clear statement on the sector as the virus spreads.

“I am as confused as the next person and I am wondering if the minister herself, and persons in the education ministry, are not just as confused,” Brown-Burke told the Observer.

“We heard initially that the schools were only going to be dealing face-to-face with the students in the exam grades. The private schools came out and they gave a rational explanation as to why they were keeping all their grades open, and it made perfect sense. Then the prime minister came and said no, you too need to close.

“I have always thought the nurseries and pre-primary is not education that can be done virtually. Our children are suffering and the damage that is being done to them is going to be untold. At the level below primary, where they need the socialisation and when they need to interact with other children they are losing that,” added Brown-Burke as she backed the decision to keep preschools open.

It appeared, she argued, that the Holness Administration is not taking the impact of COVID-19 on the education sector as seriously as needed.

“I believe that we need to look at education as a big business that is too big to fail… We have to live with COVID, so let’s find a way to do it safely. The major concern is the risk because people are concerned about the number of cases, and I keep saying that I know there is a spike in Jamaica, but Jamaica is a big island and every community, every area, is not seeing the same thing.

“If some businesses can be open, and I agree with them being open, why can’t we find a safe way to open schools?” Brown-Burke asked.

In justifying the decision to pivot away from face-to-face classes for lower-school students last week, the education minister had argued that data on the number of COVID-19 cases in the island had led to the change.

“Our risk-based model that has guided us in our process continues to be used. We continue to input new data that we receive into the model, and as we analyse the data, and as we go along, we cannot ignore the caution lights that we are seeing from this data,” said Williams.

She noted that more than 400 schools have been approved for face-to-face classes so far, but only about 300 actually opened their doors.

Up to last Wednesday, 41 schools had reported confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

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