Principal on mission to get students back in classroom

WITH the best interest of her 50 students at heart, Arlene Ashley has embarked on a mission to make Mahoe Hill Primary and Infant School in Broadgate, St Mary, fit to pass a public health inspection for the resumption of face-to-face learning.

Ashley, the school’s principal for 13 years, says her students have to contend with severe Internet connectivity issues. Since the onset of the novel coronavirus in March last year, online learning has become a major feature of the country’s education system.

“Connectivity is really down, I would say probably even below zero. At school, we have no Internet. When I have to do my work, I have to stay home in order to get that done. I definitely need Internet here. If my EO [education officer] calls me now to say I have a meeting at 1:00 pm, I have to leave and go home [for the meeting because there is] no Internet here,” Ashley told the Jamaica Observer on a visit to the school in Mahoe Hill last week.

Citing reports from parents and teachers, the principal added that students are having “extreme challenges” that have affected how they are taught.

“I’d definitely love to have them back face-to-face, but we have not yet met the standards by the Ministry of Education to go [to] face-to-face [learning],” she said.

The Ministry of Education has outlined guidelines that must be met before schools can be approved for reopening. The guidelines include rearranged seating in classrooms to facilitate social distancing, plans being in place for the distribution of basic equipment and materials needed for sanitisation purposes, buildings being cleaned prior to the resumption of school and daily, while school is in operation, as well as identifying an isolation area for students and staff who may become ill or show symptoms of COVID-19.

With Minister of Education Fayval Williams announcing that 216 schools have been approved for face-to-face classes following a two-week test run with 17 low-risk schools last November, the lack of an isolation area has been the hiccup in Principal Ashley’s plan to be among the approved schools.

“That’s why I’m here today to finish up what I’m doing. I must have an isolation area and that is what I am working on,” she told the Observer. “We have a cottage that was out of use, and so I’ve been preparing it to use as the isolation area.

“I need a bathroom door and the windows aren’t closing properly, so I would like to change those out,” she said, noting that the cottage, which currently stores old materials, hasn’t been used in 13 years.

Ashley is also transforming a shed on the compound into a checkpoint, where students will have temperature checks and be sanitised.

“I used my own vehicle to carry sand over the river to finish up the shed. And when mi a carry it, it mash up mi transmission. So, I lost a vehicle, but God knows best,” Ashley recounted.

She said she now pays the operator of a motor-van to get the sand to the school.

“I already paid somebody to carry some, but the contractor said he needed more. So I have to pay again to get someone to carry them across. I’m doing all of this because I really want to get the students back in school,” she insisted.

For the most part, Ashley said, all the other guidelines have been met, due largely to financial aid from the education ministry.

“Every school would’ve received money from the Ministry of Education. The school got a cheque that told us to buy tanks to conserve water in case we should have lock-offs, and we got money to secure things to help with COVID-19 preparations. So we used that to buy PPE [personal protective equipment], wash station equipment, sanitisers, and all that stuff. So we have all of those; it’s just to get the space ready.

“I put in a face basin for hand-washing, I put in a toilet bowl, and I am installing a tank now, so I can have water there. I begged all of those,” she said. “I bought some things from a hardware for the school, and a lady there donated the face basin to me. I had a bowl at home that I wasn’t using, so I took that one over here, so those things didn’t really cost me.”

Mayor of Port Maria Richard Creary told the Observer that he would have the councillor for the area find out what’s happening at Mahoe Hill Primary and Infant School.

“There are also issues in terms of persons not having the adequate devices and so on. We are in a pandemic, so we would expect that there would be challenges and there are challenges, but I don’t think it’s anything insurmountable. The Government is trying to provide the devices and Internet accessibility to more locations within the country and within the parish, but one size doesn’t fit all. I know there are a number of institutions where the majority of persons are doing online schooling,” he said.

“If we know what the deficiencies are, I will try and see how we can act; even to see if we could get some private sector assistance,” Creary said.

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