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—teachers slam haphazard decision to reopen schools
—union demands immediate closure as Covid infections hit teachers, students
By Svetlana Marshall
Loopholes within the systems created to safeguard students and teachers from the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) while at school have created breeding ground for the virus to spread – resulting in a spike in cases since the reopening of schools to face-to-face learning on January 3, some teachers believe.
The Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), on January 5, reported that 65 teachers and 44 students were tested positive for COVID-19 within a period of two days. Those numbers have since increased for both categories. According to reliable information reaching the Village Voice Newspaper, new cases have been detected at the St. John’s College and the St. Gabriel’s Primary School among other schools.
Painting a vivid picture of the situation on the ground, a senior high school teacher in the city, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of victimization, said while teachers were provided with the COVID-19 Protocols and Guidelines, they were not consulted before the decision was taken by the Education Ministry to reopen schools to face-to-face learning amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.
As of January 6, 967 new cases were recorded within a 24-hour period, pushing the total number of confirmed cases to 42,385. Of that number more than 4,400 are active. Some 1,064 COVID related deaths have been recorded.
Amid this surge, the Education Ministry has remained adamant that schools will not be closed as it employs a rotational system for some grades. Notably, teachers are required to report for duty every day while at the secondary level, Grades 9,10 and 11 are required to attend school daily. Grades 7 and 8 students attend school on a rotational basis. Classes are also being rotated for primary school students.
According to the high school teacher, while teachers are concerned about the outcome of online teaching since it poses numerous challenges and reaches a smaller number of students, they are also concerned about their health and safety.
“We are even more concerned of the safety of the students, the teachers and their families since the lack of preparation and systems create a breathing ground for the spreading of COVID. We are eager to impart knowledge to our students but we are even more eager to keep them alive. With this said we believe that with the surge and the new variants students should remain at home until better systems are in place,” the teacher told the Village Voice Newspaper.
At the majority of schools, if not all, students and teachers are required to check their temperature, sanitise regularly and wear their mask all day. If any COVID-related symptoms are detected teachers are required to follow the Education Ministry’s Post-COVID 19 Exposure Policy.
However, the teacher believes the systems are not adequate. “There are too many loop holes. The students are not required to social distance. They are seated two in a bench in some instances. Due to this we had several instances of persons being compromised because someone failed to recognise the symptoms and isolate,” the high school teacher explained.
It was noted that though both teachers and students have tested positive at her school, classes have continued as per norm. “All we did was send home the positive persons and send the persons who were in contact or closer to the infected person without a mask to do a test,” the teacher explained.
In a correspondence to Regional Education Officers and Principal Education Officer, the Chief Education Officer Marcel Hutson, while acknowledging the positive cases within schools, issued the Education Ministry’s Post-COVID-19 Exposure Policy.
“It has been brought to our attention that several schools have been opening and closing as a result of reported cases of teachers contracting the COVID-19 virus. The approach managing these supposed cases has created some instability in the school system. To correct this practice and to create some semblance of order, the document attached must serve as a guiding principle regarding the operation of schools during the pandemic,” the CEO said in the correspondence dated September 9. The exposure policy details the steps that ought to be taken by teachers should there be a suspected case of the virus.
In an interview with the Village Voice Newspaper, GTU’s General Secretary Coretta McDonald said not enough is done to protect teachers, learners and other staff.
McDonald pointed out that between January 5 and January 6 an additional 40 cases were confirmed in the schools. “From then to now [January 5-6] we have had 40 confirmed cases reported to us by the teachers themselves. There are others who have not yet made their results known while others are awaiting results,” she disclosed.
It therefore means, when added to the initial number of cases reported by the union, approximate 149 teachers and students were tested positive for COVID during the first week of school (January 3-7). The figure, however, is estimated to be higher.
Given the seriousness of the issue, McDonald, who also serves as a Member of Parliament, said letters were dispatched to both the Ministry of Education and the President, Irfaan Ali but to no avail.
“The Union has continually been reaching out to the MOE, to no avail. We have even written to the President. No response,” she said.
However, it was disclosed that the Union was invited to a meeting with the Chief Education Officer on December 29, 2021 to discuss the reopening of schools on January 3, 2022.
“The Union agreed to meet on the 31stDecember, and our request then was to push the reopening of schools one week later,as this would allow for monitoring, checking and evaluation. It would also give scope for signs and symptoms of persons who are infected,etc, since we were just coming out of a hectic festive season where activities were in galore without care for COVID,” she explained.
However, the Education Ministry, during the meeting, merely cemented its position that schools across the country would be reopened on January 3 at all levels, except Grade 7, for face to face classes.
GTU is calling on the Ministry of Education to reverted to virtual classes for Grades 7-9 and Grades 1-4, as well as for Nursery, Years 1 and 2.
It said after a period of two months, schools should be evaluated to determine if there can be a phased addition of other classes for face to face. However, it underscored the importance of maintaining the 6ft apart rule, and as such for a single student to be assigned to one bench.
The need for proper lighting and ventilation, functional sanitary blocks and running water were also highlighted. “In many of the schools, running water is a major issue, non-functional washroom and crowded classrooms. These in our view should have been addressed while many classes were out,” McDonald detailed.
The Union is also calling for the reintroduction of worksheets or workbooks and phased parent conferences to be held. It is also calling on the Education Ministry to engage the Minibus Association and the Traffic Department with the hope of identifying a number of buses from the various routes which would be used specifically for picking up school children all across this country.
But notwithstanding the concerns of teachers and their unions, and even parents, President Ali, during a press conference on Wednesday, January 5, made it clear that schools will remain open. “In terms of school, we have seen all the cases so far and most countries, almost all the countries are saying we cannot close schools. We cannot close the education system,” the Head of State said.