Students head back to school Monday in an environment never before experienced by them after the coronavirus forced schools across the country to close almost six months ago.
However, unlike other countries in the world where the virus’ outbreak has caused much anxiety amongst teachers, students and authorities over school reopening, students and teachers here will be entering a new school year with the country devoid of a single case of the virus.
This does not mean that parents, students and teachers are not without anxiety, a level of which the Ministry of Health and Wellness claimed to be anticipating, however such anxieties should not be at a high level because, according to the Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sharon Belmar-George earlier this week “Presently all of the recorded cases of COVID-19 have recovered and Saint Lucia has recorded zero COVID-19 deaths.”
She noted that the reopening of the education sector should not be conceived as unimportant to the national plan for managing the virus and that the decision to reopen schools was guided by a risk based approach to retain the health and safety of students, staff and the community.
“Evidence based measures guided the recommendations and protocols that have been put in place to open up the economy and to ensure our population could live safely with COVID-19. The very same approach is being applied to the re-opening of our schools,” The CMO said.
According to her, the factors considered when it came to the schools reopening included, amongst others, an understanding of COVID-19 transmission specifically as it relates to children, the location of the schools being open and their setting within the community, and the Department of Education’s ability to implement the necessary control measures.
Dr. Belmar-George spoke about being guided by a document from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control that deals with children and the role of schools settings in the transmission of COVID-19.
“We have to look at how COVID-19 manifest in our children of school age,” she said noting that children are less likely to be hospitalized or have fatal outcomes compared to adults, and that Children are likely to have mild or asymptomatic infection and that very few significant outbreaks of COVID-19 have been documented in schools.
“Investigation of cases identified in school settings suggest that child transmission in schools is uncommon and not the primary source of infection while attending school. If the necessary measures, physical distancing and hygiene are applied schools are unlikely to be the environment for the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Belmar-George said.
The CMO said the decision on control measures in schools should be consistent with measures in the community and that the wider population, primarily adults, should adhere to the recommendations issued by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
How the Department of Education would handle the re-opening of school has been a subject of discussion amongst education officials, including the Saint Lucia Teachers’ Union for the past two months or so, becoming a subject of national importance during that time.
Chief Education Officer Dr. Fiona Mayer said the re-opening of school was not taken lightly by the Department of Education and that the first course of action was to get confirmation through the Department of Health, particularly from the office of the Chief Medical Officer.
The Department of Education is not operating from the dark in that it had a dry run when it brought in Grade Six students to write their Common Entrance Exams.
Michelle Charles, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Innovation and Gender Relations noted that the re-opening of school became a reality after much discussion, engagement and consultation.
“Our primary responsibility is to ensure that instruction and learning are carried out in an environment which is healthy and friendly,” she said.
According to the Department of Education there are two proposed options for instructional engagements for the new school year and that individual schools will be communicating what obtains at their schools, directly to parents.
Option one is the whole school approach whereby students will attend school classes four days a week – Monday to Thursday. The fifth day Friday will be used as an in-school teacher planning and general sanitation day.
Option two would require students to attend school with alternate days of instruction based on student population. With large school populations, smaller groupings per class/grade based on 3 ft. distance will be formed and students will attend school for the entire day on alternate days.
Mayers said that approval of the whole school approach was dependent upon student numbers, availability of physical infrastructure and human resource. She added that students will have three face to face instructional days and three distributed learning days to include virtual, activity worksheets and projects, while the seventh day will serve as an in-school teacher planning day and general sanitation day.
The Department of Education said it worked to ensure that schools were retrofitted with the physical infrastructure like washing stations, an increase in cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff and students as well as sick bays.