'Not Possible' - JTA Pours Cold Water on Government's Education in Emergencies COVID-19 Plan

Publication Date: 
Friday, March 6, 2020

THE professional association representing teachers in the public school system across the island has thrown cold water on the Government's Education in Emergencies (EiE) alert system which requires that schools procure additional hygiene products and facilitate online and digital learning to prevent the potential spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

In bulletin 38/2020, titled 'Preventative Measures against Coronavirus' and dated March 3, 2020, the Ministry of Education advised regional directors, school board chairmen and principals of all public educational institutions that:

“The ministry has made arrangements for all schools to be provided with $30,000 to $50,000 to procure and make readily available to all students and staff hand sanitisers, hand-washing soap, Lysol and hand towels. School administrators are asked to procure these items with immediate effect from available funds.

“Primary schools will be reimbursed by March 6, 2020, while the secondary schools reimbursement will be sent in the fourth tranche of the regular grant that is due in April 2020.”

The bulletin made reference to the ministry's alert system, which it announced via a statement to the press on Wednesday.

In an interview with the Jamaica Observer yesterday, president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association Owen Speid said the details of the system needed to be fleshed out as it didn't appear to be well-thought-through.

“Who tells them that the funds are available?” He queried. “That's my first concern. My other concern is: Will this be a monthly, per-term, or a one-off disbursement, because the virus, if it hits, won't be one-off; it's going to continue and spread.

 “God forbid, but if it spreads, $30,000 is only going to be a drop in the bucket for even the smallest of schools. I would submit to them that the amount would have to be given maybe on a monthly basis, because we have shift schools with over 2,000 students,” said Speid.

The EiE is a three-tiered system speaking to various actions to be implemented at each stage of an emergency. At Level 1 or Green Alert, a bulletin is to be sent to all schools outlining tips and precautionary measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases such as COVID-19.

Level 2 or Amber Alert calls for an updated bulletin to be dispatched to all schools to heighten awareness and advise that precautionary measures be taken without compromise. Level 2 also requires schools to be provided with the aforementioned sums for procuring the sanitising products and making them readily available to all students and staff.

The final stage, Level 3 or Red Alert, requires school leaders to create online spaces to facilitate communication and sharing of learning materials, especially for students who are unwell or sitting exit exams. It speaks to schools being

• equipped with school management systems,

• teachers being trained to use online learning platforms and develop online assessments,

• supplying some with tablets loaded with appropriate content,

• partnership with Internet service providers to provide free data service at specific times during each day, and modem/data cards to be used in remote areas,

• partnership with exit exam bodies to delay examination schedules where necessary,

• rescheduling national exams and calendar activities where necessary,

• extending the school year or school days where necessary,

• deploying trauma teams to provide counselling and psycho-social and emotional support where required, and

• media broadcasts on varied learning episodes and coping strategies.

The ministry said its curriculum unit was currently preparing online learning kits to be uploaded to its website. It said, too, that Primary Exit Profile (PEP) practice booklets and PEP camp workbooks have been prepared for electronic distribution to support continued preparation.

But Speid remains less than impressed.

“It's not possible. There are some 40,000 students in Jamaica, and that's not touching early childhood, so I can't see them touching those numbers to provide access to the technology; I don't see them reaching the masses,” he insisted.

The are close to 800 public schools at the primary level operating in the island, and close to 300 at the secondary level.

“Many of the schools are not equipped now with the technology, but if the ministry says it will supply tablets and modems, then we'll see, but if it's going to be a piecemeal approach then that won't cut it,” he continued, asking how the ministry will decide which students are issued tablets and how it will manage the other students.

School leaders at both the primary and secondary levels with whom the Observer spoke yesterday generally agreed with Speid's views.

Principals from three primary schools in St Catherine, who asked that their names and those of their institutions be withheld, said they had no confidence they would receive the promised reimbursements today.

“The ministry does not have the money,” one of them said. “If they did have it to give it to us by today, according to the bulletin, why wouldn't they have given it to us upfront or buy the products and distribute to the schools?”

Another said: “For small schools, that [amount] will work, but it can't work for schools with big populations. And how long is it going to last?”

The other school leader detailed current issues with content and delivery of textbooks provided by the Government and asked how the ministry would get online education right if it is struggling with the traditional method.

“This whole system is a joke!” she added.

The principal of a Kingston school recounted his experience a few years ago when Zika virus was a threat.

“I got three small bottles of repellent for the entire school. The entire school! That should have been for one class. So I want to see how much of that money, if any, we are going to get back, because never have they paid us back for anything so quickly, if ever,” he said.

“These people living in Utopia! I've been waiting for tablets for three years now. The computers I have in my school, I got them myself, so most of what they are saying is just for show,” the school head continued.

He also pointed to the pace at which the products in question were being sold, arguing that the ministry should have procured the items and distributed to schools instead.

Principal of Cumberland High School Darien Henry said there seems to be a disconnect between policy and school operations and stressed that schools, given the large numbers of students they house at any one time, need to be prominent members of the national COVID-19 response.

“The school system is ripe for this kind of spread, so we need better particulars as to how to treat with this in the context of schooling. And while we welcome the funds, we need better particulars about how it will be operationalised,” he said.

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