STATEMENT BY MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, CULTURE, YOUTH AFFAIRS, FISHERIES AND AGRICULTURE
HONOURABLE NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
AT THE FOURTEENTH SITTING OF THE SECOND SESSION OF THEFOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2020
UPDATE ON THE REOPENING OF SCHOOLS
Mr. Speaker, it is my duty to update the people of the Virgin Islands on the phased reopening of schools. During my statement on the reopening of schools on Tuesday, 25th August, 2020, I announced that our phased plan to reopen schools was derailed due to a spike in Covid-19 cases in the Territory. I also stated that this decision would be reviewed in the weeks that followed. Since then we have had dozens of active cases. Through the leadership of the Minister of Health and the HEOC team and the cooperation of the public, we have been able to contain this latest outbreak of the Corona Virus, and for this we give all thanks to God! But we are not out of the woods yet, and, Mr. Speaker, I encourage everyone to remain vigilant and adhere to the various health and social distancing guidelines as we continue in our efforts to combat the virus.
As a result of the continued progress that the Territory has experienced with the identification and isolation of positive cases, with the widespread testing and reduction of new positive cases, and with the many recoveries of infected persons, I am pleased to announce, Mr. Speaker, that we are now poised to resume our phased reopening of schools.
During last week’s Cabinet meeting, Cabinet received the HEOC COVID-19 Situation Report #28 and made various decisions in regard to the Territory's schools.
Mr. Speaker, one such decision was to instruct the Attorney General's Chambers to amend the Suppression Order No. 6 to allow private schools, day-care centres, pre-schools and colleges to open for in-school instruction where approved, following inspection by the Social Monitoring Task Force and the Ministry of Education, and in compliance with the Social Distancing Protocols of six feet and Sanitisation Measures.
Mr. Speaker, it is of paramount importance that everyone understands that all educational institutions must have measures in place to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our children and our teachers, as stipulated in our “Framework for the Reopening of Schools”, or they will not be allowed to open. This is a serious responsibility that we must all work together on.
Mr. Speaker, our public school system will also open, but in a phased manner. We recognize that all students are not able to access online education in the same way and, therefore, Cabinet further decided to allow the following groups back into our public school classrooms:
i. technical education students;
ii. students with special needs; and
iii. marginalised students and adult education students, as specified and approved by the Chief Education Officer.
Mr. Speaker, last week, a new Public Health (COVID-19 Control and Suppression Measures) (No. 7) Order, 2020 has now been gazetted to give effect to Cabinet’s decision. As was done during the Trinity term, all institutions are asked to make the necessary preparations and contact the Chief Education Officer, who will make the arrangements for inspection with the Environmental Health Division.
Mr. Speaker, all schools will be expected to comply with the requirements outlined in the Ministry’s Framework for the Reopening of Schools, which include some of the following provisions:
1. Mr. Speaker, all persons on school campuses must wear a mask or face shield. Visitors to school campuses will be restricted. Each school will decide how visitors will be accommodated with the restricted guidelines. School schedules will be outlining lunch and break periods and having them occur in a staggered manner to ensure a control of students gathering in groups.
2. Mr. Speaker, I wish to emphasize that schools should continue to engage students through a series of online interactive sessions utilising Cisco Webex, Zoom online platform, Class Dojo, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Google Meet, and Google hangout, combined with the Google classroom, emails and Power School for sending and receiving assignments even for those who are attending classes on the campus.
3. Mr. Speaker, I already outlined the plans of the Ministry for this academic year to ensure that we work with every child to get the best academic results. I am calling on all parents to be diligent in ensuring that your child has a structured place in which to engage in school.
4. Mr. Speaker, over the next few weeks, I will engage in further discussions as I seek to have another phase of the reopening framework implemented. The schools will be prepared appropriately to accommodate students. Clear demarcations must be placed separating the spaces for each student. Wash basins must be visible for hand washing; sanitisers must be in all classrooms for on-going sanitation throughout the day.
Mr. Speaker, before I close, I am pleased that the ICT Unit of the Ministry has been able to commence the distribution of Virgin Islands Digital Education (VIDE) ahead of the start of a new school year. I am aware that there have been some challenges which have resulted in the interruption to the distribution schedule. I was disappointed to learn about the extensive damages to the loaned devices. This lack of due care and attention to protecting these loaned devices has contributed to the current challenges. I wish to give parents the assurance, however, that the Unit is working tirelessly to make additional VIDES available and to create alternative solutions to the existing challenges. For those parents who have already collected their devices, please note that the ICT Unit is in the process of emailing the credentials to allow students to access the application on the VIDES. Emails are being sent to the students’ VI schools accounts. The ICT Unit will continue this exercise so that students who have already collected their VIDES can access the textbooks.
Mr. Speaker, I know that some parents in Grades 7 to 9 are becoming anxious because they have not yet received their VIDES. However, I wish to assure them that during these first two weeks, no new material will be taught. Emphasis will be on various orientations, providing psychosocial support, coping strategies, COVID-19 health and safety tips, classroom etiquette, classroom expectations, including online etiquette, overview of the course material for the term, submission of assignments, academic ethics. During week two, emphasis will be on building basic subject readiness skills. By the end of this period, we expect to have solved the existing challenges.
Mr. Speaker, we are indeed grateful to God for this breakthrough to allow some of our students to return to the classroom. Mr. Speaker we came together virtually on this past Sunday, 20th September, 2020 to thank God for his grace and tender mercies. We committed the 2020/2021 school year into his hands in our Annual Back to School Church Service. I thank the Acting Chief Education Officer, Mrs. Connie George and Education Officer, Mrs. Heida Selwood, for organising the service, and I thank all those who participated. It was truly a wonderful way to start the school year.
Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to update the public on our plans for a phased reopening of schools. May God continue to bless the people of these Virgin Islands.