STATEMENT BY DEPUTY PREMIER AND MINISTER FOR EDUCATION,
CULTURE, YOUTH AFFAIRS, FISHERIES AND AGRICULTURE
DR. THE HONOURABLE NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
AT THE SIXTH SITTING OF THE THIRD SESSION OF
THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
THURSDAY, MARCH 5, 2021
EDUCATION UPDATE LENT TERM
Mister Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to share with this Honourable House and the entire community updates on the progress in schools since the start of the 2020/2021 school year and into the second term. We have been doing our utmost to have the schools function as close to normal as possible, so we have been encouraging a return to a series of our annual calendar of events. Most schools have completed Sports Day events, and at the end of this week will be the Inter-Primary school competition. We have made some major adjustments to the number of students representing their schools from over 40 to eight during this COVID period. A few weeks ago, we celebrated the counsellors during Counsellors’ week, and on Monday 8th March several schools celebrated Commonwealth Day.
Mister Speaker, all schools have been observing the Covid-19 protocols established by the Ministry of Health and approved by Cabinet, such as having extra wash stations for the washing of hands and classrooms equipped with sanitisation stations for students. The six-feet social distancing guidelines are in place in all schools. Classes are conducted on all campuses utilising the phased approach. Except in the cases of schools with small numbers, such as Ivan Dawson, Claudia Creque and Jost Van Dyke Primary, where all students attend classes daily on campus, schools implemented the hybrid/blended learning approach for students to receive some in-class as well as online instruction throughout the week. For many schools, a shift system is in place to ensure that all students have some form of in-class sessions.
Due to the number of students enrolled at the Elmore Stoutt High School, selected groups from Grades 7 – 9 are attending classes on campus, while the majority of students in those grades remain in online classes. The infrastructural works have been on-going at the Bregado Flax Educational Centre. As a result of the construction, the number of students on the high school campus secondary division have been limited to the technical students, special education and marginalised groups. For the Ivan Dawson Primary School, infrastructural works and campus clean-up have begun. In the meantime, in order to ensure that students have some classroom instructional time, since January 11th, 2021, the school is occupying the Cane Garden Bay Baptist Church hall for classes. I thank Dr. Melvin Turnbull, Dr. Michael Turnbull, and the District representative, Honourable Melvin “Mitch" Turnbull for helping to facilitate this. Further, maintenance works at the Leonora Delville Primary School have started, and some projects are now completed at Alexandrina Maduro Primary School, Ebenezer Thomas Primary School, Francis Lettsome Primary School and Robinson O’Neal Memorial Primary School.
Mister Speaker, I am well aware of the challenges that parents, teachers, and students have in coping with the impact of COVID-19. I celebrate our resilience, and I can say that, without a shadow of a doubt, we are turning a corner in our fight against COVID-19. It has not been an easy time for teachers, students, parents and employers, but we are grateful to God that we are poised to make improvements now due to our commendable management of COVID-19.
I will be requesting through Cabinet very shortly that consideration be given for a reduction in the social distancing in classrooms from six-feet to three feet. This reduction will allow for more classrooms to accommodate more students, eliminating in most instances, the double sessions for teachers. Mister Speaker, we are seeking ways to address the challenges that our children and education system are facing while ensuring we remain vigilant in keeping our children safe.
Mister Speaker, I have engaged the Ministry of Health on what would be required to further normalise our education system, and their refrain has been consistent. The vaccination of the population is the means by which our travel, our churches, our entertainment, our businesses, and, yes, our education system return to normalcy. Therefore, I engaged the Ministry of Health to make vaccinations of teachers and parents a priority.
Mister Speaker, recent information posted indicates that as of 3rd March, there were 4,450 persons that have received COVID-19 vaccinations, and I am pleased to inform this Honourable House that several educators have taken the first dose of the vaccine and many more will be ready for shots when the second batch arrives in about a week. Mister Speaker, as an example to those in the education system I, too, have taken the vaccine and have lived to tell the tale. I pulled the guns out, and in a matter of seconds, it was all over. I congratulate the Ministry of Health for the awesome job they are doing with the vaccine roll out.
Mister Speaker, there is some fear that the vaccine will be forced on teachers and parents. I wish to assure the public that the vaccinations remain voluntary. I understand the concerns of those who are hesitant to take the vaccine. To help allay the concerns of those who are skeptical, we have arranged with our health professionals special sessions for our educators. Some schools have held discussion sessions with staff on the vaccine, and, by the end of this week, we would have confirmed sessions for the other schools. We must thank Dr. Ronald Georges and members of his medical team along with community minded private doctors who have been making the presentations and engaging discussions about the vaccine.
The struggle for adequate internet coverage in schools continues, but I am pleased to say that some progress was made over the last months in the build out of the internet infrastructure that should address the coverage on campus. During the course of this term, the mounting of promethean boards in schools was completed. This will help with the delivery of the lessons, accommodating students in class as well as those online. Partnering with the Department of Information Systems (DoIt), plans are on stream to further equip schools to improve internet coverage on campus.
Mister Speaker we have had significant improvements with the number of students having devices to use. Where possible, we saw a number of parents purchasing or loaning devices for the students. We received the laptops that were purchased through the Government’s stimulus package, close to 500, and these were made available for the students to use through the loan programme. We have also received a further 855 laptops through a loan from the Caribbean Development Bank. Also, over the last term, many students were gifted with hundreds of devices by private businesses or non-profit organisations. I must say, Mister Speaker, that the public/private partnership has been extremely good, and I take the opportunity to thank our private businesses and organisations for their tangible contributions to education.
For the staff, training will continue. Professional Development sessions engaged the staff in workshops by subject and grade. Also, we have engaged support staff in areas that will improve the delivery of the services they offer that impact the daily administration of education.
This week, March 7 to 13, we will be observing Education Week under the theme, “Educating all in Changing Times.” We have a great line up of activities that started on Sunday afternoon 7th March with the Opening Ceremony at the Eileene L. Parsons auditorium. Students from various schools participated in the programme, and I gave remarks and declared the week opened. There are several highlights happening throughout the week, including the secondary schools’ debate finals taking place today, with the Claudia Creque Educational Centre and the Bregado Flax Educational Centre, both 9th district public schools, debating the moot “Virtual Learning has Caused more Problems for Virgin Islands’ Students than it has Solved,” and, later this evening, there will be the annual Early Childhood Book parade on Facebook. The Inter-Primary Sports will be held at the A. O. Shirley Recreation Ground on this Friday, and on Saturday evening, a special event is being planned for educators. There will be a daily media presentation by selected students celebrating teachers. I extend an invitation to the members of this Honourable House to support the Ministry in all the activities. During the week, there will also be a special feature of the Virgin Islands Youth Parliament with the First Sitting of their First Session on Thursday the 12th at 5:00 p.m. at the Save the Seed Centre. The Youth Parliament will be debating the moot – Should the BVI move towards Self Determination.
Mister Speaker, I take this opportunity to announce the establishment of the Education Advisory Board, of which Stacy Mather is the president and Kayron Todman the Vice-President. We thank those who have agreed to serve as they advise me on all things education.
Mister Speaker, I express thanks to the Chief Education Officer and her staff at the Ministry, principals and staff in all schools, the maintenance team, and parents for their non-stop commitment and hard work. We continue to strive to offer our students the best educational opportunities given the constraints of COVID-19. We endeavour to educate all in these changing times. I ask for the continued cooperation and patience of all as we work through the anomalies presented daily as a result of the worldwide prevalence of the pandemic.
Mister Speaker, I thank you.