STATEMENT BY MINISTER FOR EDUCATION, CULTURE, YOUTH AFFAIRS, FISHERIES AND AGRICULTURE
DR. THE HONOURABLE NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
DURING THE ELEVENTH SITTING OF THE THIRD SESSION OF THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY OF THE VIRGIN ISLANDS
THURSDAY 12TH AUGUST, 2021
THE REOPENING OF 2021-2022 SCHOOL YEAR
Mister Speaker, I would have made a statement to the Virgin Islands on Tuesday regarding the opening of school, and I believe that it is important that it be read into the records of the this Honourable House, so when future parliamentarians take their place and look back at history, they would know exactly what was done and said in the Honourable House at a specific point in our history.
Mister Speaker, it is a difficult time in our history right now, in fact, around the world, for we are all experiencing the threat of COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of hundreds and thousands of people and 37 here at home.
COVID-19 has spread throughout our Virgin Islands and has robbed us of many of those we love. My Ministry is no exception.
Several of the hardworking and dedicated public officers under the Ministry have been affected by this vicious pandemic.
I take this opportunity to offer sincere condolences to those within the Ministry, the wider education system and the wider Virgin Islands who are coping with the loss of loved ones.
Despite the difficult circumstances we have had to endure, there is so much that we can still continue to praise and give God thanks for.
We were able to make it through the entire 2020-2021 school year without one COVID-19 case affecting our school system. Thank God because the safety of our students, teachers, and administrators is our top priority!
We all are well aware that we had a major spike in active COVID-19 cases in the month of July that, unfortunately, forced a few graduation ceremonies to be held online.
COVID-19 also interrupted plans for our summer programmes and even canceled our traditional Emancipation Celebration. However, our Emancipation Service was held virtually this year to ensure that people continued to remain safe during COVID-19.
This year’s service reflected on our ancestral history and emancipation story. This was important because we must continue to remember the strength of our ancestors and fore-parents, who, like us, went through similar experiences and they always came together, unified for the Virgin Islands, and our action must be no different.
In addition, a special remembrance was held in the virtual service for those who lost their lives to the COVID-19 virus.
Now more than ever, the Virgin Islands must continue to unite in the strength of prayer and purpose. For despite the disappointments, we can be thankful to our God that, through the measures agreed and implemented, through the diligence of our professionals in healthcare, through the adherence of the vast majority of the public, we have decreased the number of active cases of COVID-19 from over 1600 to under 150 cases, bringing this meteoric spike under control just in time for the reopening of school.
As a result of this drastic decrease in cases, the Unified Command Team of the Health Emergency Operations Centre (HEOC) was in the position to make recommendations to the Cabinet for amendments to be made to the existing Public Health (COVID-19 Control and Suppression Measures) Order. These amendments include the relaxing of constraints for schools. As a result of these adjustments, we can now outline the plans for education for the upcoming academic year.
All schools, public and private, will be allowed to open, and students will be free to return to school campuses and engage in face to face instruction for the 2021 – 2022 academic year.
This decision has been made because we recognise that there are some students who will benefit from being in the classroom environment, and we are laser focused on our students’ success.
We must also keep our children safe.
Therefore, these schools are mandated to abide by the well-established protocols successfully implemented in the previous academic year.
And, we will take measures to ensure that these measures are adhered to because we cannot afford to take chances with our students or teachers’ health.
We ask for the cooperation and diligence of all relevant individuals to ensure that those within our schools are protected.
The decision to return our children to schools will, no doubt, cause some anxiety to some parents or even some teachers.
Mister Speaker, we are indeed sensitive to their concerns.
To get a greater appreciation of how many persons may be uncomfortable with returning to the school environment, the Ministry will conduct a survey next week to ascertain the numbers and understand the concerns. The findings of the survey will guide and help to determine possible alternatives, such as an online option.
In addition to this survey, teachers with underlying health conditions and other physical challenges, who are experiencing some level of discomfort with the idea of face to face instruction should write to their principal who will inform the Ministry. Each case will be considered on an individual basis.
The academic school year will begin on Monday 23rd August with virtual Professional Day for all educators in the Territory. Educating All in Changing Times: Every learner succeeds” will be the theme for this school year.
Our theme is a continuation of the one from last year but expanded to further emphasise our intention to ensure that every learner will have success in their academic pursuits.
Once again, we intend to ensure that every learner in the Virgin Islands gets the appropriate education for them to be successful.
At this Professional Day, I will share the policy direction for the school year. All educators are expected to be in attendance. Summer Institute sessions will be held from Tuesday 24th August to Friday 27th August.
The week of 30th August will include Staff meetings, Student orientations and Kindergarten Readiness Assessments for incoming Kindergarten students in all primary schools.
Kindergarten Readiness Assessment will take place 30th August – 3rd September.
New and Transfer Students will have orientation on 2nd September and Returning students on 3rd September.
The official start date for classes will be Monday 6th September.
All primary school students will return to a full school day of face to face instruction.
The school day will begin at 8:40 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m.
For the Elmore Stoutt High School, there is good news. All the furniture procured through the Caribbean Development Bank 65 million dollar loan have been completed and is expected to arrive prior to the beginning of school.
This will allow more students to be accommodated in our classrooms.
There is more good news.
The Premier and Minister of Finance Honourable Andrew A. Fahie has agreed to finance the construction of additional school buildings on the Elmore Stoutt High School Campus to accommodate our senior school students presently housed at Pasea Estate and our growing population of Junior School students.
The Recovery and Development Agency (RDA) is managing this project, and it is expected to be completed early in 2022.
We are excited about this and we thank the Acting Chief Executive Officer of the RDA Mr. Anthony McMaster for working assiduously with the Ministry of Education to advance this project expeditiously.
While we await the completion of this additional infrastructure, all students of the Elmore Stoutt High School will attend classes utilising a half day shift system. Students on the a.m. shift will begin at 8:00 a.m. and students on the p.m. session will begin at 12:30.
The decision to have a shift system is to ensure that all students have an opportunity to experience the school environment.
All other secondary schools besides Elmore Stoutt High School will have a full day of classes.
In regard to tertiary education, classes begin at HLSCC on August 25th, with new student orientation and registration taking place August 10th - 11th.
Returning students may register between August 16th - 23rd. August 31st is the last day to add classes.
All courses which do not require face-to-face delivery will be offered online in the first instance for a period of 4 – 6 weeks, subject to review at the midpoint.
All courses requiring face-to-face delivery will be offered but with restrictions on the numbers per session and the possible increase of sessions to accommodate additional demand.
Academic support services will be delivered mainly virtually, with on-campus access strictly by appointment only. The College can be contacted at 494-4994 for more information.
As the schools reopen, there is important information that teachers, parents and students need to know.
We will continue to ensure that all the sanitization and hygiene protocols are in place.
Wash basins must be visible for hand washing; sanitisers must be in all classrooms for on-going sanitization throughout the day.
All persons on school campuses must wear a mask or face shield at all times.
Each student is expected to come to onsite classes with a mask or shield, and their personal hand sanitiser and cleaning wipes.
All school uniforms and the proper dress code will be enforced. For any exception, permission must be granted by the principal of the school. Students must also come with the proper tools. Tools should include a personal laptop or tablet, textbooks, and writing materials. Cell phones will not be permitted as the digital device for classes.
Electronic devices must be used in school daily. This means that despite the fact that students are now back in the classroom, the use of technology in the teaching and learning process will continue.
As we have determined, this methodology and instructional format with the use of electronic devices is now official in school delivery. Electronic textbooks, as well as google classroom will be fully utilised.
Registration for school is now closed at the Ministry.
Every student in a school should be registered with the Ministry of Education.
All incomplete applications to the Ministry of Education must be completed immediately so that placements can be finalised. For secondary public schools, the registration process for Grade 7 is completed only after the textbook fee of $125.00 is paid and access code received.
The fees must be paid at the Accounts unit in the Ministry of Education, located on the third floor of the Creque Building in Road Town.
For Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke, payments should be made to the principal of the school.
Transportation of students to the campus is still the responsibility of the parents.
The organised bus system will be put in place for secondary schools and parents are reminded that early morning drop-offs and after hours pick up are still prohibited.
Parents are expected to make the necessary arrangements to have students on and off campus within 30 – 45mins of the start or end of school.
Visitors to school campuses will be restricted.
Each school will decide how visitors will be accommodated with the restricted guidelines.
All COVID-19 protocols in schools will be updated and made available to parents and the general community as needed.
If a child reports to school having been directly exposed to COVID – 19, the Public Health Team will be contacted immediately, contact tracing will commence, and they will make the appropriate decisions on additional measures based on their findings.
If parents suspect that their child has been exposed to COVID-19, they should not send that child to school but rather contact the Public Health Team immediately.
School schedules will outline lunch and break periods in a staggered manner to ensure a control of students gathering in groups.
Parents are to secure packed lunches for their children from vendors if they are not able to give them lunch from home.
Allow me to give a brief update on the construction of schools.
The Designs for the Jost Van Dyke Primary School and Eslyn Henley Richie Learning Center are completed. Next week, the Ministry will hold a meeting in Jost Van Dyke on these plans, so we can seek approval from Town and Country Planning and commence the procurement process for construction.
The Conceptual Designs for the New Junior School for the Elmore Stoutt High School are complete, and the next phase of the process is the procurement of a contractor for the Mechanical Electrical, Plumbing and Structural Designs.
The Isabella Morris Primary School has been deemed structurally unsound and will be demolished, and we will then begin the process for the construction of a Junior School on the West.
The construction of Bregado Flax has been completed, and a handover will be held soon.
The Recovery Development Agency is the lead on all these projects.
Mr. Speaker, Ivan Dawson Primary School, which was closed to allow repairs to the roof and the cleaning of mold, is ready to be reopened. We thank the Cane Garden Bay Baptist church for housing the school during that period of time.
Mister Speaker, I will end by acknowledging the cry of our educators.
This past Monday, I met with the executive of the Teachers Union.
I expressed clearly to them and to all teachers that I am their biggest supporter and advocate.
The longstanding challenges in our education system must be addressed.
For those who have wrongly asserted that this is just lip service, I point to consistent efforts to address teachers’ concerns.
Mister Speaker, in regard to working in better conditions:
Your Government has expended around $4 Million dollars just after taking office on refurbishing the now L-Adorothy Turnbull building;
Your Government spent a quarter of million dollars on improving the Pasea Campus, $134,000 to repair the tent in Virgin Gorda, $1.7 million dollars to redevelop Bregado Flax, and well over $400,000 in school repairs and mold mitigation.
These are just some examples.
Your Government has also committed to many more millions for additional school buildings on ESHS campus to take our children off of the Pasea Campus.
Cabinet also agreed to a salary review in January of 2021.
During this cabinet meeting, I asked for special consideration to be given to teachers. The last salary review was conducted in 2002, coincidentally under a VIP administration. Cabinet also decided in 2019 to pay outstanding increments for 2016 and 2017. The first of these payments has already been made and the second was interrupted by the pandemic.
Mr. Speaker, I ask that members of the Opposition not exploit the working conditions of our teachers for political gain. The education system should not be a political football to be kicked between political parties. Those members had every opportunity during the previous two NDP administrations to address the concerns that they have opportunistically agitated about. And using their own logic, the 7.2 million dollars they gave to BVI Airways could have gone a long way in assisting the education system.
Has enough been done? The answer is no. And, I agree with our teachers that more improvements must be made, and my colleagues and I will continue to work for better working conditions for our teachers. This is a solemn promise.
But let us always remember, unity is the key to our success.
Students, parents, teachers, principals and the Ministry all have major roles in the success of this or any school year.
We must have an open mind, be flexible and positive.
I appeal to employers to assist us by allowing some flexibility to employees who have school aged children.
We now have the capabilities to switch to online, hybrid or blended learning as the need may arise.
With the blended learning approach, onsite learning will be combined with some online learning and students at home may require parental supervision.
I crave their support, Mister Speaker.
I know we can all work together as a team to make this a successful school year and get through this difficult COVID period. Unity is indeed strength and together we can do it!
If anyone has any suggestions on how we can continue to strengthen education, I encourage them to please not hesitate to make contact, as my Ministry and I would like to hear from them as we continue to navigate this period. Education belongs to all of us.
Mister Speaker, I look forward to a successful school year, and God bless our efforts to build an educational system that will allow us to accomplish our God given purpose and potential as a prosperous Virgin Islands for generations to come.
I thank you Mister Speaker.