Every single one of the 19,201 students who collected their SEA exam results yesterday faced incredible odds to get through that entire placement process. That alone is reason to give them a standing ovation, as well as encouragement as they embark on the next stage of their educational journey.

Since April, when the exam was delayed due to the closure of schools during the COVID-19 lockdown, the 2020 SEA candidates have been through immense psychological and emotional strain.

The pandemic has been rough on everyone but the uncertainty and stress were particularly burdensome for students preparing for the exam. It certainly did not help that the attempt to resume in-person classes on July 20, just a month before the exam, had to be ditched after the virus affected some students and forced the closure of over a dozen schools.

With all that was stacked against them, these students endured and made it to this point, where they have been assessed and assigned to their new secondary schools.

This is what makes the achievement of top SEA student Ameera Bheekoo so very remarkable. The former San Fernando TML student, who is heading to Naparima Girls’ High School, is one of six girls occupying the top spots in the exam.

With their successes, they have ensured that COVID-19 will not define every aspect of a very difficult but transformative year in education.

Also taking their places of honour among the high achievers are two very special students – Matia Street of the Cascade School for the Deaf and Jordan Thorne of the Andrey Jeffers School for the Deaf.

This is a welcome level of inclusivity in an exam which has in the past been criticised for leaving large numbers of students at a disadvantage.

The Education Ministry is also to be commended for providing a clear explanation of the criteria for placing students in various secondary schools.

Still, there is much about SEA and the education system that needs to be improved.

Yesterday’s celebration of the accomplishments of students who will now be taking up places in secondary schools, is one of the very few bright spots in a new academic year that is off to a shaky start.

Unfortunately, this country’s public-school infrastructure cannot properly support the ICT systems that must, of necessity, replace in-person classes. That means large numbers of students have been put at a disadvantage because they cannot access online classes.

While printed material is being provided to students who are left offline, mainly due to dire financial circumstances in their families, from all accounts they are still struggling to keep up with their better-equipped classmates.

This is a situation that must be addressed urgently. Large numbers of students are at risk of slipping through the cracks of a system not currently configured to fully meet their needs.

The hurdles of SEA 2020 have been crossed but there are many more still ahead, including the biggest one of all, ensuring no child is left behind.