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Antonia Tekah-De Freitas

Two main education organisations are calling for the immediate suspension of in-person classes in light of the uptick of COVID-19 cases, but another is maintaining that classes should go on.

Education stakeholders could not agree on a united way forward on Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) classes as they met with the Ministry of Education yesterday.

The meeting arose after six SEA students tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two weeks and 11 schools had to be closed and sanitised.

Schools reopened on July 20 only for SEA students.

During the meeting, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) Antonia Tekah-De Freitas called for the cancellation of physical classes immediately. TTUTA later issued an advisory to teachers calling on them to immediately discontinue face-to-face classes with their charges.

Tekah-De Freitas told Guardian Media that no exam is worth the risk of the life of educators and students.

“We should have engagement between teachers and students continuing in the virtual environment,” Tekah-De Freitas said.

A total of 19,300 students from 476 primary schools are set to sit the exams which were originally scheduled for April 2 but were pushed back because of the pandemic.

The TTUTA president said she felt disappointed that a decision could not have been made between stakeholders but insisted that health must be a priority. She said it didn’t feel like there was a clear commitment to preserve the health of students and educators.

“The point was made by certain persons that at this time there is only six students that tested positive. We do not believe it is right to say that because of these six students allegedly we can continue with things as it is going,” Tekah-De Freitas said.

“We must consider all the lives as important,” she continued.

Asked what happens to the students of the 11 schools who were sent home, the TTUTA president said that was a question for the Minister of Education who did not answer our calls yesterday.

TTUTA said it wasn’t sure if those students would be tutored virtually, as not all have access to the internet.

TTUTA’s suggestion to immediately close schools received the support of the acting president of the National Parent-Teachers Association (NPTA) Clarence Mendoza who said schools should be closed to safeguard the health of all students at this time.

“Let those children be home,” he said.

In a phone interview with Guardian Media, Mendoza said the exam should take place on August 20, but all SEA students should remain home. He said there were enough days between now and August 20 for all examinees to self-quarantine to ensure they were COVID-19 free for SEA.

Mendoza said he was unable to speak at the meeting and was only invited five minutes before.

The National Primary Schools Principals’ Association, however, does not agree with TTUTA and the NPTA on the closure of schools.

Its president Lance Mottley said the majority of his members felt schools should continue. Some, he said, asked for reduced hours.

“When we look at the figures and we look at the number of schools closed temporarily, we really felt like there might be an imbalance if we were to shut schools down,” Mottley said.

He said there needs to be a more mature and sober approach on how stakeholders respond to SEA.

“Our approach needs to be more responsible and realistic,” Mottley said.

If schools are to remain open, the stakeholders have all asked that proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) be provided. According to Tekah-De Freitas, principals and teachers have been adhering to COVID-19 guidelines but some schools lack thermal testers and cleaning products.