The first term of the 2021/22 Academic Year was 14 weeks of trials and errors, including an attempt to resume in-person classes for some secondary school students that yielded mixed results.

It is not surprising, therefore, that some are expressing trepidation at the announcement from the Ministry of Education late Wednesday that in-person classes will resume for all secondary level students by February, followed in April by the physical reopening of primary schools. Classes at all levels will be conducted on a rotational basis, allowing for physical distancing and other public health protocols.

Concerns about health and safety of students will persist for as long as COVID-19 remains in circulation, but bold decisions must be made about returning to normal activities. The experiences of the past two years have provided many lessons about navigating through the pandemic.

Lockdowns are no longer a viable option, and institutions of learning are among the last in this country to return to full physical operations, but this is a bold step that needs to be taken.

It is now up to all concerned—students, teachers, parents, auxiliary staff and even the wider community—to act responsibly and ensure every step is taken to conduct classes safely. That includes encouraging teachers and all eligible students to take the COVVID-19 vaccine.

Heath-wise there isn’t much cause for concern. Even with a low vaccine uptake between October 4 and December 10, when students in Forms Four to Six were back in physical classes, there were just 162 cases of COVID-19 in that segment of the school population.

Therefore, the focus from now on should be on how to manage ongoing risks, conduct classes safely, and meet the needs of students, many of whom suffered educational, mental and emotional setbacks during the protracted period of online classes.

Reopening schools is vital for our children’s well-being and education. Students suffered considerable setbacks during the lengthy period of remote learning, so there will have to be assessments to develop remedial programmes.

Special attention will have to be paid to two groups of vulnerable youngsters—the approximately 2,000 who have dropped out of school since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and those in dire economic circumstances who suffered setbacks in learning because they did not have Internet access or a proper space to study.

Addressing these problems will require both immediate action and long-term strategies, including direct interventions for the highest-risk students as well as plans to help restore foundational learning skills for those who had no access to the online learning platforms.

That laudable efforts by the Education Ministry in partnership with corporate T&T to close the technological gaps in the system were, unfortunately, not sufficient to prevent some students from falling through the gap.

Therefore, a major priority will be addressing the needs of all those students who were left behind by the pandemic.

These actions will have to be undertaken in a term that will be filled logistical and other challenges, including the conduct of the SEA exam and preparations for CSEC and CAPE. But it will have to be done in the interest of a brighter future.