Education Minister Anthony Garcia answers questions during an interview at his office on Friday.

Students writing this year’s Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam on August 20 are expected to enter secondary school on or before the end of October.

However, Education Minister Anthony Garcia said this was a tentative date. While the exam was initially disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, he assured that officials were doing their best to ensure the new academic year is not interrupted any further.

All schools including tertiary education facilities were closed from March 16, after T&T recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 12.

Garcia said Cabinet decided on the date for the exam after an inter-ministerial committee had met with all stakeholders. He said they “looked very carefully into all the implications of the SEA and had come up with recommendations on when it should be held.”

Aware that students would need time to acclimatise themselves and once again get into exam mode, he said, “We have asked only SEA students to come back to school on July 20, which is just about five weeks, and it is only teachers that are engaged in the teaching of those classes who have to come out.

“We have also asked the principals to come out as they have to manage the entire system and ensure everything runs smoothly.”

Questioned if five weeks would be a satisfactory period of time in which to bring back students into a school setting and ensure they were all sufficiently prepared to write the exam, Garcia said, “I don’t subscribe to the view that there were many students who didn’t have access to virtual learning while they were at home.”

He said following the closure of schools, immediate arrangements were made with TTT to feature teaching programmes for two hours daily and this later expanded to four hours per day. People were also able to access learning material via two online platforms operated by the ministry.

“Every opportunity was made available for the students to have access to teaching,” Garcia said.

However, he acknowledged there was a very small percentage of students who would have fallen outside of either bracket. The minister said this was why both students and teachers were being asked to return to school five weeks before the exam is due to be administered.

Approximately 19,363 students were originally scheduled to write the exam on April 2.

Garcia defends $20 million offer to teachers

Confirming that $20 million had been allocated as incentive payments for the teachers and principals who will be workign during the vacation period, Garcia said it was necessary as the vacation would have normally begun on July 3 and, therefore, “from July 6, teachers would have been on vacation until August 28.”

“When we met with the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), we put forward the recommendation that we are offering teachers a stipend.”

Confronted by the argument that teachers have been receiving salaries while at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Garcia defended the offer of the additional financial compensation. “It is their vacation period, and every worker is entitled to vacation and to be paid during that period.”

Additionally, he said a previous court ruling outlined the need for such measures to be put in place.

Even though the SEA is a local exam, it is administered by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) and in order to prevent any allegations of misconduct, Garcia said the correction of exam scripts would be done by CXC in Barbados as usual. He estimated that this should not last longer than one week.

Garcia gave October 8 as the tentative date for the release of results.

“If all goes well, we are hoping that students can be accepted into secondary schools in about a week or two after that, so before the end of October, we are hoping to have students enrolled in secondary schools.”

The 2020/2021 academic year is expected to flow as normal when all schools reopen on September 1.

Regarding the placement of students, Garcia said according to the Concordat, principals of denominational secondary schools have a 20 per cent selection option of incoming students which has to be done and usually takes some time as they are required to come into the Ministry of Education (MOE) to complete the process.

Signalling the ministry’s intention to meet with the denominational boards in order to expedite this process, Garcia reiterated that “students are placed according to performance and choices.”

Asked if the MOE was prepared for the potential barrage of concerns from parents claiming their child did not perform well in the exam because they were anxious or mentally stressed, Garcia said, “The notion of children being mentally stressed is one that was disabused by research that was done by students at the UWI a few years ago.I have in my possession, a study done a few years ago titled Common Entrance As A Puberty Rite: A Rite Of Passage, and in that bit of research, it was shown that it is the parents that are stressed, not the children.”