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Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly during her interview with GML last week.

As part of the preparatory process for the anticipated reopening of schools in January 2021, the Ministry of Education has compiled a draft document outlining measures defining the new normal and what will prevail once Ministry of Health officials grant access to return to physical classes.

Among the proposed measures will be a hybrid learning system consisting both online classes and physical interaction in classrooms; staggered hours for the arrival and departure of students; social distancing in classrooms; preference of class assemblies; and separate recess; and lunch and bathroom breaks to avoid congregation in washrooms and cafeterias.

In an exclusive interview with Guardian Media, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly admitted the current term has been challenging.

“It was very difficult at first because it was new and the concept of having to be totally online…that was not the plan,” Gadsby-Dolly said.

Saying a blended format approach had to be scrapped two weeks before schools were due to reopen in September because of the trajectory of COVID-19, she added, “It was a leap mentally, and the physically and logistically to get that on track. Since then, it has settled down.”

But Gadsby-Dolly said they have since analysed data and revised the guidelines issued at the term’s start and have found that teachers, parents and students are now more settled as they understand what is expected of them.

While they are uncertain if schools will reopen in January as scheduled, she said the authorities are aiming to be ready when the time comes.

“We are anticipating that we should get back face-to-face sometime soon but we don’t know if it is January, it depends on the pandemic and its trajectory. We know it must be done at some point, therefore the preparations are being made now so if it is January, we intend to be ready and if it is not January, we will be in a stage of readiness.”

In the draft document disseminated to stakeholders a week ago, Gadsby-Dolly outlined the measures that need to be in place and invited suggestions and recommendations

“We want this to work for all of us, it is in our best interest,” she said, adding once they receive responses they will amend the document and send it back out for a final review so they will be ready for term two.

“We also want to bring the parents and students into the conversation. Our biggest enemy right now is uncertainty and people feel very uncomfortable when things are not sure and they are not clear…so even though we are in uncertain times, we are doing the best we can to put a level of certainty to some things.”

Saying classes will be split into two groups in the new hybrid model being explored, Gadsby-Dolly explained, “It’s almost like a bubble-type approach.”

New learning platform launched

Last Thursday, the ministry also launched the Notesmaster Platform. Birthed out of a partnership with the Commonwealth of Learning, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Notesmaster, Gadsby-Dolly said this new digital resource was specifically designed to support the creation and sharing of interactive content between teachers but can be made available to students.

The platform is free to teachers and there is no limit to the number of students who can be facilitated in a teacher’s virtual classroom, she said, adding Notesmaster also contains digital copies of the CXC suite of subjects and resources.

To ensure the platform is appropriately used, the ministry will stage training and sensitisation workshops over the next six months. The workshops will train teachers in digital content creation and help parents and students learn how to navigate the Notesmaster website. Teachers, parents and students can visit https://notesmaster.com/ to view the website.

Additionally, as part of the arrangement, e-books are being compiled for use in the primary and secondary schools, which will help to side-step the issue of copyright.

She commended the private and corporate sectors for stepping up and providing electronic devices for students. Despite this, she said the number of students applying has not moved from 65,000. Gadsby-Dolly said as Government also moves to procure devices, their focus will be to ensure secondary school students have access to laptops, especially as the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) will be moving towards e-exams.

She said $50 million has been allocated to purchase devices and tenders will soon go out locally and internationally as the ministry is seeking to get the best price to get as many devices as possible. They are, however, aiming to acquire at least 30,000 devices.

Regarding the means test which is being developed in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Development to determine which students really need devices and ensure they receive them – she said it will be completed in time for when the devices arrive in the country.

Asked about how the ministry is ensuring teachers and students perform, Gadsby-Dolly said measures implemented at the start of this term addressed that issue and while the majority of both groups had settled into a routine, there were exceptions on both sides.

She admitted the collection and return of printed packages, especially at the secondary level, was slower than at the primary level. However, she said the online environment was not a cure-all, as they had been receiving complaints of students being late and not present for classes although they were now at home.

Asked what her biggest challenge on ensuring the readiness of schools for a possible January reopening, Gadsby-Dolly said, “Honestly, I think we are past the worst. The worst-case scenario was schools not opening at all and our children being at home disengaged. We are at the point now where we understand regardless of what, there is going to be school.”