Antonia De Freitas, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers' Association (TTUTA).

Anna-Lisa Paul

In the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, social distancing and stricter hygiene measures seem to be the only effective systems thus far, that have been successful in stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus.

And as schools in some countries across the world slowly reopened their doors, questions are now being asked as to what will be the new normal in T&T when the authorities give the green light for students to return.

An official at the Ministry of Education said while discussions are yet to take place on how the school day will run whenever school reopens, Guardian Media understands that instructions have been issued to senior administrators to explore if and how physical reconfiguring could be done.

Education Minister Anthony Garcia yesterday said, “I know that when schools reopen, it will not be the same. In this regard, I have requested a technical team from the ministry to meet and come up with a plan for how we will treat with this and what measures we can take to preserve the health and safety of both our students and teachers.”

While the ministry continues to meet with relevant stakeholders to compile a comprehensive map on the way forward, education stakeholders have said there is still no clear policy document outlining how the new school term will operate or what changes will be done to reconfigure the physical classrooms to suit the new normal.

Additionally, there is no word on whether or not there will be staggered hours for students, and if online teaching and learning will become part of the daily/weekly schedule.

T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) President, Antonia Tekah-De Freitas said certain measures implemented in schools that have reopened in China, Denmark and Germany – did not require as much reconfiguration because of their previous layout.

She said, “They already had the space to expand their classroom functionality and can practice social distancing. They have common areas where automatic sanitisers can be installed and their classrooms are already air-conditioned. We are challenged by all all those things.”

Tekah-De Freitas said local officials were challenged to explore, “How we are opening in terms of our infrastructure and classroom layout as we simply do not have the space in many of our schools which are already crowded.”

Adding that focus also needed to be paid to which groups would be called to return to school first, the TTUTA head said, “Even if we look at the suggestion to stagger hours so Infants to Standard Two students are told to attend school for the morning period, the issue of transport and collection of these persons will come into play as we would still have the issue of supervision whilst they are on the compound…and in the name of social distancing as the older children are coming in, will need to be addressed.”

She said it would be easier to introduce new systems at the secondary level.

TTUTA’s General Council is due to meet today, and Tekah-De Freitas said these concerns will be discussed following which a document outlining their position will be forwarded to the MOE.

She added, “As part of the COVID-19 recovery….education stakeholders such as the parents, teachers and principals are hoping to have some kind of discussion with the State on that plan and must include how our schools operate from here on out.”

Claiming the entire world had been caught off-guard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant effects including the shutting down of schools, businesses, and other services – Tekah-De Freitas dismissed public perceptions that teachers were not performing as they should during this period.

She defended her members as she argued, “Nobody expected when we left school on March 13, that we would be out of school and under Stay At Home orders for so long. From March 16, teachers began reaching out to students using the technology available such as What’s App, email and Zoom which was already being done.”

She said while the ministry also responded by launching two online platforms providing additional access to both teachers and students, “We may now have to reconsider our approach to using technology in different environments and across all school levels.”

Meanwhile, former Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh criticised the lack of a definitive policy on the way forward as he said, “Discussions should have been taking place since the first week of the closure with the 18 denominational boards, TTUTA and the other secondary school stakeholders. By now, the Ministry should have formulated a policy.”

“As a former Education Minister, it is totally unsatisfactory and from the perspective of a student, you are robbing them of a future and it’s unacceptable and unpardonable when you can mitigate against the widespread deficiencies in the education of the children, there should be a more substantive and powerful move forward in the midst of this pandemic.”