At least two private schools on mainland St Vincent are currently engaging its students in face-to-face instruction under strict COVID-19 protocols.
Meanwhile, most of the nation’s children continue to engage in online learning due to the continuing spike in positive COVID-19 cases raising doubts about the possibility of starting a blended approach to schooling in the near future.
Education officials seemed hesitant to share details on the matter when contacted this week to ascertain the schools that were engaged in face-to-face classes.
However, SEARCHLIGHT was able to confirm that students at the Windsor Primary School and the Sugar Mill Academy have been engaging in the physical classroom learning for the academic year 2021/2022.
SEARCHLIGHT was also reliably informed that at least four other schools, including the Mayreau Government School, Bequia Sunshine School, Lower Bay School Inc and the Lowmans Windward Primary School may be engaging in face-to-face classes as well.
Peter Pompey, principal of the Windsor Primary School said that the school term began on September 20 with only Grade 6 students meeting for face to face learning.
He also explained that thereafter, permission was sought and granted from the Ministry of Health, for each of the other grades to attend face to face classes for one day per week from September 27, “in an effort to ensure that each student had an opportunity to have some level of face to face instruction”.
“Thus far, the experience has generated mixed reactions — and after having some feedback from parents in the lower school (Grades K, 2 and 3), the decision was taken to allow those grades to continue to work online,” Pompey said in response to questions posed by SEARCHLIGHT.
The principal said parents of the Grade 1 students were happy to have their children return to school.
As a result, Grades 5 and 6 have been attending face to face classes four days a week, while Grades 1 and 4 attend one day per week.
Pompey noted that the management team at Windsor, which has a school population of 124, ensured that guidance was sought from the Ministry of Health in the development of protocols to ensure “that we were providing our students and teachers with a safe environment for learning as we adapt to life with COVID-19”.
Included in the protocols that have been put in place are that temperature checks are conducted on all persons who enter the school, all persons must wear masks at all times and physical distancing takes place in classrooms.
There are also staggered times for the break and lunch periods to ensure gatherings do not take place at the tuck shop. And there are designated eating areas.
Another private school, the Sugar Mill Academy, has also engaged similar strict protocols for their students.
When principal, Liz Cordice spoke with SEARCHLIGHT this week, she said children are engaged using a blended approach.
But the option for students to engage in online only classes is still offered in instances where parents have decided not to send their child to the physical school.
“So, we’re trying to meet the needs of all of our students, whether you’re coming for some face to face, or whether you’re 100% online, you’ll have that option. The kids have adapted to the protocols really well, parents have been very supportive. So, it has been working really, really well for us because of that,” Cordice said.
The principal said students are respectful of protocols and have a good understanding of why they are in place.
She added, however, that the smooth operations are due to extensive efforts in educating not only students, but parents on the COVID-19 situation and the necessity for being careful.
At Sugar Mill, where there is a population of 104, classes run for the entire school day.
But no more than half of that figure is on the school compound on any given day, and some students are also engaged online.
The principal said Grades K and two are engaged in face to face classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, while Grades three and four have classes every Tuesday and Thursday.
These Grades rotate having classes on Fridays, meaning they will have classes three times per week, every other week.
Grades five and six attend classes on the compound every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In addition to physical distancing in classrooms and staggered break and lunch periods to ensure each grade remains in their respective “bubbles”, the cleaner also sanitises all bathrooms, door knobs, rails and other surfaces on the compound on a regular basis.
Temperature checks are also initiated three to four times a day.
“We’ve come together as a full team, no matter what your post is, all hands on deck at keeping our school clean and safe for the entire Sugar Mill family. I mean, it’s a whole package of things that have helped us so far…we have planned what would happen if a child should test positive — we have our plans in place, what next, what next…” Cordice said.
And she commended officials at the Ministry.of Health who have been very patient and helpful throughout the process.
Both the Windsor Primary School and Sugar Mill Academy report a 100 per cent vaccination rate among all staff members, including teachers.
A parent whose child attends the Windsor Primary School, Dr Rohan Deshong is of the view that all children should be able to attend face-to-face classes.
“The adults are using their kids as shields. We are sacrificing their education whilst we are too afraid to protect ourselves by being vaccinated,” he said.
Deshong told SEARCHLIGHT that his son enjoys being in the physical classroom, and as a parent, he is not worried at all.
He noted that he was more worried during last year’s dengue outbreak when several school aged children died of the mosquito-borne disease.
The doctor added that schools remained open during that time and to date, no children have died as a result of COVID-19 in SVG.
The new academic year in St Vincent and the Grenadines began on October 4 via online platforms.
Due to a COVID-19 spike last December, and then the eruptions of La Soufriere volcano, it has been almost a year since most students have been in physical classrooms.
And for the start of the new school year, education officials were considering implementing a blended approach to learning.
However, Education Minister, Curtis King, in an interview with SEARCHLIGHT on October 14, disclosed that the decision was made for children state-wide to continue attending classes in an online format for another two weeks, after which a blended approach will again be considered at the beginning of November.
He also said an comprehensive document was prepared, which outlines several categories to facilitate this plan.
The first category related to schools which have a small population, sufficient capacity to physically distance, are not in an area classified as a COVID-19 hotspot, had completed repairs, and whose students were not required to commute using public transportation.
The schools that met these conditions would open their doors for students to do face-to-face learning.
The second category were for schools that had a large population size, insufficient capacity, had completed repair works, are not in an area classified as a hotspot,and whose students were not required to commute using public transport.
These schools would be open using a blended format.
The third category focused on schools that have a large population, insufficient capacity, incomplete repair works, are in an area classified as a COVID-19 hotspot and where students were required to commute using public transportation.
These schools would utilise the online format only.
According to King, nine primary schools fell into the first category, 37 fell into the second category and 17 fell into the third category.
[[Story updated at 2:53 pm on October 22, 2021 to insert that the vaccination rate among all staff members, including teachers at both the Windsor Primary School and Sugar Mill Academy is 100 per cent.]]