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For 19,656 students, their parents, guardians and teachers, months of anxiety and uncertainty culminate today with the sitting of the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) Exam.

Most will not completely exhale until the results of the exam are released in mid-September but today, they can at least move past the significant hurdle of writing an exam for which they were forced to prepare virtually.

Intensive preparations for this crucial exam take place over two years, starting in Standard Four. However, for this 2021 cohort, most of their classroom sessions were conducted online. This put some students, who did not have devices or internet access, at a disadvantage.

For every one of today’s SEA candidates, there will be an eagerness to put the challenges of the last 15 months behind them. But they are not the only ones being tested today. The education system is facing one of its sternest tests — administering an exam with numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths still too high.

The challenge for Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly and her team is not only to ensure the exam is conducted in strict adherence to public health requirements, but that required academic standards are upheld throughout. That is a tall order.

Education Ministry officials have been kept busy for more than a year dealing with a coronavirus that has caused changes throughout the school system.  

That includes adjustments to the SEA exam, which will still be three hours and 20 minutes long but is taking place six weeks later than the originally scheduled June 10 date.  

There has also been a reduction in the number of questions in the Mathematics and English Language Arts papers and the students will wear face masks as they write the exam, seated six feet apart in rooms configured in accordance with physical distancing protocols.

For the sake of these students, ages 11 to 13 years old, the fervent hope is that the exam will go ahead smoothly. They have already been through enough.

Long before COVID-19 put a twist on exam preparations for all involved, SEA was already notorious for being a stress-inducing exercise, much like the Common Entrance exam it replaced 20 years ago.

If anything, the competition to secure places in first-choice schools has intensified and not enough has been done to address the problems of the students and schools that slip through the cracks.

The one advantage this year’s candidates have over their 2020 counterparts is the possibility that in-person classes will resume by the time they take up their places in secondary schools in September.

Other than that, it has been a steep learning curve for all at every level of the school system, with the very worrying prospect that some of this year’s SEA students have already been left behind.

And uncertainty is the only constant.

Hopefully, lessons were learnt during this difficult year of SEA preparations by all the stakeholders and can now be applied to fix all the problems in education, including the SEA exam.

But for now, we offer best wishes and prayers for the success of all the SEA students.