Denominational school boards have proposed a low-cost internet structure to be rolled out shortly – and service providers will be summoned to appear before a Parliamentary committee to speak about connectivity challenges which continue to affect students.

This arose at Wednesday’s Joint Select Committee (Social Services and Public Administration) meeting with officials of denominational boards. The Parliamentary JSC team headed by Paul Richards probed the effectiveness of the hybrid education system.

After school board representatives spoke about internet connectivity challenges continuing to affect students, Richards said internet service providers – and the Telecom Authority- would be summoned to talk about the situation.

Other JSC members including Penelope Beckles and David Nakhid agreed.

JSC’s Avinash Singh also said there were connectivity issues in some rural areas and “dead zones” where phone or data services are unavailable. JSC member Rudy Indarsingh said the Education Ministry should have information from telecom providers on having special packages for students. He noted the 2021 Budget promises for Mi-fi and hotspots.

Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha assistant secretary Jeewan Ramdhanie said denominational boards had proposed a low internet cost for all boards, to be rolled out soon. Ramdhanie said connectivity was different for SDMS schools depending on location. Access to devices improved since December but many students – about 30 per cent- still need devices and connectivity.

Anglican Education board representative Avion Alexander-Titus said Anglican and Catholic boards were also collaborating on low-cost internet and devices. She said about 30 per cent of Anglican school students need devices.

Baptist Board of management general secretary Michael Hills- Wilson said about 75 per cent of students have devices, “But there’s nothing like face to face teaching.”

He added about 75 per cent of packages for students who lack devices aren’t returned on time and when social workers come to visit to find out what happened, parents aren’t home and students are found unsupervised.

He said Baptist schools are using the three-month temporary connectivity programme and exploring other possibilities.

St Joseph Cluny Board of management secretary Deba East said packages didn’t work well as not all are returned – but all students have internet access and devices from the private sector and donors.

ASJA’s general secretary Rahimool Hosein said access was a grave problem – but only about 210 of Asja’s 2,100 students were without devices. Ravi Rambarran (Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of T secretary) also said about 200 students in Vedic schools need devices.

Presbyterian Schools Board of Education (PSBE) Geeta Maharaj said while schools do packages for students who lack devices, packages aren’t collected or returned in a timely fashion.

“This equals a disparity keeping up with work with those online.”

She said last year 7,000 of PSBE’s students required devices with one third having connectivity issues, she said about 300 devices were received so far. Maharaj said some principals reached out to internet providers and some were forthcoming with more connectivity and preferential treatment, but she couldn’t say about the rates being charged. Responding to the concerns raised during the JSC, the Minister of Education said a means test is being done to determine the students in need of devices. She said once the means test is prepared- it will only be applied for devices bought by the GORTT. The award for 20,000 laptops has been made through iGovTT, the contract is to be signed with the provider by next week at the latest.

The Minister said, “Once we have an expected date of delivery, we will schedule the means tests. They cannot be done too far in advance of delivery, as devices are being donated to schools through the Adopt a School and other private donors, and we want to avoid duplication. The list of schools and the devices they requested and are currently receiving has been complied and is being daily updated. Once we have that delivery date, schools will be contacted and given the requisite information about the means test and its application.”