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Sacred Heart Boy’s RC Primary School caretaker Jerry Lewis washes the school compound yesterday in preperation of the school’s opening for SEA students next month.

Ten months after schools closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students in Forms Four to Six will be allowed to return to classes from February 8.

Outlining the hybrid system being employed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) as to how the phased reopening will commence for this group of students, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly reassured parents, students and teachers that strict health protocols have been put in place.

During a national address from the Education Towers, Port-of-Spain, yesterday, the minister said once the viral caseload numbers remain low, this would allow for Standard Five students to return to classes at the start of Term Three on April 12.

Indicating external exams for both sets of students were scheduled for later in the year and it was necessary to have these categories of students complete Internal Assessments (IA’s), School-Based Assessments (SBA’s), and Lab Practicals as part of their final grade, Gadsby-Dolly said T&T was in a “unique position” when compared to the rest of the region as some territories had already allowed their students to return to the classroom.

Having introduced online teaching and learning since March last year, the minister said hopes to reopen schools using a blended format at the start of the academic year 2020/2021 were dashed as the COVID-19 figures had not allowed for it.

Commending citizens for their responsible behaviour yesterday, the minister said, “At this time, our COVID-19 numbers have not ballooned to the point where we are not able to even contemplate a phased reopening.” She was unable to say how soon all categories of students would be allowed to return to school.

The proposed structure for secondary school students will feature a mix of online classes and face-to-face classroom time for the completion of exam processes.

Gadsby-Dolly stressed, “Physical teaching classes are to be held where only absolutely necessary.”

At the primary level, substitute teachers will be assigned to provide additional supervisory assistance to ensure Standard Five students adhere to public health regulations to wear their face masks, sanitise, social distance, and refrain from sharing stationery, snacks and drinks.

Among the protocols to be enforced upon entry at schools will be the washing of hands, temperature checks, and contact tracing data collection.

This will be accompanied by the absence of whole-school assemblies, staggered lunch hours and breaks, and eating at one’s desk to avoid congregation and minimise interaction.

The minister said each school was required to outfit a quarantine room where anyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms would be kept until health officials arrive.

Further, a District Health Unit has been established in each schooling division which contains one doctor and 14 nurses which will be responsible for facilitating and expediting communication between schools and the Ministry of Health in any eventuality.

Acknowledging there would be a level of anxiety among parents, students and teachers—Gadsby-Dolly said it was expected.

Indicating she too was experiencing the same level of angst as her daughter would be returning to Form Five, the minister said it was all about responsible actions.

Returning students will once again benefit from the National School Feeding Programme and the National School Transport Programme.

Reacting immediately after the announcement yesterday, the National Primary Schools Principals’ Association (NAPSPA) has welcomed the announcement by the Ministry of Education (MOE) regarding the phased reopening of schools.

In a brief interview yesterday, president Lance Mottley said at the same time, it was understandable there would anxious parents, students and teachers.

Mottley raised concerns relating to the installation of wash sinks in all schools as he said reports reaching NAPSPA indicated some institutions remained without.

But he applauded the MOE for moving to introduce substitute teachers to help with ensuring students observe public health regulations to social distance whilst at school, he said, “This is indeed a good move on the part of the MOE and will assist in monitoring students during the break and lunch periods.”

Meanwhile, Public Relations Officer of the National Council Parent Teacher Association (NCPTA), Shamila Raheem said they, “we’re deeply concerned about the fact that primary schools would be reopened in April.”

Claiming that was barely two months in which to ready the students for the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam on June 10, she said, “A lot of students are not online. They have not had the opportunity for live interaction with their teachers, so teaching has not been taking place in a lot of schools.”

She questioned if this was enough time for all students to be prepared.

Raheem said while some parents were happy about the phased reopening, there were also others who were anxious and fearful about what it could mean for their children.

Asked if the NCPTA was concerned about the mental health impact the lockdown had on students, parents and teachers, Raheem said, “It is quite frustrating for all involved in this online schooling which is the new norm. Not everybody is equipped to handle the stresses that come with it, so that is a major concern.”