Camille McEachnie & Bavita Gopaulchan
Less than a month after the Education Ministry allowed a phased in-person return to classes for selected students, the Mason Hall Secondary School in Tobago has been shut down after a male student tested postive for the COVID-19 virus. The school was closed yesterday for sanitisation and contact tracing of the persons who may have come into contact with the student, who is in the Fifth Form and was engaged in lab activity.
The Division of Education, Innovation and Energy confirmed the positive case yesterday. This brought the positive cases on the island to two after the island had no reported cases for 30 days.
Despite the incident, however, Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (Tobago) officer Bradon Roberts and some parents of students attending the school said they were satisfied with the school’s health protocols.
However, he said in many instances, the students were the ones not following established protocols.
“Our concern is that with the bigger schools, with less persons being out, monitoring the space even becomes more challenging. You have the same space, so children can venture into areas of the school where you are not able to monitor.”
Roberts said the school, like others in Tobago, also had some “challenges with infrastructure for years,” noting “health protocols are more challenging when you have to manoeuvre around infrastructure challenges.”
However, noting that teachers on the island were doing their best with what they had to work with, Roberts added, “The education sector has been lagging for far too long. Teachers and principals have been finding alternate ways to manage and fill the gaps in resources. Students are turning up to do labs, and they do not have gas running through the lines. Yep, the teachers manage to get the classes done.”
Asked if it was a case of mismanagement of available funds, Roberts answered in the negative.
“All over this country, we have the same situation in public schools. In the denominational schools, things are different.”
Some parents of students attending the Mason Hall school also said they were “satisfied” with the health protocols in place at the institution. While none of them wanted to be identified, they said they are asked to take the children to school just in time for the class. Students are made to wear masks, sanitise, fill out forms with their contact information, attend classes and head back to vehicles that arrive for their pick up as soon as class is done, parents told Guardian media.
“I am so surprised this happened, as the school is doing its best to follow protocols and keep the children safe,” one parent of a Fourth Form student told Guardian Media.
The mother said the school texted the parents early yesterday, telling them students were not allowed on the school’s compound until further notice.
The Education Division’s release yesterday said the school remains closed for sanitisation while the Division of Health said contact tracing had started to determine the number of persons with whom the student came in contact.
At yesterday’s COVID-19 media briefing, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh confirmed the student’s family members and those who were in close contact with him are currently in quarantine.
Despite this latest situation, however, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly says it will not derail plans for phase two of the resumption of physical classes next month.
Speaking to Guardian Media yesterday via text message, Gadsby-Dolly said it was anticipated that someone would have eventually tested positive for the virus at one of the schools. She said protocols were therefore put in place to delineate its handling.
Gadsby-Dolly noted that once the cases remain low, the ministry will go ahead with the phase two reopening, which will see Standard Five students return to schools on April 12. On February 8, Forms Four to Sixth Form students returned to their classrooms and the minister said based on feedback she had received from stakeholders at a meeting last week, these students were progressing well with their exam preparations.
Meanwhile, National Council of Parents/Teachers Association president Clarence Mendoza also said they had no major concerns regarding students’ health and safety since their return to school. However, he admitted there is a concern surrounding the students after school hours.
“In the afternoon hours, I would have noticed some gathering by students and it is something we have to look at in terms of the parents getting more involved and getting their children home,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said the association will continue to monitor the situation and be guided by the advice of the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders.
But there is another area of concern as it relates to the lack of resources.
“We continue to have dialogue with the Ministry of Education on the Tech-Voc (Technical/Vocational studies) area in our schools up to par. We are short on teachers and equipment in Tech/Voc and these students who are Form Five need a better Tech/Voc area to get their stuff out,” Mendoza said, adding he hopes the problem will be rectified soon.
Suspected case at Diego Martin North
Ministry of Education officials are now monitoring a teacher at the Diego Martin North Secondary who is suspected of having contracted the COVID-19 virus.
The teacher was reportedly sent home to self quarantine while awaiting test results after she exhibited symptoms while on duty.
Responding last evening to queries on the status of the teacher, contact tracing and other protocols at the school, Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly said there had been no positive confirmation just yet.
However, she noted, “The students who interacted with the teacher in question are reported to have done so under the appropriate safety protocols.”
Assuring there was no disruption to the school’s operations at this time, she said, “We will of course monitor the situation closely and take appropriate action if the situation changes.”
In a release last night, the T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) said it was aware of the situation at two secondary schools. It said it was in communication with personnel at the schools and had offered guidance on the matters. TTUTA also noted that the ministry had given specific guidance on the number of people allowed to enter school compounds during the current system. Noting it was restricted to CXC students preparing for exams and teaching and non-teaching staff associated with helping those students, TTUTA called on school personnel to adhere to the numbers.