TO: MINISTER SAMUEL
Honorable Minister Samuel,
Going towards the end of this summer holiday, we were happy to read that schools on St Maarten would reopen on (or around) August 10. This was confirmed during the live virtual Council of Ministers press briefing on Wednesday July 29th. The Minister assured that schools would reopen as “education has to continue”. The ministry would focus on ensuring that schools and the community would adhere to three key prevention measures, including wearing masks and/or face shields, proper hand-washing etiquette and maintaining social distancing. The Minister made note of the fact that each school facility is different, and that the ministry would – together with schoolboards and school managers – determine all school schedules.
As a lot of other schools on the island, our schoolboard and teachers worked for the bigger part of their holidays to be ready for the reopening at the beginning of August. The schools provided us with detailed (practical) procedures, as well as the way they would provide the education. The schools would be opening up for “live” education, but would also provide (some) online learning for children whose parents are not yet comfortable coming to school.
We couldn’t be more surprised after reading the letter of the Minister of July 31st, only 2 days after the press briefing and one day before opening the country to US tourism, stating that all schools will start with online learning until further notice. Without any good arguments, the Minister turns his view 180 degrees. We cannot help the feeling that this decision is based on comments on social media and without consultation with the schools of St Maarten or consideration of the needs of families.
In-person education is an essential service for a nation that expects to thrive. The Honorable Prime Minister has stated that it is critical for St Maarten to become financially independent and economically strong. This will require an investment in children and education that is equal to the investment we have made in tourism. We must invest in our children’s knowledge, skills, as well as their overall mental health and social development.
However, experts (i.e. American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association) agree that isolation from peers during online teaching is a necessity in some cases during the pandemic, but can have long-term negative impacts on the overall well-being of children. The consequences can include social skills deficits, anxiety, depressed mood and a decline in academic skills. This is especially severe for children with disabilities and special needs, who cannot function with an online platform. More importantly, access to the internet in St Maarten is not equally distributed, meaning many students were lost to follow-up during the last academic year.
Aside from the wellbeing of our children, there’s the practical aspect. School closures also have a negative impact on the workforce in St Maarten. We need the economy to start up again, little by little, and therefore we – parents – need to go back to work. Parents who are providing home schooling to children have also suffered economic and professional hardship as they balance these demands. Women in particular have been expected to carry the burden of home schooling at the expense of their careers. In short, schools are an essential service for a nation that expects to thrive.
For these reasons, schools are opening up all over the world. Scientific studies have proven that there is no specific danger or health risk to children, when proper hygiene steps are followed. Daycares on the island (with children until the age of 6) already have been reopened for months, without resulting in any (known) new COVID-19 transmission. Without problems, children have been together the whole summer on summer camps, while playing sports and on playdates. But now the Minister decides to keep schools closed; while nightclubs, casinos, hotels and adult entertainment can stay open!
Within the ‘framework’ set by the ministry, we feel it should be up to the schools, parents and teachers collaboratively to decide how the education is given (live, online, or hybrid). We do understand that not everyone feels safe enough yet to send their children to school and that the resources for social distancing are not the same for all schools in St Maarten. However, it should be everyone’s own choice, and schools should have an opportunity to use the resources they have to find solutions. Now a choice has been made for us, which will weaken one of the most essential fabrics of our society, to not even being able to bring our kids back to school.
We feel confident and safe to start the new school year in person. We therefore kindly ask you to amend the letter of July 31st, in line with our request above.
A group of concerned parents of St Maarten.