MPs question ECYS Ministry plan for reopening of schools | THE DAILY HERALD

PHILIPSBURG–Members of Parliament (MPs) voiced their concerns about the plans proposed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports (ECYS) for the reopening of schools and the overall safety of students and teachers.

ECYS Minister Rodolphe Samuel provided MPs with an update on the ministry’s “Education Continuation Plan” during the Central Committee meeting held on Thursday.In his opening statements Samuel stated distance/online learning was used by the various schools after schools closed in March, in an effort to continue with students’ education.

Samuel noted that the COVID-19 status of the country, up to six weeks ago, was “okay” and therefore the ministry initially planned that if the country remained COVID-free, schools would open on a normal basis.Pointing out the increase of positive COVID-19 cases in St. Maarten, he said the Ministry of Public Health’s Collection Prevention Services (CPS) protocols were established. Samuel said the ministry could not continue with education without taking the healthcare of students, parents, teachers and all others into consideration.He made note of the different options schools could use in continuation of their students’ education: distance learning, a blend of distance learning and face-to-face learning, utilising varied methods of face-to-face learning, selective days on which students would physically go to their schools, and having all students return to schools as normal.

However, Samuel said that schools or school boards that wish to have their students attend classes on the compound must submit a request to the Education Inspectorate. The Education Inspectorate together with the Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA Inspectorate will conduct a joint inspection of the school compound. After that inspection has taken place, the minister will be advised by the inspectorates, and based on this advice the minister will make a decision.He used as an example the vocational school where having students physically present may be necessary, as practical hands-on learning is a large part of the school’s curriculum.

“Learning from a distance comes with challenges,” said Samuel. He listed two major challenges the ministry is aware of: a good Internet connection and access to an electronic device. He noted that discussions between the ministry and TelEm Group, are ongoing in an effort to ensure that all schools are equipped with an adequate Internet connection.Samuel said in regard to the assessment survey conducted in March that a reduction in the numbers of students in need of Internet connection or an electronic device is expected as parents, in preparation for online learning between March and now, would have assured that the necessary electronic devices as well as an Internet connection is available for their children.

Three weeks after the start of school the ministry would conduct an assessment of the country’s current COVID-19 status and the health risk it poses. If this has not changed or improved, schools will have to continue with the online learning approach. If the COVID status improves, then the methods mentioned in which schools can continue with education can be utilised.

Several MPs questioned the minister’s assessment of the schools’ readiness and preparedness for this online learning approach for all schools come Monday.MP Angelique Romou of the National Alliance (NA), who noted her previous work experience within the Education Innovation Division, referred to the iStep project. She questioned Samuel on the role of the iStep team from March to the present on the distance learning approach taken by the ministry.“I know that there were discussions by the iStep team on a proposed way forward as it relates to connectivity and access to Internet with students without such. How far is the ministry on this?” she asked. She said one of the bottlenecks experienced with distance learning and e-learning has been the instability of the Internet connection and the bandwidth needed to effectively facilitate e-learning, and asked what discussions have been had with the local telecommunications providers on this matter.She also questioned whether school boards had been consulted in regard to the opening of schools and asked the minister to provide an outline on when and with whom these consultations had taken place.

MP Melissa Gumbs of the Party for Progress (PFP) shared her concern for the impact that COVID-19 has had on education, particularly in regard to the public schools on the island.She asked what consultations had been held with the various education institutions from primary to high school, and what was the feedback received regarding an opening timeline and procedures. “How have you, minister, as official head of the public schools, assessed the readiness of the public schools themselves, to be sure that they’re prepared not just for online learning but for blended learning in the future?” she asked.

Gumbs questioned the minister on whether the ministry has taken into consideration that most parents of school-age children would have to go to work as per regular schedule starting coming Monday. “Is there an alternative or solution in place for those parents who have to leave the house during the day while the students are expected to stay home to distance-learn? This is considering that all parents [who – Ed.] would have to go work do not have a work-from-home option,” she asked.

In questioning the assessment done by the ministry on how many students are without devices or functional Internet in their homes, she said, “I ask this because I have to disagree with the minister’s assessment that from March to now it is anticipated that the number of students needing devices would have decreased. We have parents now in [the] private sector that have not earned their full salary since, so I cannot believe that they have somehow managed to afford a device now that they could not have afforded in March for their child or children.”MP Claudius Buncamper of United St. Maarten Party (US Party) questioned the minister’s plan to assess the first three weeks of the schools’ opening. “What did we do the whole summer? We knew this was a possibility, so what did we do for the six weeks in the summer?” he asked.

He commented that the Internet service of the main provider, TelEm, is in shambles, “but we expect children in areas where Internet [service] is horrible or they don’t have Internet to [follow] online schooling.”MP Sarah Wescot-Williams of United Democrats (UD), in thanking the minister for the continuation plan provided to MPs, requested that the ministry make a concise version of the plan available and shared to the public so that this information could be accessible to students and parents, giving insight into government’s strategies to keep the school populations safe, yet able to receive education.

She said that from the education continuation plan that parliament has received, a lot is required from schools, school boards and teachers to meet the requirements for a safe school in this pandemic era.She questioned how schools and school boards, especially those subsidised by government, are expected to finance the investments associated with the measures they have to take on the basis of the education continuation plan.MP Christopher Emmanuel of NA said that nothing had been done by the ECYS ministry in terms of preparation for the reopening of schools.

As a proposal to the ministry, he said that a reset was needed, and proposed to postpone to reopening of schools from August 10 until September 10, which would provide the ministry with the time needed to develop a proper plan.He further elucidated that the ministry needs to formulate and set a standard for all schools to follow together with the VSA ministry.MP Solange Duncan of NA shared her concerns for the special needs students with the set online learning approach.After the first round of questions posed, the meeting was adjourned, to be continued at a later date.

Source: The Daily Herald