Are we rushing to get students back into schools?
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REPORTS of two children in Region Nine testing positive for the novel coronavirus has caused me to revisit my earlier thoughts on whether Guyana and other countries in the Caribbean have been rushing to reopen schools.

Whether this is an unpopular opinion or not, it should go without saying that ensuring the well-being of all children should be paramount. Though studies show that children are less susceptible to the severe effects of COVID-19, jeopardising their health in any way is inexcusable. Furthermore, it has been emphasised that children may be ‘carriers’ of the virus, and though asymptomatic, they may pass it onto older persons who are more susceptible to the moderate to severe effects of the coronavirus.

A few weeks ago, the announcement was made that the National Grade Six Assessment (NGSA)– Guyana’s Secondary School Entrance Examination– would be held on July 1 and 2. This was met with mixed reviews from parents and teachers.

Some were satisfied with the sanitisation efforts that would be made and were happy that schools would be reopening and that pupils could take this ‘high-stakes’ examination that they have spent years preparing for. I spoke with a teacher in Region Nine who highlighted that she was both satisfied by the physical-distancing measures put in place at her school for the children and the sanitisation that was done before and after classes. Moreover, just being able to teach her pupils once again was welcomed by her as many of her pupils lived in surrounding but distant communities, where internet access was quite limited. For her, online teaching was almost impossible.

Others, including the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), were not as enthused. When the schools reopened on June 15, some teachers told me that they stayed home in protest. These teachers believed that a premature decision was made to reopen the schools and even to have these examinations as early as July.

I understand the logic of reopening schools and not postponing the NGSA for much longer. Essentially, there will be a shift in the upcoming academic year. And that will have a ripple effect on this batch of pupils, moving forward. I am also very conscious of the very real struggles of children, parents, and teachers as they contend with the education disparities in Guyana– virtual classes is a fleeting thought for many.

However, I have become very concerned following the positive cases of the two children in Region Nine who reportedly came over from BonFim, Brazil, to attend classes. The alarming number of cases in Moruca, Region One, many of which have been contracted from teachers, is also concerning to me. It is my opinion that as a country we need to get a better handle on COVID-19 before reopening schools, or anywhere for that matter.

Last week I tuned into a webinar that discussed the decisions being made in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Guyana for the administration of the Secondary Entrance Examinations. Like Guyana, these countries will be administering their examinations in a shorter period, instead of waiting until next term as the earlier discussions suggested.

An important consideration in this webinar, also, was the lack of emphasis on children’s mental well-being. Trinidadian Psychologist Dr. Margaret Chatoor emphasised that children are inherently social beings with social needs. And being at home for about three months and being put into the school setting once again, just before these ‘high-stakes’ examinations does not augur well for their mental well-being. She contended that much more consideration should be given to how children should be reintegrated into the school system, and reintegrated while the pandemic still ensures.

Specifically, in the Guyanese context, a Guyanese student attending Harvard University, Shawn Shivdat, noted that Guyana’s electoral process has placed some amount of anxiety on the population at large; children have not escaped this.

This focus on the mental well-being of children and their social nature is something I believe should be explored further. Even further, I recall the teacher in Region Nine explaining to me that while the classroom setting has augured well for physical-distancing guidelines, during the shortened lunch break or even before and after the class sessions, naturally, the children congregated in groups. How then, do you impress upon children the importance of staying physically distant, when they just really want to ‘lime’ with their friends after being away for so long?

In April, local paediatrician Dr. Hardat Persaud explained that focus on children should not be neglected as the country contends with the epidemic. He advocated for the empowerment of children so that they are aware of the role they also play in mitigating the spread of the virus. Empowering children, according to him, includes teaching children how to wash hands effectively (that is, with soap and for at least 20 seconds as outlined by the WHO); encouraging them to sneeze or cough into their elbows or sleeves; and, keeping a physical distance from older folk like their grandparents.

Recent events have emphasised that we ought to revisit how we are reopening schools and have spotlighted the need for much more emphasis on children. I hope this is done.

If you would like to connect with me to discuss this column or any of my previous works, feel free to email me at vish14ragobeer@gmail.com

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