There is nothing more gratifying than the smiling faces of children, especially in a learning environment surrounded by children and teachers. That is exactly what the school environment provides – that warmth and secure learning environment characterised by individual attention and direct face-to-face learning. The joy of learning within a safe and secure space had been absent for nearly two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving children in the process of that opportunity of benefitting from classroom learning.
One would have thought that the re-opening of schools for direct face-to-face teaching would have been embraced by the Guyana Teacher’s Union (GTU) in the best interests of teachers, students and parents who longed for a return to normalcy in the teaching/learning processes.
This is especially so given the fact that the government, through the Ministries of Education and Health, have given full assurances that such learning will be done in a safe and secure environment with full adherence to all the guidelines and protocols established by the relevant authorities. Instead, the leadership of the union has seen it fit to call on its membership to proceed on an ‘Isolation Day’, which in effect is tantamount to a call for industrial action, even though there is no industrial bases for such action.
Not surprisingly, the strike call was ignored by the overwhelming majority of teachers who instead responded to the call of the nation’s children who had been deprived of classroom teaching for a protracted period due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The teachers allowed better sense to prevail and no doubt saw through the real motive of the union leadership, one intended to disrupt the re-opening of schools for reasons that has nothing to do with the collective interests of its membership. The call by the union was clearly unnecessary and irresponsible and motivated by apparent political considerations. It is a known fact that some elements in the union leadership have known connections with the political opposition. The General-Secretary of the union is an Opposition Member of Parliament.
Such a situation does not bode well for the principle of collective bargaining between the Ministry of Education and the GTU, especially when seen against recent actions taken by the union on the issue of vaccine mandates and the government’s drive to arrive at a situation of herd immunity against the deadly COVID-19 virus. The Constitution of Guyana does allow for the right of workers to withhold their labour but such rights cannot be exercised in a capricious manner as is currently the case with the GTU. There is a grievance procedure that has to be followed and the call for a ‘Day of Isolation’ by the union certainly did not qualify, even in the most remotest of ways as a ‘grievance’. It is against that background that Minister of Labour Joseph Hamilton made it clear that teachers who heeded the call for a ‘Day of Isolation’ would not be paid for that day.
From all indications, the COVID-19 virus will not disappear any time soon, especially in the context of new variants such as the Delta and the Omicron which appear much more transmissible. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the new Omicron variant is spreading so rapidly that close to half of Europeans will be affected by the virus by the month of March. It is only a question of time before the virus reaches this part of the world, and from all indications it is already here though not as severe as in other countries. These are indeed troubling developments which cannot be ignored.
The country, however, cannot wait until the virus is brought completely under control. Creative ways have to be found in order to minimise the impact of the virus on the learning curve of our children. There has to be a balance between the reopening of schools and the safety of our children. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had already drawn attention to the negative impact the failure to re-open schools can have on children in terms of cognitive and emotional development, a concern shared by the Education Ministry. In any event, there is close monitoring of the situation by the Education Ministry and all the required support and guidance are being given to teachers, parents and school administration.
President, Dr. Irfaan Ali had indicated that schools cannot be closed indefinitely even as he urged full vaccination, maximum caution and full adherence to the required guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. Indeed, the PPP/C administration has demonstrated that when it comes to the safety and well-being of the Guyanese people and our children, no amount of resources are considered too much and no effort too many.