Perspective

‘Face-to-face fears on Grand Bahama

Parents and teachers on GB wary of an October 5 return to classrooms

Of 54 Grand Bahama parents who responded to Perspective’s online questionnaire on their level of comfort with face-to-face learning for students beginning next month, 47 (87 percent) said they were not comfortable with a return to the classroom, with several expressing anger over the minister of education’s recent announcement for the island.

The concerned parents said they will not allow their children to participate in face-to-face learning, while the remaining seven respondents (13 percent) said they were comfortable with face-to-face learning, so long as safety protocols and proper sanitization are enforced.

A mixed response to face-to-face learning also exists among educators represented by the Bahamas Union of Teachers (BUT), according to its Area Vice President for Grand Bahama Quinton Laroda, who told us that some teachers in the at-risk age group and those with comorbidities do not wish to return to the classroom next month.

Last week, Education Minister Jeff Lloyd announced an October 5 targeted date for the reopening of the country’s schools, advising that Grand Bahama is to be among those islands where face-to-face learning is to take place.

The Ministry of Health’s most recently published data indicates that approximately 73 children and teens between the ages of 0 and 19, tested positive for COVID-19 in the second wave of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Neither their islands nor their symptomatology were disclosed, and the majority of those cases (53 in total) are of youngsters aged 10 to 19.

President of the Consultant Physicians Staff Association (CPSA) Dr. Sabriquet Pinder-Butler disclosed to Perspective during an interview yesterday that the association, in discussions with Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and Health Minister Renward Wells last week Wednesday, “cautioned strongly” against the reintroduction of face-to-face learning at this time.

Pinder-Butler said, “We do not think this is a good time to allow for face-to-face as much as possible because our numbers have increased exponentially, and they are climbing regardless of the numbers you see on the dashboard.

“We have community spread, [and] once you have community spread, you cannot keep up with your numbers, so it would not be the wisest decision to attempt to put teachers and students at risk.”

Grand Bahama has the second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, endured the longest lockdown of all other hotspot islands, and recorded 37 new cases in the past week.

Laroda said the union considers the October 5 date an “optimistic” one, and that while some of their members are anxious to return to the classroom because they are not fond of the virtual learning dynamic, others are expressing concerns about their safety.

He disclosed, “We have a significant amount of teachers in their 60s, which is a very vulnerable group, we have a lot of teachers that are diabetic, teachers that are battling cancer and other conditions, and virtual [learning] would be the healthiest way they can approach it.”

We put to Laroda a hypothetical example of a science teacher in a face-to-face learning environment who does not wish to return to the classroom, and questioned what might be required to facilitate virtual instructions by such a teacher.

“The administration would have to organize some virtual science for the teacher in circumstances like that,” he suggested, “and we’ve had some teachers even before this COVID situation who were using Facebook and other means to get work to their students when the teacher was ill.

“If you leave it up to the teachers to find a way to get it done, and they are motivated and properly led, they have all kinds of unique ways to face these challenges.”

Acknowledging that a policy paper on such circumstances has not yet been issued by the ministry, Laroda added, “We need the principals to have common sense and be sensitive to the human concern and the rational concern that teachers have about their health, and we are going to work with the principals because I think it is at the level of the schools where that is to be integrated and is to be decided.”

Teachers on Grand Bahama are still working to rebound on both a personal and professional level from last year’s devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian, which left many teachers homeless, destroyed some schools, heavily damaged others and created significant setbacks for public and private education on the island.

The upheaval of COVID-19 has added a strenuous new level of weight to the demands of teaching.

A public school teacher who contacted us in response to our questionnaire and wished not to be named, expressed fear and upset about a planned return to the classroom several weeks from now.

She revealed that she and her family recently tested positive for COVID-19 and have now recovered, and questioned how testing will be factored into the reopening of schools in order to provide levels of safety for teachers and students.

“Teachers are expected to receive hundreds of children for face-to-face instruction,” she noted.

“Who will ensure that these children and their parents are COVID-free? Will simply wearing masks and sanitizing hands keep us from clothing, books and supplies that are already contaminated?

“You cannot look at a person and determine if they have COVID-19. Many teachers can attest to parents sending their children to school with severe colds, elevated temperatures, diarrhea, etc., and have the gall to say, ‘Tell your teacher to call me if you still feel sick.’”

The educator decried what she described as a “lack of involvement of teachers” in the decision-making process leading to a face-to-face learning designation for Grand Bahama, and said she will wait until next year for face-to-face participation by her child.

She shared, “For the first time in all of my years of teaching, I’m really sick of being in this profession. The overall health and safety of teachers is being compromised; this should be of great concern to the minister of education.”

“It’s too risky”

No indication has been given thus far on whether a virtual learning option for public school students will be available for those whose parents are uncomfortable with their participation in face-to-face learning next month.

Nevertheless, parents expressed resolve about keeping their children at home for the time being.

Anetria Grant-Greene said, “I do not feel comfortable sending my children to school as the MoE (Ministry of Education) is not planning on following the guideline that the MoH (Ministry of Health) has implemented for social distancing. There has also been no information as to who will be sanitizing the classes after each group of children leaves the classroom. Some of these classrooms, the windows don’t even open for fresh air to circulate properly through the classrooms.”

Grant-Greene’s reference to social distancing guidelines stems from Lloyd’s comments that social distancing of three feet will be enforced in schools, though the current health protocol is a minimum of six feet of social distancing.

Shanin Weber-Hughes responded, “I’m not confident in an October start. As much as I would love to have my child back in class, I have concerns. It’s a very tough issue, especially for working parents. My son is definitely impacted by the lack of social interactions, but I feel it should wait a bit longer before they are grouped in classrooms together.”

Expressing concerns about sanitization, Kyline Kennedy-Stubbs said, “The schools are only going to follow the rules for the first week or two, if that long. When the supplies for the sterilization tents finish after the first month, they probably won’t be replaced. They haven’t hired, to my knowledge, any additional janitorial persons to keep the classrooms sterilized.”

Stephanie Hart added, “I don’t agree with face-to-face school. Children will not social [distance]. They already don’t have things for the children to use in the bathrooms.”

Annmarie Albury said, “Nope, mine’s only three years old and I’ll be teaching him. His dad already got his equipment. My 10-year-old, his stepmom already got him set up for Zoom and other stuff; nobody playing games with they kids’ lives, not me for sure.”

Judith Mills replied, “I am most uncomfortable with the idea of my daughter going to school. I know the classes are not going to be set up with 15 or less students the way the MoE said. I’m afraid for my daughter to go to school not knowing the active corona cases on Grand Bahama. I’m also afraid that my daughter might catch corona while at school.”

Rachal Burrows expressed, “My three kids will not be attending school. This is a bad idea [and] the numbers of the infected will go up in Grand Bahama if virtual learning is not implemented.”

Shervonne Johnson insisted, “Until there is an all clear for this virus, my kids will be homeschooled. I’m not taking any chances with my kids’ lives. Unless the kids will be in their classroom the entire time, including break and lunch time… My kids will not be the government’s lab rats.”

Grand Bahama’s healthcare system remains handicapped by major storm damage to the island’s only hospital and the destruction of public clinics in East End, leaving parents especially fearful of their children falling ill.

Joan Rahming said, “Government schools are too crowded and these kids are not ready for face-to-face, this is a disaster waiting to happen and we don’t have the medical facilities to accommodate that. My kids will not be going.”

Several parents, including Tiffany Dottin Knowles, expressed fears due to their child’s pre-existing medical conditions they fear puts them at high risk of severe illness should they contract COVID-19.

Knowles stated, “My daughter does have asthma so bad that she’s on two pumps.”

Cleopatra Russell noted, “I have a child who has asthma and two previous cases of pneumonia. While I know she needs the interaction with other children, I can’t take the risk. The precautionary measures are good in theory, but she can’t keep her mask on long enough to get in the car much less for long periods of time.”

Echoing these sentiments, Jennifer Parker responded, “I have a son that is in eighth grade, but is asthmatic, and a 12th grader. My option for both would be virtual until.”

Monique Mackey indicated, “I am uncomfortable with face-to-face because my child has sickle cell. These kids will not social distance from their friends. I hope they rethink this and start all school online until January.”

Other parents questioned the rationale of allowing Grand Bahama to start with face-to-face learning in light of existing and ongoing restrictions for the island.

Charlene Munnings Lockhart asked, “If only 10 [people are] allowed at a funeral, how come they feel comfortable for face-to-face?”

Claire Hanna queried, “We couldn’t go to church for a few hours, no social gathering, but you expect our kids to social distance themselves at school from 9-3 with all those kids, really?”

Buffee Cooper added, “Not safe at all. Ten for weddings, 10 for funerals, curbside for restaurants and other business places, small amount for churches and you say face-to-face with our kids with over 20/30 kids in one room alone… . They are not even allowed in food stores, but must go face-to-face with hundreds of other kids.”

Tiki Missick responded, “I find it strange how one day there is an emphasis on staying inside and the next it’s okay for our children to be in a face-to-face environment.”

Other parents such as Wendy Reid and Terry Hanna said they have been diligently shielding their children from the virus for the past six months and are hence uncomfortable with such a drastic level of exposure at this time.

Helen McPhee and Celia Mackey, meanwhile, echoed the sentiments of numerous respondents who maintained, “No, it is too risky.”

“COVID-19 ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE”

For those parents who stated their comfort with face-to-face learning as of next month, most stressed that safety protocols must be strictly enforced for that comfort to persist.

Della Bridgewater said, “I’m fine with it provided I am comfortable with the school’s level of safety protocols being enforced. I’ll assess for myself during the first week, but we’re heading back to the classroom!”

Edward Taylor, the father of a three-year-old, who believes preschoolers benefit best from face-to-face learning, opined, “Just as there are restrictions in our day-to-day lives, schools should operate under stricter guidelines as well. We can’t keep these kids out of school much longer. This virus isn’t going anywhere. We all have to now adjust to what is our new norm.”

Rochelle Farrington-Spence responded, “I’m comfortable with face-to-face learning for my 14 and 16-year-old. We must learn how to coexist with COVID-19 and practice all safety protocols.”

Roselee Munnings added, “We just have to make sure as parents that the guidelines and protocols are followed to keep them safe. I know for October 5, I’ll be right there at the school to make sure see what protocols and guidelines they have in place.”

Bennika Miller, a mother of three and wife of an officer of the Royal Bahamas Police Force, which has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 infections and exposures, said, “I have three children along with a husband who is a police officer. Every single time he steps out the door my kids are at risk. When I go to the store, my kids are at risk. We have to understand and learn this virus isn’t g oing anywhere.

“I want the best for my kids and their education is one of my number one priorities. We can only remind them to continue to wash their hands and keep themselves clean, which we should have already [been] doing before this.”

Current studies suggest that children play a less significant role in spreading COVID-19 than do adults, and that though child deaths due to COVID-19 do occur, their incidence is far lower than that of COVID-19 deaths in older age groups.

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