BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 13, 2022– When interviewed yesterday, the CEO in the Education Ministry, Dian Maheia, stated that in the first three days since the reopening of schools, those institutions have been working closely with the Ministry of Health and Wellness to assess and respond to COVID-19 outbreaks in schools which are reporting cases. At this time, according to a press release from the Education Ministry, 343 (or 60.3%) of the 569 schools approved for the transition to hybrid learning have resumed at least some in-person classes as part of a hybrid learning operation, and the Ministry has already begun receiving some COVID-19 notifications from some of these institutions. The press release from the Education Ministry stated that between January 10 and January 13, the ministry had received confirmation, via its COVID-19 Reporting System, “of 108 cases of COVID-19 affecting teachers and 125 cases of COVID-19 affecting students, nationwide.” The release from the ministry notes, however, that “of the 108 cases affecting teachers, only 17 were recorded among teachers who were actively engaging in hybrid learning. When compared to cases among students, out of the 125 cases confirmed, 43 were confirmed among students who were actively engaging in hybrid learning.”
Maheia is thus calling on teachers and parents to take steps to ensure that the spread of the virus is curbed in the classroom. Earlier this week, during a press conference held by the United Democratic Party (UDP), the leader of the UDP, Hon. Patrick Faber, who was the Minister of Education, Youth, Sports and Culture during the previous Barrow administration, remarked that the current Ministry of Education, headed by Hon. Francis Fonseca, has opted to reopen schools with very few protocols in place.
Faber went on to say that it is time that the Ministry of Health and Wellness becomes a part of the decision-making being carried out in the Education and Tourism Ministries in order to ensure that the country has a fully coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
CEO Maheia indicated when she was interviewed, however, that the Health and Education ministries are working hand in hand to ensure a safe reopening, and that their aim is to have all schools opened by the end of January. However, some schools have been asking for more time due to a lack of supplies, which would make it difficult for them to safely resume classroom instruction, with all the materials needed to ensure adequate learning for students amidst the pandemic.
Further comments on the recent resumption of in-person classes in the country’s schools were made at the UDP press conference by Secretary-General of the UDP and former Chief Education Officer, Dr. Carol Babb, who asserted that the Ministry of Education, instead of trying to implement new protocols over the three weeks leading up to the reopening of schools, used the same protocols that were in place under the UDP administration in the early stages of the pandemic. She also pointed to a dire need for supplies in the country’s schools, and said that this was a central issue that was highlighted in the responses she received when she conducted a poll of school principals.
“It is unclear what help, if any, will be forthcoming to struggling schools. One principal told me, he said they called him for supplies; he has about eight hundred students. He got a mop, a broom, a gallon of Chlorox, and a gallon of Flash or something else. He said he didn’t go for it. It cost him more in gas to go and pick up the few supplies,” Babb said.
According to her, the Ministry of Education has provided a web portal to principals through which they are to submit requests for supplies they need. The principals, however, have gotten no response from the Ministry to their requests, according to Babb.
In reference to the need for supplies that Babb highlighted, CEO Maheia noted that supplies are currently being packaged and that deliveries of these supplies to schools is expected to start as early as next week. She also mentioned that the Ministry is receiving a donation of approximately $200,000 in supplies, so material will be in stock.
During her interview she stated, “We have supplies that are being packed and prepared to go with, schools all had as part of their learning continuity plans, as part of their plans to return, they all were expected to have a certain measure of supplies for them to get started. It’s been two days. We have a supply request form that is in place where we have been tracking requests, so we know what schools need supplies, and by next week we are going to be starting the delivery of supplies for the schools that need the supplies where the request has come in.”
It is also to be noted that the press release from the Education Ministry stated that “the responses to [the] confirmed cases affecting teachers and students actively engaging in hybrid learning were prompt, and all sanitisation and cleaning protocols were applied as per our Guidelines on School Operation.”
At this time, students between the ages of 5 and 11 years remain unvaccinated, since the specially formulated version of the Pfizer jab that has been approved for that age group is not yet in Belize. Locally and internationally, an increasing number of children are reportedly being infected with, and exhibiting symptoms of, the most recent variant of the Covid-19 to emerge globally — the Omicron variant. The UDP is thus calling for school-age children in the country to be vaccinated.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to batter the globe, schools across the world are trying to find the right balancing act to ensure a safe reopening. It must be noted that as a result of the closure of schools, young students have been negatively impacted by social isolation, interrupted learning, a rise in the dropout rate, and increased exposure to violence and exploitation within the home.
CEO Maheia shared that although the challenges and trials being faced during the reopening process seem endless, teachers, parents and the ministry are committed to ensuring a safe reopening.
An observation that was made in the Education Ministry’s press release is that between January 10 and 13, when a number of Covid-19 cases were reported among students and teachers, “626 teachers and 17,198 students were actively engaging in hybrid learning. Therefore, the cases recorded among teachers affected 1.04% of teachers actively engaging in hybrid learning and among students, the rate was even lower, with cases affecting only 0.25% of all students actively engaging in hybrid learning.” The release also pointed out that “for the most part, these cases are appearing in persons who have recently attended social functions or are close contacts of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.”
“Furthermore”, stated the release, “considering the time when schools have been open and the usual incubation period for the COVID-19 virus, we can safely say that all cases being recorded are not a result of any school activity.”
While some schools have requested that their reopening dates be pushed back, as mentioned, the January 31 date for reopening of all schools countywide is still in place at this time, but the ministry is acting on the basis of recommendations received, says the CEO.