BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 6, 2020– Belizeans across the country faced mounting concerns as we approached the commencement date of the new school year.
Since early July, both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health had been receiving expressions of concern from distraught parents and educators who believed that the decision to resume classes could be as catastrophic as the reopening of the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA), which was scheduled to take place on August 10.
Since the reopening date was announced in June, the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports, Hon. Patrick Faber, along with Chief Education Officer Dr. Carol Babb, had been stressing the importance of children being back in school both for their physical and mental wellbeing.
In fact, the MOE had consistently assured the public that they were taking all the necessary measures to ensure that students would be safe in their classes.
On July 17’s edition of Ask the Experts, Dr. Babb mentioned that the Ministry was not leaving the children’s safety in the hands of the school managers alone. According to Babb, several agencies have been providing aid to assist in the provision of sanitary products:
“UNICEF has agreed to give us $120,000 in sanitization supplies and those supplies will be shared with primary schools across the country. We also have the Ministry of Health and they have already given us fourteen drums of hand washing liquid and again, that will be shared with every school in each district,” she said.
She also stated, “BEL has committed to $50,000 in supplies and in whatever we may consider necessary, whether it be hand washing basins, supplies or whatever the schools would like us to help with. So I just want to assure the entire public that the Ministry of Education is not leaving all of these requests on the management.”
Just this week, in another edition of Ask the Experts, Dr. Babb and Deputy Chief Education Officer Cecilia Ramirez Smith discussed the additional resources the Ministry has been pooling, as well as the new measures that would be taken to ensure safety in school.
Reportedly, additional donations had been made by BEL, BWS and Social Security to install hand-washing stations and the Lord Ashcroft COVID-19 funds were accessed to provide new armchairs.
As far as in-class protocols go, Mrs. Smith mentioned that schools were not able to accept the same number of students in class due to social distancing measures, and an alternate shift system had to be developed. This would be done in tandem with an at-home learning program to ensure the children are learning even when they are not physically in class.
Distancing of a minimum of three feet had also become a requirement in schools, and the frequent use of hand washing had been urged by the MOE.
Additionally, parents who opted not to send their children to school were given the option to homeschool their children; however, they would need to have a minimum of an Associate Degree and would have to apply for a license to be granted by the MOE.
Despite these efforts, though, a number of agencies were publicly voicing their opinion that schools simply could not enforce proper safety measures and social distancing while trying to monitor hundreds of students at a time.
The president of the Belize National Teachers Union (BNTU), Elena Smith, is one such individual who has gone on record multiple times to assert that several schools are not ready to reopen.
In early July, Smith stated that she spoke to a number of principals who complained of being burdened with the expenses of creating a suitable environment in their classrooms based on the safety guidelines set by the MOE.
Subsequently, even after the aforementioned financial assistance to the schools, President Smith still asserted that the teachers and principals were not ready for the reopening of schools and became even more concerned after the recent spike in cases seen over the past week.
The BNTU even launched surveys to determine the schools’ readiness for August 10, which apparently did not produce good results, as Smith explained at the last Christian Workers Union (CWU) protest on Monday:
“Based on the survey, a majority have said that they are not ready, but we have also asked them again to take this week before the reopening to give us an update to see where they are for this week, to make a determination to see whether it is fit for students to return to the classrooms,” she said.
Following this statement, the BNTU issued a press release, dated August 5, dissuading teachers from entering the classrooms, and parents from sending their children to school.
This came after a record high number of fifteen cases were discovered in Belize on Tuesday. In the BNTU’s press release, it advised teachers to refrain from going back to work, and suggested that they “instead begin working towards keeping students engaged in distance learning, whether online or through home based learning packages, until the current situation is stabilized and it is safer for teachers and children to be physically in the classrooms.”
The abrupt and disturbing increase in COVID-19 cases, in fact, had also prompted Education Minister Patrick Faber to consider the assurances he had given the public at a press conference on July 10, when he had given his word that in the face of impending danger, the plan to reopen schools on August 10 would be revisited:
“…we have to be ready and I am giving my commitment now that should there be some kind of community spread of COVID, in the same manner that we are quick to open schools, we‘ll close it back down, because the number one safety issue for us is safety.
“And so, nobody needs to worry and to say well, you‘re opening back the schools, and so. The minute we find out that there is some danger in terms of the fact that there are measures that we are putting in place, that they are not suitable to keep our children protected and healthy, those measures will be reversed,” he had said.
Under these pressures, Faber took to Facebook on Wednesday to announce that things had indeed changed and parents should stand by for an update on the matter of classes resuming.
Hours later, at a joint press-conference by the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and the National COVID-19 Task Force, Dr. Marvin Manzanero gave a stark overview of the most recent cases of COVID-19 in the country, specifically those which surfaced in Corozal, Orange Walk and San Pedro.
Preliminary reports suggest that an additional fourteen cases had emerged on the island, with contact tracing still ongoing.
As a result, Faber announced that the reopening of schools would be delayed indefinitely and a new date would be announced later:
“In short, we are saying at this time, that we will not move ahead with the reopening of schools on August 10. The date of schools reopening will be determined based on the advice from the Health officials,” he said.
Faber further stated, “We are saying, as well, that teachers and school administrators ought to report to school and continue the preparation for whenever school reopens, and at the same time, ought to be working on school continuity plans. We are on the summer break, but once school reopens, and especially if school does not reopen, we will need to provide instruction for our children that is home-based.”