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Editorial: No United Front For Back To School

IF we were hoping for a smooth start and a united front for the return to school, we have been swiftly disappointed.

After Bahamas Union of Teachers president Belinda Wilson raised a number of concerns about the return to school and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education has fired back – with a rather bitter statement.

That in turn has fired up union members who will reportedly not be in attendance at school today.

Honestly, is this helping anyone?

The ministry has made it personal, claiming that Mrs Wilson’s concerns are false and that they are part of her “selfish goal of derailing the national examinations… due to her personal opposition to them”. The ministry claimed the allegations “are designed to create public panic among teachers, students and parents”.

What are the panic-inducing claims Mrs Wilson has made? She has said that schools were not prepared for the reopening, that some classrooms were not cleaned and that janitorial staff needed protective equipment and training. She said that schools were not given enough hand sanitisers, a claim the ministry rejects, and that teachers were given tablets that were incompatible with the Zoom platform being used for virtual learning, and that “many teachers were crammed in classrooms and computer labs…without social distancing protocols being followed”.

A great deal of these are relatively straightforward fixes – or easy to investigate in the case of the tablets being used, to see if a remedy is possible. These should be areas where all sides can work together to reach a solution.

On the other hand, escalating matters by sloganeering that “Teachers’ lives matter” with its self-conscious reference to the protests in the United States, and having teachers call in today to refuse to attend isn’t helping either.

Both sides should take a step back and wonder what kind of image they are presenting to parents and children with this kind of in-fighting.

The ministry has attempted to reassure by pointing out that if a COVID-19 infection occurs in a school, it will be vacated, cleaned and sanitised – but what happens if that is on an exam day? How will the ministry cope with children in one school having not taken an exam while others have, and the possibility of questions being shared to those waiting for a new date?

Safety must be the absolute priority when dealing with school reopenings. We have seen across the water in the US what has happened when schools have opened their doors then swiftly had to close them again because of COVID outbreaks – and we must learn from that experience.

Schools are not just the children, they are the community around them – the parents, grandparents, teachers, janitorial staff, office staff and more. Safety must be for everyone – and none of this bitter dispute will help any of them.

Learn from the best

Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar is facing a quandry.

He sees other jurisdictions open their doors despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and sees the restrictions in place for visitors to The Bahamas serving as a barrier to his attempts to reopen ours.

What are the solutions? Some, he says, are unacceptable to Bahamians – such as opening the doors for visitors to come in but not for Bahamians to go out.

He describes the measures taken by the Dominican Republic and Mexico as “bold” – but given that Mexico presently sits seventh in the world for the total number of COVID-19 cases, maybe it’s not so bold as much as recognising that other places are no worse.

The Dominican Republic sits at 31 in the list of most cases in the world, and has had nearly 2,000 deaths. Even with our current soaring numbers, we have about 25 percent fewer total cases per head of population than the Dominican Republic.

Should we be following solutions being tried by countries who have handled the pandemic worse than ourselves?

What other solutions are there? As far as adhering to wearing masks and keeping our distance, Mr D’Aguilar says “been there, done that” and points to our current results.

In this column last week, we pointed out measures planned in the UK to reduce the amount of time spent in quarantine – although any amount of time in quarantine is likely to deter tourists to some extent.

What we could try if we had the resources would be a massive expansion in testing – but we don’t seem to have the quantity of kits or the capacity of number of tests per day at labs to try that. The backlogs in testing and regular delays in the daily dashboard of cases suggest a challenge there.

What we would say is that Mr D’Aguilar is right to look at what other countries are doing – but perhaps the ones to learn from are the ones managing the virus best, not the ones doing worse than us.

We all share the same goal – restarting our economy, but doing it as safely as possible. As we write this, a total of 67 Bahamians have died so far from COVID-19 in this pandemic. We have seen too many lose loved ones. We do not need to see more.

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