By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
JUST days ahead of the start of the new school year, the Ministry of Education has announced that all public schools will open with a virtual learning format due to the current resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the country.
The ministry also advised private institutions to also adopt the virtual learning model and warned any school wishing to open with face-to-face learning will first have to seek permission from the Ministry of Education.
In a statement released on Friday, education officials said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution and came after “heavy consultation” with the Ministry of Health.
“While the preferred mode of instruction delivery continues to be face-to-face, the ministry remains guided by the mantra of ‘safety first, education always,’” the ministry said.
“As many of our students and educators will be returning from summer travel, the Ministry of Education considers that online instruction will best assist us in reducing the chances of a spike in COVID19 cases throughout the country.
“We think that this action is necessary given the state of our nation’s healthcare system. Therefore, out of an abundance of caution, the decision is made to re-open schools via an online format. This decision will be reviewed in a few weeks.”
As for private schools, the statement added: “At this time, the Ministry of Education strongly urges all private schools to adopt a similar position by engaging their students using a virtual platform. Nevertheless, those independent schools that wish to proceed with some face-to-face instructional activities must seek approval from the Ministry of Education.”
The statement said it will continue to closely monitor the changing situation to determine when it is safe for students to return to campuses.
In-person classes ended in March 2020 due to the pandemic but resumed after the summer break last October in a phased approach.
Following Friday’s announcement, many parents took to social media to voice their frustrations, saying the news was too short notice as it now inconveniences working parents who have already made plans ahead of the upcoming Fall semester.
This also comes after Education Minister Jeff Lloyd told reporters last week that public schools on some islands would reopen with face-to-face instruction, while others would operate under a hybrid model.
The change of plans is likely due to the worsening COVID-19 crisis in the country.
In a voice note sent to The Tribune yesterday, Bahamas Union of Teachers President Belinda Wilson agreed that the announcement should have been made earlier.
However, she also expressed support for schools being opened virtually, believing it to be the best and safest approach in this current health climate.
“I’m pleased that they have finally listened and adhered to the advice from the medical professionals and prior recommendations from the Bahamas Union of Teachers,” Mrs Wilson said.
“At this time, it is our view that virtual learning is the most safe model of teaching especially based on the increased number of COVID-19 positive cases in the country and more specifically amongst school aged children.”
Still, Mrs Wilson said there are a number of concerns that ought to be addressed before schools reopen next week, specifically as it relates to the ministry’s virtual learning platform.
There were several reported glitches with the system during the 2020/21 academic semester.
Yesterday, Mrs Wilson outlined a series of questions she thinks the ministry should answer to assure teachers that their needs will be met.
She asked: “Is the Ministry of Education’s virtual platform adequate for 100,000 users? Can all students, teachers and parents access the platform? Has the 30 percent or more than 14,000 students who never accessed the platform from its inception, have they been identified?
“Have the alternative arrangements been made to ensure that they receive adequate education and access to the learning platform? They are a part of the educational system. Is there sufficient internet access and connectivity in the 171 schools throughout the Commonwealth of The Bahamas from Grand Bahama to Inagua?”
The BUT president also questioned the compatibility of electronic devices with the online system among other things.
“Do teachers and students have electronic devices such as laptops and tablets and, yes, by the way, are these devices working? Are they compatible with the Ministry of Education’s learning management system?
“These questions still need to be answered. Although I have been assured by the permanent secretary that the virtual platform works, well we will wait and see, but I impress upon the Ministry of Education officials to get it right.”