Minister of Education Anthony Garcia revealed that school is unlikely to restart before September 2020, as the government adjusts to the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The third school term of the 2019-20 academic year was due to start on Monday 20 April but Garcia described that as ‘virtually impossible’. He revealed that the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) floated the idea of examinations ‘between June and July’ but said the situation was still ‘fluid’ due to the novel coronavirus.
If there are to be exams in mid-2020, students would be judged on their SBAs and multiple choice questions with no long paper tests. But it is unlikely that the regional body can ensure a fair exam for all students that quickly, with the disruption to education felt more keenly by students without internet access.
Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica, according to Garcia, have less internet penetration than Trinidad and Tobago.
For children not facing CSEC and Cape, including standard five students, their third school term will almost certainly start on Tuesday 1 September and end in December.
“The SEA is a local examination and Cabinet will be the ones to decide when that exam is to be held,” said Garcia. “The exams under the jurisdiction of CXC are regional examinations and it will be the regional governments who will have to make representations to CXC…
“We want to make sure that when our students sit these examinations, there will be no impediments and the examinations will be done without any fault.”
To return the school term to its usual September opening, Garcia proposed that the Sep 2020-June 2021 academic year, which is usually split into three terms, would be ‘compressed’ into two terms instead. He pointed to 1964, when the school term was initially moved from January to September, as the precedent.
“There will be one term from January to April and the other term from mid-April to July,” said the Education Minister. “[…] What will happen if this goes forward [is] all the students will remain in school for September to December; and the new school year will start in January [with two terms before it goes back to normal next September].”
In the meantime, Garcia said the government is working hard to minimise the disruption to the education of the nation’s children.
Dr Lovell Francis, Minister in the Ministry of Education, spoke at length about the newly implemented School Learning Management System (SLMS), which is available at learn.me.gov.tt.
“I will be very happy if they log in now,” said Francis, when asked about the readiness of the programme. “If they stop listening to me talk and log in now—we are actually ready and waiting for them. The timeline is literally now.
“[…] When I asked at the ministry how many persons it can carry at the same time, I was told 1.4 million.”
By then, however, the SLMS had already crashed under the weight of what—according to information relayed to Communications Minister Donna Cox, during the press conference—was over 100,000 persons.
It was a clumsy start for Trinidad and Tobago’s first major foray into large scale online learning at primary and secondary level, although not unheard for a new website.
Francis and Garcia sought to assure the public that the government has made significant strides in this arena over the past two years.
Covid-19 forced earlier implementation than they had envisioned, according to Lovell, but the framework was already there.
“Our platform allows not just the hosting of content but virtual teaching,” said Lovell. “What this means is the Ministry of Education has gone from an organisation that […] had very little online content to an organisation that is now creating its own software [and] has a very active and real basis for education to continue at this time; and allows for thousands of students to continue to receive a real education every single day.”
Lovell commended the ‘hundreds of teachers’ who took up the challenge to stock the SLMS with content for students of all ages. The website, traffic permitting, should be available to students straight away.
There are several issues to be dealt with before online teaching becomes a reality though. Lovell said the government already has laptops that can be provided to teachers; but students are a different story.
“Getting devices to all our teachers is not going to be difficult,” he said. “The students, of course, present a much larger issue. At our rough estimate of the number of devices that might be needed, the number is […] maybe 60,000 students.
“That is a very large number. That is going to be a tremendous cost….”
Lovell revealed that the Roman Catholic board has begun asking for devices to be donated to students and he hopes for further support from other entities in that vein.
The Education Ministry is pushing to have increased bandwidths at secondary schools and WiFi hotspots accessible to students and has approached the Ministry of Public Administration to lobby on its behalf.
Of course, getting the support of teachers is not necessarily as simple as providing them with laptops.
Garcia revealed that he will meet with officials from the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) tomorrow to discuss their ideas on online teaching and proposed adjustments to the school term.
He has already spoken on Trinidad and Tobago’s way forward in education with senior officials from the University of the West Indies (UWI), University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), Tobago House of Assembly (THA), Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme (YTEPP) and the Primary Schools Principals Association.
However, Garcia left the formidable TTUTA—an organisation he once headed—for last.
“We wanted to collate the views from all our stakeholders and present them to TTUTA,” said the Education Minister. “[…] Hopefully we will have a very fruitful meeting with TTUTA.”
Garcia insisted that, despite the uncertainty presented by the pandemic, teachers did not need to fear about their salaries. Of course, the new plan requires them to perform duties outside of their usual workplace.
“A school is more than a building, so while the buildings are closed we at the Ministry of Education are doing everything possible to ensure that learning and teaching continues,” said Garcia. “[…] If education is to continue we want to make sure our teachers are paid and I want to give you the assurance.
“[…] They will be paid their salaries and I am sure that they are going to add value, so that nobody can say that the teachers are lazy.”