Gov’t stops SEA classes! Rowley on school restart, TTUTA, bars, grant for stranded Trinbagonians and ‘the pandemic election’

Students preparing for the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examinations have been ordered to stay at home until their exam date on 20 August, as a result of the spike of Covid-19 infections within the population.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made the announcement at a press conference this afternoon, as he revealed that four SEA students tested positive for Covid-19, from a total of nine children altogether. After discussions with the relevant doctors at the Ministry of Health, the government decided that the continuation of SEA classes are not worth the risk.

Photo: Students at the Sangre Grande Hindu School focus on their Trinidad Guardian SEA practice test.
(Courtesy bpartofit)

“We came to the conclusion that we would not continue with that experiment of bringing those SEA children out,” said Rowley. “[…] From tomorrow, those children will not go back out to have classes at school.”

However, the examinations should proceed as scheduled, and the prime minister urged parents to take the necessary step to ensure their children are ready for 20 August—‘barring a disaster of some kind’.

“As of now, given what is happening now, we stay with the exam,” said Rowley.

By that same line of reasoning, primary, secondary and tertiary schools remain scheduled for a 1 September restart.

Rowley sought to assure parents and students that the government would continue to ‘monitor’ the rate of infection and will act in accordance with that data. But he suggested that a firm date offered some level of ‘mental stability’ to parents and teachers—and they would not deviate from that unless absolutely necessary.

The prime minister expressed disappointment in Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) president Antonia Tekah-De Freitas’s call for teachers to stay at home and refuse to help coordinate exams, so as to ensure their well-being.

Photo: TTUTA leads teachers on a demonstration.

Rowley said all sectors of society must recognise that there is no longer a risk-free scenario, and it would be pandemonium if nurses, policemen and WASA workers follow TTUTA’s lead.

“When we say we are all in this together, we mean everybody—and any decision made is made for everybody,” said Rowley. “It is not helpful if persons in leadership positions believe that they are not going to accept what the country is doing, because they are prepared to protect themselves better than everybody else.

“[…] If one group takes that position, what about if others do that? […] Then the whole thing will fall down.”

At present, Trinidad and Tobago is in its second wave of the novel coronavirus and the rate of infection is higher than the first—45 cases in 17 days (20 July to 5 August) as opposed to 50 cases in 31 days (27 March to 26 April).

However, Rowley suggested that the Ministry of Health had ‘some element of control’ over the current spread.

“If we had no idea what [the current Covid-19 positive numbers] meant in terms of who infected whom, you might have had a different decision from me this morning,” said Rowley. “But because we have been able to track who has been infecting whom, we say we are in some element of control.”

Photo: Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
(Copyright Office of Parliament)

Dr Avery Hinds, the technical director of the Epidemiological Department, echoed the prime minister’s confidence in the ministry’s contact tracing mechanism.

“We will continue to trace and to chase and to test where required,” said Hinds. “So far, the work we have done has given us a pattern and some confidence that we are finding the people.”

Information gleaned from contact tracing, so far, suggests that the most likely source of infection is at home. Bars come second with ‘two or three bars implicated in spread from one group to an apparently unrelated group’.

The classroom is third on the list and cases so far have not pointed to transmission at CSEC and CAPE examinations, where students are generally aged between 15 and 17.

Again, Rowley resisted shutting down bars altogether, but he said the police will be urged—via a relay of commands through Minister of National Security Stuart Young and Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith—to ‘enforce the law to the fullest extent’.

Photo: Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith (centre) accompanies lawmen on a TTPS exercise.
(via TTPS)

“Bars and restaurants remain a threat, [although] I haven’t heard complaints from restaurants but certainly bars,” said the prime minister. “We are doubling up our monitoring on a daily basis.”

For members of the public who are pushing for another ‘lockdown’, Rowley explained why the government is hesitant about granting their request.

“The last lockdown cost us billions of dollars—if we have to go to another lockdown such billions are not available,” he said. “And the jobs we have saved may not be salvageable in the next go-around…”

Rowley stressed that he has no intention of postponing the general election and it is considered very unlikely that the rate of infection would spiral out of control over the next five days.

Once persons follow the health protocols at the polling stations, it should, he said, be a safer exercise than a day at work in the public service. And he joked that, if he were to postpone the elections, there would probably be hundreds of people congregating to protest the decision in any case.

However, Rowley warned against wheeling old people out of the homes for the aged to vote.

Photo: Then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar (left) shakes hands with her successor, Dr Keith Rowley, en route to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

“I expect we will have to conduct the elections without them,” said the prime minister. “This is the pandemic elections.”

Rowley and Young gave an update on the repatriation exercise, which will see another 100 persons return from the United States on the weekend and 95 persons from Britain. Thereafter, the next groups will come from Canada and Britain respectively.

Rowley also confirmed that a ‘humanitarian’ grant of US$200 will be made available soon to the ‘odd individual’ abroad who had a return ticket home but found him or herself stranded abroad when the borders were closed.

The onus will be on such persons to prove their circumstance before they are granted financial relief, as they ‘make their way through the repatriation system’.

The continuing return of nationals depends on the state of affairs in Trinidad, though. Deyalsingh said the hospitals consider their capacity to be 75 percent, which should still allow a safe environment for patients and medical staff.

Photo: North Central Regional Health Authority (NCRHA) CEO Davlin Thomas (front left) poses with staff at the Caura Hospital.
(Courtesy NCRHA)

At present, Caura has 40 beds in use out of 100—so there are 35 spaces available (before it is considered ‘at capacity’). Our current rate of infection, then, is concerning. Deyalsingh asked persons to think about that before they head to the bar.

“We don’t want to overwhelm the system,” said the minister of health. “Our doctors and nurses at Caura are already under stress.”

So there is concern; but, Rowley reiterated, not panic.

“There is no raging virus in Trinidad and tobago, the virus is not raging out of control,” said the prime minister. “[…] So far with the majority of the tracing, we have found the contacts and we know how it has happened.

“[…] We are in a relatively good place in terms of managing risk.”

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