Statement by Dr. the Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley
Minister for Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture
Sunday, May 31, 2020
Update on the Education Sector
I thank you for the opportunity to share with the entire community an update on education in the COVID-19 era.
Before I do so, allow me to recognize some precious souls who we have recently lost who have served the education system at some point. Reverend Edris O’Neal, who taught Religious Education at the, then, BVI High School, has gone away home, and I take this opportunity to extend heartfelt sympathies to her entire family, including the Minister of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration, her son-in-law, along with the entire Virgin Islands community.
The education system also lost a young talented educator by the name of Shemaine Brewley. Let me express my condolences on behalf of myself and the Ministry to her loved ones. I was also sad to learn about the passing of Mr. Derry Etkins, a former music teacher of the St. Georges Primary School. Though Mr. Etkins passed in his native Guyana, he served for many years in the BVI and touched many lives on this soil.
Also, close family members of former and current educators have also passed in recent times. I offer condolences the following persons: to Mr. Cecil Hodge on the passing of his mother ; Marguerite Scott on the passing of her mother, Yolande, who was also the wife of the late, great educator, Carlisle Scott; and Hilroy George’s step dad, Norwell Creque, who was also the uncle of Norma Creque.
I, also, use this opportunity to express condolences to employees within my Ministry: Letaye Garrin on the passing of her father, John Rhymer, who was also Lorna Stevens and Sharlene Smith’s great uncle! May the souls of our beloved rest in eternal peace and may the comforting arms of the Father wrap around their loved ones in a healing embrace in their time of grief.
It has been about 9 weeks since cabinet mandated that schools be closed due to the threat of COVID-19. In that space of time, we have had 8 confirmed cases of the COVID-19, including, unfortunately, one death. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Cabinet, the Health Minister, the HEOC TEAM, our hard working doctors and nurses and so many others for their leadership, toil, and commitment. I, also, express my profound appreciation to the members of this community for your diligence, your patience, your understanding, and your cooperation. As a result of God’s grace and our collective action, the Territory of the Virgin Islands, at this stage, has no confirmed active cases.
Therefore, we have been successful up until this point, keeping our children, one of our most vulnerable populations, safe, but we must not become weary in well-doing. On June 2nd our borders reopen, and we must manage that situation carefully. We must continue to practice wisdom and use caution because, as our Premier always says, “we are not out of the woods yet.”
Through the wonders of technology, we have been able to continue teaching and learning. I want to express my profound gratitude to our principals, teachers, students, and parents for your enthusiastic participation in online education. As a parent of two school age children, I have personally witnessed the teachers and students in action, and I must say it has been impressive. I personally commend all education officials and especially the teachers for their hard work—their level of preparation and engagement—and all that is being done to ensure that our children succeed in this new learning environment.
Parents, I acknowledge you as well. Many of you have to work your jobs and still help your children with their work. Having to help my two children at the same time is very taxing, and I know you parents are ready for a vacation. We must all feel a greater sense of appreciation for our teachers, who have to deal with all our children every day.
I participated in a zoom forum with students from the 9th district recently, and the students expressed that they wanted to continue their online learning even beyond COVID-19. They also expressed that they are able meet the same objectives as within the classroom. There are many across the 9 districts who can attest to the fact that online learning can work.
Challenges with Electronic Devices and Internet and Solutions
However, online learning is not without its challenges. The two main challenges are that some students do not have electronic devices and/or adequate internet, both of which are being addressed. In regard to devices, I made an appeal to corporate BVI in my last statement, and I must say they have stepped up to the plate. I speak here of businesses and organisations, such as Quality Construction donating 6 chromebooks, Oil Nut Bay donating 25, BVI Football Association (FIFA) 20 laptops, UNICEF, 50, Rotary donating to 5 Laptops to Ivan Dawson school and pledging to donate to the Joyce Samuels Primary School and the Alexandrina Primary School, and the expected 132 from Bitter End Yacht Club through UNITE BVI, to name a few. Adventist Disaster Relief Agency and Deloitte have also pledged devices.
We are hoping to receive the additional devices, those gifted to the Ministry and the 500 that were purchased through the Government’s stimulus package very soon, and these will definitely help the students who have not been accessing the online learning. In the meantime, work packets have been provided for those students unable to access classes online. Parents are expected to return completed work at the end of each week and collect new information for the upcoming week.
In regard to internet, The Ministry, in an effort to ascertain the needs of students to access online learning, launched a survey on 31st March, 2020 and it concluded on 23rd April, 2020. I express thanks to all who took the time to complete the survey. A special thanks to the principals who ensured that the parents in their schools completed it. Over 3,000 responses were received. From this survey and subsequent follow ups with parents, we were able to determine the needs of students to access online learning.
I am happy to announce that FLOW has confirmed an internet package at the price parents indicated they could afford on the online learning survey. This discounted package will be available for parents who completed the survey who confirmed a need for an affordable internet package for the purpose of online education. Interested persons within this category should contact the Ministry and receive further direction.
In addition to the discounted internet packages, work is currently being conducted to establish fibre connections at each of the public schools in the Territory.
Training for Online Education
We have invested lots of time, energy, and resources into preparing teachers, students, and members of the public for online learning. The training for virtual learning for Grades K – 12 educators has been pretty intense over the past weeks as principals and teachers have been honing skills, becoming acquainted with the various platforms, and discovering how to engage pedagogy using online modes. The use of Cisco Webex and the Google suites have been our major online platforms. Class schedules were adjusted to accommodate the online teaching. They have been a blend of interactive sessions and assignments through Google classroom and Class dojo.
The Ministry has also commenced a series of LIVE educational sessions on Facebook with the aim of providing ongoing educational support at this time. To date we have conducted three sessions and these are expected to continue in the coming weeks. Our first session gave parents a full briefing of the online platforms to be used for learning during the Trinity term. We used the opportunity also to clear up misconceptions and to answer those frequently asked questions. There was a recorded 15,000 views. Our second session focused on student support services available during this period of online learning and this week our focus was on supporting parents of young children as we focus this week on early childhood awareness. My Ministry will continue to share with the public but specifically parents, relevant information on how to cope during this time when the home has also become the school room.
Online education has brought some major adjustments, and I am proud of how educators have been engaging. Collaboration in lesson planning and development has been across the board; this is an initiative for which we have been longing. Public and private school teachers have been working together to formulate lessons, assessments, and activities by grade levels and by subjects at both primary and secondary levels. We have made this switch permanent. We will enhance classrooms with promethean boards, computers and other electronic devices to facilitate learning. The digital textbooks will continue in September. Currently, the content is being reviewed and updated in preparation for the new school year. We wish to see the integration of technology in education in a very real way. COVID – 19 forced us to make this decision, but we will continue to engage this 21st century approach to education.
Challenges for Specific Groups
We have come to realise that in spite of our best efforts to move online learning fully, there are some groups of students that are not being adequately served. These groups include
- children with special needs;
- technical students;
- marginalised students;
- students preparing to sit standardised examinations; and
- some of our adult education students.
We have heard the cries of those who have said that special education students need some special attention; that automotive students need an hour or two of practical instruction; that those with Individualized Educational Plans are falling behind; and, therefore, Cabinet, in its wisdom, decided to allow a limited number of students with specific needs on campus.
On Wednesday 27th May, 2020 Cabinet decided that a new Public Health COVID-19 Control and Suppression Measures Order, 2020 will come into effect on the Tuesday 2nd June, 2020.
The details are as follows:
- access should be granted to students in senior grades, who are preparing for and/or sitting standardized exams, or with special requirements (whether attending public, private or church schools);
- students should have access to classrooms on a staggered schedule to enable safe distancing protocols;
- specific steps must be taken to ensure adequate social distancing and hygiene measures are adhered to, thus reducing the chances of disease transmission
- classroom equipment and tools (including desk, chairs, tables, doors,) must be properly disinfected between staggered sessions to reduce the chances of transmission among students and teachers.
- schools should be inspected and certified by the Chief Environmental Health Officer, prior to opening.
I wish to stress, that certification by the Chief Environmental Health Officer is required prior to the reopening of any educational institution for the categories listed. Therefore, in the coming weeks, the Ministry of Education will be working very closely with the Ministry of Health officials to implement Cabinet’s decision. We realise, that some parents will prefer that their children remain at home at this time. However, we need to ensure that the option for reopening schools in a phased manner is available for the categories of students mentioned.
Planning for Safety
I cannot emphasize enough, as we allow this limited number of students to access our physical school structures, safety is our number 1 priority. In consideration of such a decision was underpinned by a comprehensive look at guidance of international, regional, and local bodies. Ministry officials engaged UNICEF’S Framework for Reopening Schools which requires that the following six (6) key dimensions be used to assess their states of readiness and inform planning: policy, financing, safe operations, learning, reach the most marginalised and well-being/protection.
Additionally, the Ministry has been guided by CARPHA’s Guidance for the Education Sector, UNICEF’s Key Messages and Actions for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Schools, The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Interim Guidance for Child Care Programs, the World Health Organisation’s Considerations for School-Related Public Health Measures in the Context of COVID-19, as well as the local Environmental Health Unit’s Public Health Guidance for Schools (K-12) and child care centres (COVID-19) and Cleaning and Disinfection - School Guidance.
The Ministry has utilized this international, regional, and local guidance to inform the development of a phased plan of action for continuity in the education system. The plan, which has been noted by Cabinet, includes various measures to address the risks presented to children's education, protection and well-being as a result of the closure of educational institutions in response to COVID-19 for primary, secondary and tertiary institutions. It also addresses the medium through which teaching and learning will take place and how some of the ongoing challenges since the implementation of online learning can be mitigated against.
The COVID-19 threat is fluid, and, therefore, this plan is constantly being evaluated against local conditions, cabinet decisions along with other factors. It is envisioned that moving into the future, even beyond COVID-19, we will utilize a blended approach of online and face to face education, and public will be kept informed as we adjust to shifting circumstances.
Daycares and Preschools
I must take this opportunity to address our day care centres and preschools, which have been having a difficult time due to closure. These institutions have employees in limbo and financial obligations to fulfil. While the advice of our health officials has recommended they remain closed, we cannot ignore the cries of those who look after our most precious resource—our children. That is why I am pleased that the stimulus package announced by our Premier has included Daycares and Preschools as businesses eligible for assistance at this time.
This week is Early Childhood week, and no one can deny, especially during COVID-19, the importance of Early Childhood Education Centres. These institutions play an absolutely vital role, so I wish to take a few minutes to celebrate our young children and those who help develop them. We must be sure that we use every opportunity to establish the best experiences in home and school for our young people to strengthen their foundation. For this investment will pay dividends in our society for generations.
I am concerned about the vulnerability of our young people with the continued closure of day care centres and preschools. We are aware that there are less than ideal arrangements being put in place at the moment. Therefore, I am encouraged that Cabinet, in its wisdom, has also decided that the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture and the Ministry of Health and Social Development should undertake further work to develop agreed protocols on safe distancing, hygiene and monitoring to enable a decision to be made in respect of the re-opening of day care centres and preschools.
I, therefore, ask that Day cares and preschools now engage my ministry along with Environmental Health in a dialogue on the specific steps required to ensure the safest possible environment for our children. I look forward to this collaboration as we develop a detailed framework for daycare centres and preschools for the consideration of cabinet.
Examinations and Graduation
I must also address two vital areas before I close—examinations and graduation. I have taken the decision to cancel keystage exams and the CPEA this year. This was a difficult decision to make, but I carefully considered the strain that has been placed teachers, parents and students in adjusting to online education. I also had to consider the fact that there are some young people who still do not have the tools to properly function. Though online education is working for many of our students, teachers have a challenge in ensuring students are always completely focused during lessons.
Therefore, continuous assessment will be used as usual for promotion from one grade to another. This will include projects, investigations, book reports, quizzes, classwork and kinesthetic assessments. These assessments will be dispersed throughout the term and many have already been conducted. This term will only be weighted as 20% of the students’ overall grade for the 2019-2020 academic year, with the advent and lent terms accounting for 40% each.
Graduation requirements for our secondary schools will have to be adjusted based on the impracticality of community service hours, for example. Also, Cabinet has decided that all graduation exercises will be done virtually. This includes all schools, both public and private, no matter the level of student or the size of the class. This is being done to keep the population safe as we navigate this COVID-19 era. Further guidance on graduation requirements and ceremonies will be forthcoming in the near future.
Display of Appropriate Behaviour
I will end this statement encouraging our young people to use good judgement when engaging in online learning. In a minority of instances, we have been receiving reports of poor behavior during online instruction, and I need to say that I will not tolerate disrespect for teachers and the other students. We have support systems in place for those who need counseling and other types of assistance, but we must have a high standard for conduct in our schools and society as a whole. I am, therefore, recommending harsh penalties for our most blatant offenders. I call on parents to engage with their children and support them in exhibiting appropriate behaviour.
We are living in serious times, but I am proud of the way we have adjusted to this new regular. Yes, challenges abound, but we have demonstrated our resilience in responding to the 2017 floods, Irma and Maria. We are again demonstrating our resilience in response to COVID-19, and, with God’s help, we will continue to demonstrate our resilience as we navigate an uncertain future. I thank you!