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Resumption of schools, a challenge for us all

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COVID or not, I must confess that I am shocked that the 20th anniversary of the historic victory of the ULP at the polls in 2001 is upcoming this Sunday, March 28, and the party and government seem to be tiptoeing towards it. Granted, the overwhelming presence of Prime Minister Gonsalves is not there in a physical sense, for he is giving husband support to his wife currently undergoing medical treatment overseas. In addition the COVID protocols would severely hamper this party, heavily reliant on its mass mobilisation strengths, from its usual “pampasetting” in such circumstances; but the silence, the docility, on such an occasion just does not sound right.

I had planned to make some comments on this auspicious political anniversary in my column this week, but I have decided to leave it for next week in favour of a pressing national situation, the planned reopening of schools. After all, I am reminded of an old calypso by the late Mighty Cypher in Trinidad which said, “If de priest could play, who is me”?

It is just over a year now since the coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a global pandemic. We have not been spared its ravages, ranging from fatalities and infections, to social and economic disruptions. Like other national challenges, it has brought out the best in us, at least among us, with our front-line responders enduring personal sacrifice to lead the battle against COVID 19. It is all the more commendable since we have not always been fully appreciative and all too ready to make unwarranted attacks on them when things get rough.

In an unequal society like ours, in every crisis some will suffer more than most and every time it will be the poor, the disadvantaged, the working women and the children who will suffer most. This must be borne in mind in our approach to these challenges and should therefore shape our responses.

It is an approach that we should take towards the planned re-opening of schools, tentatively scheduled for April 12.

While educational issues are naturally at the centre of national concerns, there are however much wider concerns societal and health-wise, which demand the support of the rest of society. If we fail to co-operate, it can all go heavily wrong, with disastrous circumstances.

Critical to this is the role of our teachers. As a former teacher myself, and a member of the short-lived Secondary School teachers Association way back in the early seventies, I continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for teachers and have not hesitated to give support to the organized struggles of the Teachers Union over the years. Its role in the planned resumption is critical not just for the success of the effort but for the future standing of the Union itself.
The resumption of face-to-face contact between teachers and students is eagerly anticipated by both parents and students themselves. I have little doubt that many teachers are also so inclined, but there appears to be some cloud over the public perception of the role of the Teachers Union in this.

Much of it no doubt is not only due to the postures and actions of the Union alone, government must not be afraid to admit that at times its stubbornness in dealing with peripheral issues has contributed to damaging the once-healthy relationship between both sides. This is where the role of new Education Minister Curtis King, can be critical in the circumstances.

He has come into this role with impeccable credentials, but so have others before him, only to fail to maintain the integrity so required in a complex situation. But on both sides he must be given the trust, support and latitude to be able to play a meaningful role in the situation.

The Union itself needs to look into the mirror. How come for instance, that after claiming that non-attendance at a three-day development initiative was a agreed position, so many teachers attended the sessions? Is confrontation the most appropriate strategy in the circumstances? Can we not meet the challenges in education while looking at the interests of all involved –students, teachers, health considerations and the wider public?

There are serious health implications for the resumption, and social and psychological ones too. Our children have suffered long and there are still many issues of inequality involved. But as our P.M. is famous for saying, “should we make perfection the enemy of the good”? Or, should we not look for common denominators, and place our precious children, our valuable teachers and the future of our nation above all else?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.