An Open Letter to Stakeholders in Education in SVG
Teachers, Principals and Deputies, Parents, MOE Officials, Social commentators and the public – this writing is unintentionally lengthy. I do hope that you would read through to the end.
The Vincentian community has recently been absorbed in much commentary regarding the proposed re-opening of schools and the Teachers’ Union position on the Ministry of Education’s proposal for Professional Development (PD) sessions for teachers from March 17th to 19th. As an observer and as a stakeholder, being both a parent and a teacher, I have written this piece to add my voice to the ongoing commentary and to hopefully lend clarity to some of the matters being discussed as there seems to be some misconceptions to the reality of the situation.
Here is what happened
On Thursday 11th March 2021 and Friday 12th March 2021 several meetings were scheduled in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health to discuss the topic of the Covid-19 vaccine with teachers and principals across the nation. Presenters for the sessions were members of the upper echelon of both the MOH and the MOE. MOH officials presented vaccination information to attendees; MOE officials reminded teachers that school would be reopened physically for third term; teachers had an opportunity to ask questions and were encouraged to take the vaccine. Participating in two of the scheduled sessions I was able to garner feedback from a wide scope of attendees. Understandably, teachers, principals, deputy principals and other members of the wider educational scope had many concerns and doubts related to the vaccine. All of these meetings were held virtually, via the Zoom app.
Following a very boisterous discussion in the Thursday afternoon session, the second meeting MOH/MOE meeting for that day a circular was sent quite unexpectedly from the Ministry of Education titled “Reopening of Schools” which required teachers to report to their respective schools from March 17th to 19th 2021 to conduct PD sessions to discuss specifically (in short form):
- Matters related to online teaching
- Plans for bridging the gap for some students who were not fully engaged online
- Recommendations for end of year promotions
- Health and safety protocols
The circular ended by saying that teams would be deployed by the MOH, in collaboration with the MOE “to facilitate the vaccination of teachers during the professional development period.” It further stated “All teachers are encouraged to vaccinate in an effort to mitigate against the pandemic.”
Subsequently, many teachers and principals expressed a bit of surprise in the seemingly sudden and unexpected manner in which the MOE issued this circular for Professional Development, shortly after meetings with principals, deputy principals and teachers – where no indication of such an upcoming PD session was mentioned. Additionally, many questioned the following:
1 – the abruptly scheduled sessions, on such short notice, which would break the ongoing virtual teaching engagement for students at such a critical time with less than two weeks left of the term
2 – the necessity of having to report to the physical school environment for PD sessions, when PD sessions, meetings and more meetings have been continually ongoing amongst staff
3 – the strong tone of language to the effect of the facilitation of vaccines to teachers at the PD sessions.
Thus, following these highlighted issues, the SVGTU convened a national meeting on Sunday March 14th, 2021 to generate feedback from members in an official manner. The SVGTU has spoken on and published the resolutions of the meeting. Whether it is that the SVGTU has not articulated these properly, or that some media outlets have presented the information inaccurately, or that the public has misinterpreted or misconstrued the message of the SVGTU, there seems to be a lot of unfortunate and divergent comments abounding on social media. Although I do not speak for the SVGTU I would like to reiterate the following points derived from the SVGTU meeting on Sunday March 14th:
- All teachers in attendance at the virtual meeting expressed readiness and willingness to return to the physical classroom on April 12th No teacher expressed adverse opinions to the MOE’s proposed reopening of school for the third term, in the physical environment.
- All teachers agreed that physical classroom offers the benefits of engaging as many students as possible as compared to the online environment and provides better opportunities for monitoring of students.
- All teachers in attendance at the virtual meeting agreed that the proposed PD sessions for March 17th to March 19th should be deferred to either the following week (Week 11, the last week of school) or to the Easter school break so as to allow teachers to continue virtual teaching sessions for the remainder of Week 10 and finish topics, assessments, CSEC CPEA and SBA work.
- Teachers further queried why the MOE felt it necessary to have these PD sessions at the physical compound, so snappishly, to seemingly discuss matters which the MOE knows has been discussed at length at the school level, at the Principals’ level and at the MOE level.
- The vast majority of teachers in attendance at the virtual meeting agreed that although the MOE kept reiterating that the vaccine is not mandatory for teachers, the tone of the letter regarding vaccination during PD sessions seemed imposing.
- Teachers expressed concerns that the MOE may not fulfil its obligation to provide adequate resources to maintain sanitizing of the physical plant – the school compound – for the return of students, as the MOE was lax in providing materials during the year past.
To add perspective to the number of teachers involved in this decision-making process, there were nearly 500 teachers in attendance to the virtual session, with dozens more waiting in the lobby.
I hope the above information provides clarity on the issues being discussed in social media forums and radio talk shows. At no point did teachers on a whole, express disinterest in returning to the physical classroom nor in returning to the classroom on April 12th 2021. On the issue of the PD sessions for this week, March 17th to 19th, all the teachers simply wanted was to have these PD sessions put to a different date.
To the Ministry of Education, SVG
Firstly, these abruptly scheduled PD sessions at the schools for March 17th through 19th 2021 were not necessary at this time and were not necessary to be conducted in the school environment. You know this. This latest act of yours, in my opinion, continues to display YOUR total lack of focus on the students and student engagement as you seemingly place all your efforts on bulldozing teachers and principals. Had you truly cared for student engagement, you would not have scheduled these PD sessions so abruptly in a manner that will disrupt the online teaching sessions of those students and teachers that are actually engaged. In essence you have brought about the sudden end to the school term as it would be difficult go these students to reconnect to the frame of mind of virtual learning in the following week, and teachers now would have to re-devise their plans for the end of term revision and assessments as they now have to focus on reports and house-keeping matters in Week 11.
Further still, the manner in which the circular was released, on the same day shortly after having meetings with educators left many of these same educators blindsided, including some of your most allied principals. No notion of any ideas for PD sessions was given, hence why it seems to the teaching fraternity that the circular was hastily conceived. Additionally, you disregarded an opportunity to discuss the PD session proposal with the major input stakeholder: the teaching fraternity. Had you engaged dialogue I am certain that your principals and teachers would have advised that scheduling three days PD sessions from March 17th to 19th was not the best idea.
Secondly, the purpose of these meetings as listed in the circular of March 11th is by far, redundant. Are these not topics which staff discusses on a daily basis through their communication platforms? Are these not topics which staff discusses continually during weekly staff meetings held virtually, as per your direction? Are these not matters which have been discussed already and continue to be discussed by the MOE with education officers and Principals? Hasn’t the MOE already made proposals to principals for end of year promotions and repetitions of students?
Therefore, I reiterate, imposing these meetings at this time to discuss topics already in discussion was not necessary to the stated purpose of the PD sessions.
So thirdly, from the rushed communique on the evening of March 11th, it seemed like the highlight of these PD sessions would be the vaccination process of teachers. The proposal to vaccinate teachers during session amounts to a waste of resources to send medical personal to schools to conduct such. The vaccine campaign has been ongoing in SVG for several weeks now and is available to all residents of SVG, including teachers. It is therefore not necessary to bring the vaccine to this forum of PD sessions. Some teachers have already taken the vaccine, others have expressed their intent to take the vaccine, and others expressed their unwillingness. Teachers can and have taken the vaccine in their own time, of their choosing.
Finally, to date, the MOE has shied away from acknowledging that tablets were not provided for Primary School students except grade 6 – impeding the ability of many lower grade students to be fully engaged online or to receive and view certain material shared by teachers. A simple word of reassurance to parents and teachers could have been made a long time ago to state that devices would arrive in due time for these students and request that parents do the best they can with whatever devices they have in the meantime.
Yet again, you have shied away from acknowledging this second term as a fully functional school term. The language by the MOE of education to the public has continually been that “schools remain closed”. As such, some parents take it as exactly that and do not put the effort to having their children engaged online as they do not feel obliged to. A better alternative could have been for the MOE to come out and say that while schools remain physically closed, Term 2 teaching and learning would be conducted fully online. And while many schools and their respective principals have continually reported absences of students to you and have solicited your involvement in creating national messages imploring parents and students to engage fully in online learning – you have abstained from becoming directly involved. You the MOE, seem to rather have a teacher sit in an empty online class so that you can monitor the teacher instead of you the MOE taking the initiative to publicly address parents and students on matters of attendance and engagement in online sessions. Again demonstrating that your focus on hounding teachers is ill placed.
Someday I hope that you would re-evaluate the way that you engage teachers and principals and that you would dialogue with different schools and garner real input from teachers in decision-making processes.
To the SVGTU
I am impressed to see your engagement of teachers in recent time. I wonder though, following the meeting on Sunday March 14th, did the union write to the MOE requesting that the MOE defer the scheduled PD sessions? It seems as if all of this hubbub could have been avoided with a simple request and a simple response. Furthermore, you have allowed antagonists to control the narrative of the union’s position and further misinform members of the general public. I encourage you to be clear in your narrative and to be careful with your public discussions, as simple statements, as you have seen, can be easily misconstrued.
To the Teachers across SVG
For many years it has been stated that teaching is one of the most undervalued professions in the world, yet many studies have shown that this is one of the most stressful, yet rewarding jobs. Lately the teaching fraternity in SVG has been the subject of much ridicule due to shortcoming of some teachers, due to incorrect narrative from the MOE to the public and due to some who have long standing grievances with teachers. As a parent – I want to thank you teachers for your invaluable service. As a teacher – I commend those teachers who have been working diligently in virtual engagement at all levels. Those teachers who know they have done only the bare minimum, please endeavour to improve – you never know when we may have to resort to online engagement again in the future.
I encourage you to do your best always and support each other in the face of external adversities. You must be aware that taking a position against something, does not mean that you are against your employer or even against your government. All of us as teachers and principals are aware of the many shortcomings of the MOE, the lack of resources, the lack of support and the often one-sided decision making process. Yet, if we continue to sweep-under-the-rug all of the issues that we face in the pretext that all is fine – then things will never change. Further if we are continually positioned to keep quiet and not rebut on issues, then there will come a time when we will lose our voice completely and not be able to rebut anything at all.
I know that many teachers still have concerns about health and safety of students in particular, in the resumption of face-to-face classes. I would like to quote the Chief Education Officer’s statement in one of the recently held virtual meetings with MOH officials in that while teachers do have concerns, due to the fact that a vaccine is readily available to you and protocols exist for continued safety through distancing and sanitizing, when the time comes for teachers to resume duties at the physical compound “your excuse cannot be that you are afraid of catching Covid”. A vaccine is available for those who wish to take it to mitigate the possibility of contracting and spreading the virus. For those who do not wish to take it – that is your choice. I advise you therefore to not make a fuss and simply do your duties while applying precautions to safeguard your own health and safety.
Finally, I must ask, for all those teachers who voted in the SVGTU virtual meeting to have the PD sessions deferred – being part of the discussion, knowing what was stated at the meeting, knowing what you voted in favour of – which was simply a deferral of the PD sessions – and knowing why the discussion was to defer the sessions – WHY then did you give in and report to the physical PD sessions that the MOE stuck with? Why did you not stand for your decision and encourage the MOE to defer the sessions as was discussed and as you had voted for?
To Parents and Guardians of students
Cheers to those parents who have gone to all extremes to ensure that the children in their care log on to online sessions and complete work. Cheers to those parents that ensure that the students with devices are available for sessions. Cheers to those parents who have gone the extra mile, during these difficult times to make use of the NTRC’s internet plan and Digicel’s daily free learning plan so that the students could be engaged. Cheers to those parents of primary school students who have tried their best to ensure that students connect with whatever devices they have available. A significant problem experienced by most teachers is the absence of some students online. I know that there have been some complaints by some parents regarding too much work, insufficient work or no classes for some teachers or some subject. This is where dialogue is important – because in my experience when the parent actually discusses with principals and teachers it is often realised that the parent’s perception has been wrong. In many cases also, it turns out that the students have provided misinformation to parents. On another side of the spectrum, if it is in fact that the specific teacher(s) could see improvement in their engagement or delivery – then this can also be addressed through dialogue.
I would like to take this opportunity to encourage parents and guardians to open the discussion on the formation of the ‘National Parents-Teachers Association’ which has been talked about in the past. Such an organisation will go a long way towards allowing the voice of parents and their children to be heard in a structured and direct manner on issues of education and educational policies.
Those who have read to the end, I thank you for your time.