Nation has suffered enough - Omicron threat should not hinder face-to-face plans says JTA

December 29, 2021
Winston Smith
Winston Smith
The nation’s schools were first closed to face-to-face classes in March 2020 after Jamaica recorded its first case of COVID-19.
The nation’s schools were first closed to face-to-face classes in March 2020 after Jamaica recorded its first case of COVID-19.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has caused some world leaders to reinstate coronavirus restrictions amid fear that health systems could crumble due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.

The Netherlands government has ordered the closure of non-essential shops, bars, gyms and hairdressers and until January 14.

Bars and nightclubs have been closed until January in Portugal, while Germany has decided that all football matches will be played behind closed doors.

While being cognisant of the spread of the virus worldwide, the head of Jamaica's powerful teachers' union -- the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) -- is urging the Andrew Holness-led Government not to abandon plans for the resumption of face-to-face classes in 2022.

Winston Smith, the president of the JTA, told THE STAR yesterday that it would be premature to cancel plans for the reopening of schools as there are clear indications of the serious impact that the closure of schools to face-to-face classes has had on the nation's students.

"We would have seen how devastating the closure of schools has been on our students and the education system. We suffered a significant learning loss and the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as it relates to the device and connectivity [has] widened astronomically, which has put our students at a disadvantage and put us way back as a country," Smith said.

The nation's schools were first closed to face-to-face classes in March 2020 after Jamaica recorded its first case of COVID-19. Schools were briefly re-opened for face-to-face instructions on a couple of occasions, but three intense waves of the virus coupled with a low rate of vaccination has meant that most students have been forced to attend online classes.

Large primary schools have received the green light from Cabinet for a return to face-to-face learning, while secondary schools that have achieved a 65 per cent vaccination rate of their student population will be allowed to reopen their doors.

A total of 383 primary schools have been approved for the next phase of in-person learning, accounting for approximately 164,651 students.

Smith said that the proposed reopening of schools next week should proceed unless there is scientific evidence to abort the face-to-face resumption.

He said that it is important that the entire population get vaccinated against COVID-19, which has claimed 2,464 lives and infected more than 92,950 persons in Jamaica thus far.

"A successful education system does not depend only on the teachers and students," he said. "There are other players in the field whose behaviour and mannerism will impact the outcome of education. So we need to proceed with our plan from the teachers' point of view and from the ministry's or the government's point of view to say 'let us go face-to-face, guided of course by the Ministry of Health and Wellness. I am hoping that the Ministry of Health and Wellness will play its part and do all that is necessary to advise the country, and advise us as the JTA of all the latest developments and the implication it [Omicron variant] will have on the education system," Smith said.

In the meantime, Dr Brian James, president of the Medical Association of Jamaica, said that the Government may have to reassess its plans for face-to-face classes if the numbers continue to go in the the wrong direction.

"If the fourth wave comes on in earnest, then we may have to be forced to reconsider it, and we are likely to end up with significant lockdowns again if the numbers get really, really bad," James said. "In addition to that, we really have to prepare for the worst-case scenario, which is even though the Omicron might very well be mild, it is so contagious that the numbers in hospitals might very well be high, so we have to expand the hospital capacity."

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