Back to school, but are authorities preparing teachers for an unusual return?

Nothing has been said about this point – either by the education ministry or by the teachers’ unions. Surely starting this scholastic year as if the last one was just another normal year is not indicated. Yet there is a disconcerting silence about this

Are our educational authorities preparing teachers on how to deal with these unusual circumstances?
Are our educational authorities preparing teachers on how to deal with these unusual circumstances?

The decision to reopen all schools on 28 September, with teachers and pupils observing protocols imposed by the health authorities, is undoubtedly the correct decision.

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for parents and children alike and the return to school is an important and welcome step.

It was obvious that the case for reopening schools – not just in Malta – could not be dismissed easily and that the disadvantages of keeping children away from school were so severe, to both the children’s education and the country’s economy, that keeping the schools closed was a non-starter.

The first priority of the new school protocols must be to reduce virus transmission rates and protect the health and safety of students and staff. In a fast-moving pandemic, adopting strategies to reflect the level of transmission in their communities is easier said than done.

Protocols have also been established for school transport, with windows having to be kept open at all times and the names of students on each bus recorded to make contact-tracing exercises easier in case one of the students contracts the virus. Children who live within 1.5 kilometres – rather than the usual 1 km – of their school will be encouraged to walk to school.

The size of classrooms in our country should not be too much of a hindrance and social distancing is to be respected as much as possible with desks within classrooms having to be a minimum of 1.5m apart. Areas within schools that are not usually used as classes will also be used to create small classrooms. Moving students from one room to another is to be avoided with students rather than teachers being assigned to a classroom.

In addition, schools will open earlier this scholastic year in order to avoid the situation in which parents drop their children off all at the same time as social distancing remains very important, even outside schools.

Schools had been closed since mid-March, a few days after the first case of COVID-19 was registered in Malta. This closure led to many problems, including those of mothers having to abandon their jobs to help their children follow lessons via the internet; besides instances of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds becoming even more disadvantaged with their staying at home.

Remote learning is especially tough on those students who also have to deal with particular challenges such as learning disabilities, economic hardship, or unstable home environments. Many of these disadvantaged students cannot thrive in situations where they lack hands-on guidance, emotional support, and access to technology.

Many students all over the world have persisted with their lessons under difficult circumstances, with the support of dedicated teachers and parents.

However, many other children will need extra support to catch up on their learning when schools reopen. Do our schools intend to organise catch-up lessons to help such students? This might include starting the year with refresher or remedial courses, after-school programmes or supplemental assignments to be done at home.

Nothing has been said about this point – either by the education ministry or by the teachers’ unions. Surely starting this scholastic year as if the last one was just another normal year is not indicated. Yet there is a disconcerting silence about this.

Children who have not gone to school since mid-March are likely to be experiencing worry, anxiety and fear – fears that are very similar to those experienced by adults, such as a fear of dying, a fear of their relatives dying, or a fear of having to receive medical treatment.

Returning to school this year should be treated with caution. Students have different characters and dispositions. The long absence from school did not affect all students in the same way. With schools being closed for so long, children may no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by the school environment. Now they will have the opportunity to be with their friends again and get that social support that is essential for good mental well-being.

Are our educational authorities preparing teachers on how to deal with these unusual circumstances?

The looming China – US cold war

China is bent on creating a world-class military that can conduct joint operations across the globe and already boasts the world’s largest navy, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual assessment of the Chinese military released a few days ago.

The report says that the Chinese Communist Party “has become increasingly confident of achieving its goal” of having “a world-class military by 2049”.

A key component has been China’s continuing maritime build-up – from surface forces to ballistic missile submarines. Its fleet now amounts to 350 warships compared to the 293 of the United States. The Pentagon expects the Chinese fleet will number 360 warships by the end of this decade.

The report points out that China’s near-complete lack of transparency over its nuclear forces raised legitimate questions over China’s intent as it fields larger and more capable nuclear forces. And this includes more road-based missile-launchers and more ground-based silos.

As Donald Trump gears up for the final stretch of the presidential race following the Republican convention, a glaring contrast with his 2016 campaign is his silence on the US trade deficit and its relations with China. Trump took aim at China during the Republican Convention over everything from its responsibility for coronavirus to its human rights abuses against Uighurs in Xinjiang. But he was silent about trade.

Four years ago, Trump had pledged to negotiate better trade deals for US workers and asked voters to use the size of the deficit as a ‘scorecard’. In fact, the 2019 trade deficit with China is practically the same as in 2016.

Earlier this month, Trump said China was “more than living up to” its commitments, prompting Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Joe Biden, to accuse him of trying to hoodwink the public. According to Blinken, “the Chinese government has outmanoeuvred President Trump at every turn.”

In spite of his failures in dealing with China, Trump is using the China card against his Democrat opponent, Joe Biden. The argument over who can sound toughest on China has become a central issue of the presidential campaign.

The truth is that China and the US are moving towards a cold war and this will happen whoever wins the Presidential election in November.

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