Some schools planning alternate attendance for COVID-19 school year

Schools have gone into overdrive to welcome students in line with education COVID-19 guidelines, but several heads of school are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacle

Spaced out: how classrooms at St Aloysius  College will look like
Spaced out: how classrooms at St Aloysius College will look like

Schools have gone into overdrive to welcome students in line with education COVID-19 guidelines, but several heads of school are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

With social distancing spaces of 1.5 metres between students and 2m between adults, space seems to be the greatest challenge for most schools, which will require twice the areas they have been utilising with far fewer students in each class.

And therein lies the problem: most schools do not have the extra room to utilise. St Aloysius College rector Fr Jimmy Bartolo said the school does not have enough room to accommodate all students on every day of the week, so they will be drawing up timetables for students to attend school on alternating days. “This week we will be discussing the draft protocols for each school with members of staff and communicate the rest of the information to parents and guardians,” he said. “We really need their cooperation and understanding.”

Mario Mallia, head of St Albert the Great College in Valletta, is having similar issues. “We simply do not have the space, so we are currently trying to find alternate facilities to house some of our classes. This being Valletta, with space at a premium, we are not having much luck.”

St Albert too might have to go down the same route as St Aloysius College and introduce staggered attendance across the week for different classes, with the primary school being the main priority.

St Edward’s College in Birgu, on the other hand, is lucky not have such issues. Headmaster Nollaig Mac an Bhaird says the the school had adequate extra space in the form of rooms currently not used as classrooms to manage any spillover. “While academics are undoubtedly important to us, the first two weeks will be focused on habit building – getting both staff and students used to the new normal,” he said.

Bubbles

Staffing is also a major concern for many schools. Mallia says the bubbles to keep students in the same group throughout the week, will necessitate more supervisory staff if the system is to succeed. “We are struggling at the moment to come up with enough numbers. And with LSEs instructed to carry out any supervisory work on classes and bubbles, we are currently short of staff to fill these roles.”

At St Aloysius College, the bubbles are being tackled differently. “Our college has three big schools. Bubbles will be implemented differently in the three schools. To a certain extent it is easier to implement this practice in the Primary School. We are opting for different models in the Secondary School and Sixth Form,” Bartolo said.

In the secondary school and sixth form, where students move from one class to another, especially for tutorial, labs and IT classes, large bubbles will cover the entire class year. The one bubble will make it easy for the students to move and for the staff to supervise. But it comes at great risk: if one student contracts COVID-19, the entire bubble of students will have to quarantine.

“We need more supervisors, particularly before we start school and during dismissal time,” Bartolo said. “We are still in dialogue with the ministry and the Malta Union of Teachers on the delicate points and I really hope we reach an agreement for the common good of thousands of learners and educators alike.”

And with schools emphasising the use of facemasks and hand sanitising, Mac an Bhaird says St Edward’s will have newly drawn-up timetables with allotted time for handwashing.

All school heads agree on the need to reopen schools instead of having online schooling. Bartolo said students want to be back in school and see friends they missed. Mallia agrees, saying they want the school return to be as seamless as possible, instead of having to go back to online teaching.

But while online learning is the last option being considered, preparations have been made to get the infrastructure in place and staff up to date on the technology. “I honestly think students prefer to be physically present at school. No virtual interaction will substitute the benefits of having students at school… We have to use the blended model as much as possible,” Bartolo said.

Amid the bad news, teachers’ willingness to learn online education technology has been the silver lining. “I am grateful to our educators who are going out of their way to reach out to students of all abilities,” Bartolo said.

Transport

But transport remains an issue of much concern among parents and unions, although schools appear to be pleased with the plans presented by the education department. “You have to understand these bus drivers are responsible. This is their business and they’ve been doing it for many years – they have an invested interest to make this work – and to make sure that things run as smoothly as possible,” Mac an Bhaird said.

Mallia said transport was vital but even this necessitates the need for additional supervisory staff to welcome students to school and accompany them to respective bubbles. “Unfortunately, some of these guidelines appear to have been based on industrial relations rather than practical implementation. We are doing our best to ensure students can return to school safely this month.”

Bartolo said St Aloysius College will abide by the directives from the health ministry. “Let us hope that the R-factor will continue to decrease before school starts,” he said. “We will probably have another spike once schools start but let us not be too quick to close our schools. We are all in the same boat and we really need to support one another to stay safe and giver our very best for our learners.”

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