[WATCH] Bonnici confident schools will reopen as educators call for more consultation

On Xtra Sajf, stakeholders agree that schools should open but express concern over level of preparedness • Education Minister says COVID-19 protocols will be discussed

With schools slated for reopening on 28 September, the education and health authorities are drawing up COVID-19 protocols (File Photo)
With schools slated for reopening on 28 September, the education and health authorities are drawing up COVID-19 protocols (File Photo)

Representatives from the Malta Union of Teachers and the Independent Schools Association have called for more consultation before COVID-19 school guidelines are released publicly.

“The guidelines issued by the health authorities will have to be followed to the letter, no question about it, but these protocols will have to be translated to the operations of schools, and this is where we are asking the government not to roll over us,” MUT President Marco Bonnici said on TVM’s Xtra Sajf.

Bonnici also added that the MUT is calling for more dialogue from the government, declaring that “it would be unacceptable for the implementation of these protocols to be rushed in such a manner that would mean that the government cannot have time to receive the feedback of stakeholders”.

ISA President Sue Midolo expressed similar sentiments, arguing that schools have a moral responsibility to receive the guidelines as early as possible, even before they are made available to the public, so as to provide feedback and figure out how the protocols are going to be implemented.

Midolo also insisted that both the R factor and the rate of community transmission of Covid-19 will have to decrease quickly over the next five weeks for it to be feasible for schools to open on 28 September as currently planned.

“We want to open schools, but need to assure that places of schooling will be as safe as can be to all children and educators,” she said, before quickly dismissing any notions that teachers are trying to stall the reopening of schools because they prefer to work from home.

“Educators are as scared as everyone, but when I talk to educators they all want to return to schools… Let us not say the educators are looking for some holiday by staying home and doing lessons online. This isn’t true. Educators wish to be back in schools,” she added.

Education Minister Owen Bonnici, on his part, assured stakeholders that once the health authorities issue guidelines for schools, these will be used to form procedures that will be discussed with everyone.

Asked by presenter Saviour Balzan whether the procedures should have been issued earlier, Bonnici reminded him that there are five weeks left until schools reopen, and just as in the case of summer schools and childcare centres, education authorities will wait for the official health guidelines and then develop procedures. 

However, Opposition spokesperson Clyde Puli argued that in order for schools to open on the 28 September, the government should have prepared a detailed plan that covers multiple possible scenarios, as recommended by UNICEF.

“The target is for schools to open in September but for this to happen we needed to have a detailed plan that thinks of multiple scenarios, as the UNICEF asked for. Secondly, there needed to be true and proper consultation with all the stakeholders, and thirdly, control of the spread of the pandemic in the country. As of now, from what we have seen and know, not one of these three essential factors have been reached,” Puli said.

The PN spokesperson also insisted that the government has not prepared for the possibility of schools being forced to remain closed because of, for instance, a sudden rise in active cases, declaring that the minster has not made preparations to ensure that online learning will be a viable long-term fall-back.

“What did you take and improve upon from the experience of virtual learning in March?” Puli asked, adding that the minister has completely chosen to ignore the eventuality of a return to virtual education.

“If in March the Minister for Education had the excuse that no one saw this pandemic coming, now we knew that it was coming, but the minister did not pay attention and remained calm. There has been a certain lethargy at work. There is the need of a lot more dialogue, but there has also been a lack of consultation, and lack of preparation,” Puli said.

Bonnici dismissed this accusation, pointing to the Education Department’s recent publishing of revised syllabi for all subjects as evidence of the work that the ministry has been carrying out over summer.

The minister also welcomed the union representatives’ request for more dialogue. “I am not going to say no to stakeholders to discuss the measures instructed by the health authorities,” he said.

Bonnici added that as minister he has an obligation to ensure that all schools – state, church, or independent – will be implementing the health authorities’ guidelines.

However, the MUT president noted that the headache will lie in figuring out how to implement the same protocols in different schools which each have their own specific set of circumstances and logistics.

Midolo echoed this concern as well, stating that “it is important for there to be a framework that will allow for enough elbow room for different schools to implement it”.

The ISA president argued that if social distancing measures were to be introduced within schools, it would create a huge problem with regard to available space, and the number of educators available.

“In the secondary school, for instance, where you have huge permutations of options for student, the concept of a bubble cannot exist unless we’re talking about a whole year group. Otherwise it’s impossible,” she said.

Puli concluded by taking note of the discrepancy between Bonnici’s calmness and the preoccupation exhibited by stakeholders. 

“It is clear that while the minister is saying that they want to reassure minds, this reassurance is not forthcoming, because there is a lack of a detailed plan, there is a lack of information, , and above all, a lack of consultation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bonnici ended on a tone of reassurance, stating that the government has been working hard since May to prepare for all scenarios.

“There is one month and one day left from now until the opening of schools. We will be utilising this time answer all questions, specific and not, that arise from stakeholders,” he said. 

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