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Job No. 1 for Fayval: Internet access for students

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Reintegrating students into the mood and mode of formal education amid a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a top priority for newly appointed Education Minister Fayval Williams.

Face-to-face classes were suspended islandwide days after the first coronavirus case emerged in Jamaica six months ago.

Williams, who was sworn in on Sunday along with 13 other Cabinet colleagues, acknowledged the need to address the deficit in online access for many students who were unable to connect with teachers. The new minister knows well the infrastructural and other challenges affecting access, having overseen the science and technology portfolio for 20 months dating back to February 2019.

“Since school has been closed, there have been actions taken to ensure that students still have access to the formal way of delivering education, but as we became painfully aware, not all students were able to connect to the Internet to be able to receive the curriculum as was delivered. The affordability was the issue,” Williams said.

Schools are scheduled to reopen for in-person classes on October 5, but a surge in deaths and new cases threatens a further delay. As at Monday, Jamaica recorded 44 deaths and 3,933 infections.

The minister said she had been briefed by the permanent secretary in the ministry and used the weekend to pore over documents.

“We have to ensure now that all our students, wherever they are in Jamaica, that they have access to the Internet that’s affordable and that they are able to receive the curriculum as they would have normally done going into the [physical] institutions,” Williams told The Gleaner .

ADJUST IMBALANCE Internet access tops the agenda for administrators of Kingston schools like the Rev Claude Ellis, principal of Pembroke Hall, and Tracey-Ann Holloway-Richards, acting principal of Maxfield Park Primary.

Ellis desires to see adjustments in the imbalance of resources given to individual schools to ensure that they are on a “level footing”.

COVID-19, in particular, has shown up some of the deficiencies that some of the schools that are less resourced are able to do … . There are some schools that do not have a very active alumni association nor do they have endowments, so they are placed at a significant disadvantage,” Ellis said.

Ellis also wants to see a detailed plan from the minister that outlines how they will engage students for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holloway-Richards said that with classes already under way for some private institutions, the public-sector education system is already behind and needs to pivot quickly to equip all parties involved.

“They are working on distributing tablets for students, and again, it cannot be for some. It has to be for everybody,” she said.

The Maxfield Park acting principal suggested that a one-time payment be given to teachers to set up an area in their homes for appropriate online teaching.

“To the extent that all of our children can become excited about learning, to wake up in the morning and can go ‘Yes! I want to go to school,’ we will know that we are on our way to delivering a curriculum that they’ll be excited to receive,” said Williams.

IMPROVING TECHNOLOGY Williams said that the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Information was not as “technologically advanced” as it ought to have been.

“When you think about the financial management of the ministry’s school-management systems … all of that needs to be accelerated so that there is greater efficiency at the ministry,” Williams said.

Williams said that she understood the running of the education ministry because of overlapping roles with the science and technology portfolio during the last administration.

“I speak from the perspective of being at the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service and having interacted with the Ministry of Education in terms of its finances. I speak as well from the perspective of the Ministry of Science Energy and Technology. Through the Universal Service Fund and e-Learning, we provided the technology platforms for the ministry.

“So I come to the ministry from a lot of different perspectives,” Williams made clear.

“I come with some knowledge on day one, ready to take up the responsibility of the ministry; ready to engage with the various stakeholders,” she added.

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