Feeding the Mind, Body and Soul of our Future
Each year consists of about 6,000 waking hours. Children on average, spend about 1,000 of them in school. Not including after-school programmes. The majority of a child’s awake time is spent with their teachers and at school. The connection between a teacher or child-care worker and student is undeniable, an extended family. Within our government school system— teachers, coaches, administrators, bus drivers, wardens, canteen workers and security guards continue to show up for their students in miraculous form, Coronavirus and all.
It goes without saying that the Cayman Islands along with the rest of world, is currently experiencing the effects of a global disaster. Residents are grappling with having to quickly adapt to measures implemented to protect us in the wake of the COVID-19 Coronavirus disease. Sorting through daily news reports about unfortunate Coronavirus cases is just one example of a new social norm. As we usher in the advent of a new normal, there is a positive untold story that may be lost in all the messaging. A much needed “breath-of-fresh-air” tale in a time when face masks are a desired outfit staple and spirits yearn upliftment. It centres around a special movement in our community focused on more than lone survival and making uncomfortable personal adjustments. Members of this movement answer to a higher calling. The mission? To ensure that none of Cayman’s youngest citizens are denied a world-class education, food or emotional support.
GOVERNMENT SCHOOL EDUCATORS ARE OUR MASKED SUPERHEROES
On March 13, the Cayman Islands Government was one of the first in the region to announce the closure of all local education institutions until 27 April 2020. Most residents were just being introduced to the idea of a possible global pandemic reaching the shores of Cayman. Government schools were already entering the first phase of their education continuity plan.
“In retrospect it is obvious to me that preparations were made way before the closure announcement. What I remember is everything escalated very quickly. I remember learning about the school closures on the Friday and by the following day, I got a call from Miss Moss to come collect printed home learning packages for my daughter.” recounted Sanjay Ramesar, father of a year two student at Red Bay Primary School. He added, “I must say this is one of the most efficient school system packages I have ever seen put together. I am a very proud parent and must give a special thanks to the best teacher, Miss Moss and all the staff at Red Bay for their dedication and rapid response in making these preparations for every child’s home.”
Both primary and secondary schools provided a daily timetable and educational instruction through a combination of channels, with access to a variety of online learning platforms. This included paper-based learning packages on the same day of the school closure announcement.
“Although we distributed home learning packs for all year groups on the day of the school closure announcement, our year groups had e-learning platforms up and running the following school day. We also started our ‘Whole School Digital Assemblies via Instagram Live and Whole School Theme Weeks’ to add to our portfolio of digital support,” added Paul Samuel, Principal of West End Primary School.
Some government school teachers have not only provided instructional support for students. They are also training parents on how best to utilise the available technology to facilitate their child’s learning at home.
“Last year, we launched the Everest communication platform with staff and parents. During that time, we also upgraded all of our teacher and student laptops. We did not imagine then that these would be our primary source of communication with our students and parents in a matter of months. We are thankful that we made those preparations from that time,” added Jonathan Clark, Principal of John Gray High School.
Up until the school closure announcement, the Ministry of Education developed and oversaw business continuity planning after closely monitoring the global effects of COVID-19. Plans covered the Ministry, its departments and all the government schools in response to a Coronavirus pandemic. The plan which is still in effect, outlines measures in response to various scenarios of Coronavirus in the community. Some of these measures include business closure, split shift work arrangement and virtual communication in the event of various levels of COVID-19 exposure. For education, the response to students went well beyond educational needs.
“Our government schools face a number of very unique challenges. Some of these currently include coming up with innovative ideas for providing distance education to all our students who are from a diverse set of socioeconomic, cultural and learning backgrounds. During this pandemic, Government schools also have to continue to provide a wide range of high quality services for students with learning disabilities, mental, emotional and behavioural needs. We recognise that many homes have no smart devices or internet access and our teams have been working to help overcome these issues. We also have to make provisions for our students to have basic needs met through services such as daily food deliveries. We have an incredible team of education professionals who are committed to providing the best services to our students,” expressed Ministry of Education’s Chief Officer, Cetonya Cacho.
GOVERNMENT SCHOOL EDUCATORS FEEDING MINDS AND BODIES
The Department of Education Services have partnered with various private companies and non-profit organizations to provide free lunches for students in need. Feed Our Future, Kiwanis, Cayman Food Bank, Ogier and Butterfield along with other private donors are some of those that have answered the call to provide free lunches and food vouchers to students in the ‘Free School Meals’ programme. Prior to the island-wide school closure, 509 students across the 13 government primary and secondary schools received free breakfast, snacks and lunches on a daily basis. This number is increasing daily since the recent closure of non-essential businesses.
For the first month of the school closure, daily lunches were prepared and delivered to student homes courtesy of teams comprising DES staff, principals, teachers, school canteen staff, school bus drivers and other civilian volunteers. Currently only some students receive cooked meals with the majority receiving food vouchers for redemption at supermarkets. Approximately 691 students participate in the Free School Meal programme since the school closures.
“Unfortunately, many of our students are at-risk youth, from single or no income households and often broken homes. These past few weeks have been significantly eye-opening for me and many of my colleagues in the government school system. In addition to not having access to food, we have witnessed hundreds of students living in unmentionable circumstances, some with no running water and electricity much less electronic devices. It is heartbreaking. Therefore, our priorities are different. On behalf of the rest of my colleagues I can attest that we have made a collective and conscious decision to ensure our students eat everyday while schools are closed. Simply these are the current needs of our students,” expressed heartfully by Principal of Sir John A. Cumber Primary, Jovanna Wright.
The reality is that the emergence of a Coronavirus pandemic has added to copious amounts of unique challenges that government schools already faced. The fight to overcome these challenges is an ongoing one with teachers armed and ready to serve and protect. At the helm is a Ministry passionate about navigating the way through the unknown. The next unfortunate reality is the realization that many government school students live in environments not equipped for home learning. Some with no access to home-internet or a smart device. This presents a considerable disadvantage for these students to access all available home distance learning resources.
“The transitional and exam years in a child’s educational journey are crucial. Therefore some students in Year 6, 10, 11, 12 and the Lighthouse School and who indicated a need will be loaned 295 laptops for home learning in the first phase. Our IT team did an amazing job of imaging and loading all the relevant software, including adding extra protection and security measures to allow for use outside of the school setting. So far we have delivered laptops to students at Layman E. Scott High and CIFEC,”said Acting Director of DES, Tammy Banks-DaCosta.
The Minister for Education and former long-serving educator has also prioritized discussions and negotiations with local telecommunications providers to produce solutions for the greater problem of internet access, “I am no stranger to hard times and what I know to be true about these Cayman Islands is that we have a history of banding together through hardships. Potential devastation caused by COVID-19 to our little islands is very real and would be a disaster. I also fully believe that a nation without education is also doomed for disaster. We have a responsibility to ensure that no child in the Cayman Islands will be left behind, not under this Ministry’s watch,” declared the Honourable Juliana O’Connor-Connolly.
All government schools will continue to support students in need amidst the school closures by providing homelearning resources and food vouchers for families.