Students in primary and secondary schools across T&T finally got the opportunity to settle into their classrooms for the new academic year yesterday, after teachers resumed duties following Monday’s official day of rest and reflection.
More importanty, it marked the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 that students across the board—including tertiary level—were back in classrooms for in-person classes in over two years.
This is possible with the Ministry of Health’s easing of the restrictions which had previously seen schools and tertiary level institutions across the country shut down for almost a full two years because in-person activity was deemed too risky to undertake given the levels of infections and deaths at the pandemic’s height.
Critically at this juncture, however, is the fact that the Ministry of Education has also relaxed mask wearing at the primary and secondary school levels. As it stands now, wearing masks is not mandatory. However, Minister of Education Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly has urged parents/guardians to use their discretion and err on the side of safety in this matter, since it is clear the disease is still very active within the country and as deadly as ever.
In fact, a careful look at the statistics released by the Health Ministry in the last two months shows that T&T averaged two deaths per day during that period, while this average has risen to an astonishing average four deaths per day in the past three weeks. Hospitalisations have also gone up during the period, although overall infection numbers seem to have levelled off and are reducing.
There is much to decipher in these statistics but the most crucial aspect remains that persons with comorbidities and the unvaccinated remain the most susceptible to becoming fatalities to the dreaded disease. On the other side, it is also quite possible that the reason the infections are decreasing is that many citizens are utilising home COVID tests when they exhibit symptoms and opting not to report to public health facilities on testing positive, especially if the symptoms are mild, which has been the case with the Omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in T&T.
And therein lies the problem now that the entire student population is back out to physical classes. As citizens well know, pupils in the lower school levels are harder to control in terms of adhering to a strict regime of physical distancing and sanitising. In fact, after two years of not seeing their friends physically, it is likely this will go out the door completely in these first couple weeks of the new academic year as the students rekindle those friendships.
The older students will be more manageable but what this does mean is that the possibility for spread in the classroom setting will increase, and so too will the likelihood of students taking home the virus to their families and those they may interact with during their commute to and from school/university.
Needless to say, as the country opens up to the return of physical schooling, now is not the time to let our guards down on some of the other key safety protocols to avoid the spread of COVID-19.