Yesterday Minister of Education Diallo Rabain gave an update to the public on the plans to transition our public schools from Remote Learning to in-person instruction. In September, based on the data received at that time the decision to start the school year via remote learning was made. This decision was not made lightly, as we have repeatedly acknowledged that in-person learning is best for our students.
Since beginning the school year remotely, we have not stopped looking for ways to return to in-person learning, but we are constantly balancing that desire with the safety and health of our students and staff.
To safely return to in-person learning, we are employing a phased approach for the return to school that considers the COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations of the Ministry of Health and assesses data such as coronavirus testing results, Saliva Screening Programme consent, and staffing availability.
At present, the Ministry of Health has recommended that when we return to in-person learning, that we do so under Phase 1 of the COVID-19 Return to School Guidelines.
As all parents and guardians should be aware, the Saliva Screening Programme was implemented during the last academic year as an additional layer of protection for our students and staff.
More recently, Antigen Lateral Testing has been introduced to Bermuda, and the Ministry is looking into how this tool can possibly be used as an additional screening tool.
However, it is imperative that everyone is reminded that both saliva screening and antigen lateral testing are additional layers of protection. They are not substitutes for health guidelines such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand sanitising, and other protection measures Like Staying home when you are sick. We will continue with these basic health guidelines while consistently employing additional layers of protection as they are developed.
The on-going saliva screening process is critical because it enables us to identify asymptomatic individuals. It is universally acknowledged that identifying an individual at this stage is much more beneficial than identifying after becoming symptomatic.
Much discussion and misinformation floated in the community about the screening programme that we feel may be contributing to hesitancy to consent. However, for absolute clarity, the screening programme will administer COVID PCR tests using several methods as follows:
Buccal Swab Method: Which is a swab of the mouth and is typically used for younger students and students with special needs.
Saliva Collection: Which involves spitting into a tube either self-administered or with assistance. This method is the least invasive method and can be used by most students or staff members.
Nasal Swab Method: Which involves collection via a nasal swab. This method can be used on any student or staff member however, to date we have not received any requests for students or staff to receive a nasal swab and therefore will be offering saliva collection unless someone specifically requests a nasal swab.
Bermuda, we have worked diligently to look at practical and easy to adhere methods to get our students and staff back into our schools. We are tasked with working with a wide variety of stakeholders and campuses. As we have 10 Preschools, 18 Primary Schools, 4 Middle Schools, 2 Senior Schools, 1 Special School and 1 Alternative Programme, our circumstances are unique. Our plan to reopen has to consider the safety of all and is phased to consider schools that have reached important benchmarks first while we continue to work with the rest of our schools.
We previously announced that the level of saliva screening consent at a school is one of the determining factors. This has been identified as a critical factor in order to ensure the safety and health of students and staff. Based on the advice we have been given, a minimum of 80% of consent is required by each school for this screening to be considered an effective layer of protection for students and staff.
I am pleased to advise that multiple schools are over, or near, this consent level and this is excellent news. For those parents, guardians, and staff members who have not consented, we urge you to do so because first and foremost, we must all be reminded that protecting our staff and students and community at large is all of our responsibility. While we understand that there is hesitancy around positive tests and quarantine measures, our human responsibility is not to put others at risk. To register for Saliva Screening you can click the link at the top of the gov.bm webpage that says “Saliva Screening Consent Form”
We encourage all employers to recognize that we are still navigating a global pandemic and your staff members need your empathy and support during these unprecedented times. Suppose your staff members are parents or guardians and are required to quarantine. In that case, we urge you to support them through this process so that they are not forced to decide between refusing to have their children tested and potentially having them infect others, and financially sustaining their household.
Additionally, parents and guardians, where possible, build a network of support, a village, to support you as needed through these times as coronavirus is here with us to stay, and navigating these uncertain times requires support.
While your child may be asymptomatic, and in your mind if they are not “sick” they do not need to be tested, I strongly urge you to recognise that asymptomatic positives are still a threat to others. You do not know who your child is interacting with in school that may become sick, or may also become asymptomatic, and go home to infect a loved one who is immuno-compromised, struggling with medical conditions, unable to be vaccinated, and in turn your child is the root of negative, and even deadly consequences for them. Empathy and human decency is required now, more than ever.
Additionally, the longer the 80% consent threshold is not reached for a school, the longer it will take for that school to return to in-person learning.
The other data that will be assessed for schools reopening is the percentage of students and staff that test negative prior to the planned return to school. Testing will be scheduled and school populations will be required to test before returning to school. At least 80% of the school population has to have a NEGATIVE result before a school can reopen. Failure for 80% of the school population to test NEGATIVE will result in continued remote learning for that school.
All staff and students will be required to test NEGATIVE to return to school, however those students who do not participate in testing, will receive work packets and continue to work from home until they provide a NEGATIVE test result to return to school in person.
As I mentioned earlier, the use of Antigen Lateral Testing is being explored as an additional screening tool; however, this method will not be considered for the NEGATIVE return to school test result as a PCR test result will be required.
We will begin the pre-return testing on Monday, October 4th, hoping to see phased re-openings begin the week of October 11th if not sooner.
Our intention is, to begin with our most vulnerable students at Dame Marjorie Bean Hope Academy, our Alternative Programmes and other Special Schools, then move to our pre-schools, and so forth.
Testing will be specifically arranged for individual schools and there will be student and staff lists at the test sites to ensure only those scheduled are tested. There will be strict controls on testing and the school lists will be onsite to be cross referenced. If your school has not been contacted, please do not show up hoping to be tested as you will be turned away.
The aim is to return to in-school learning as safely as possible, and as quickly as possible. We know that this is what our parents, guardians, staff and students want, but especially what our students need. Just as this pandemic is taking a toll on adults, we must remember that our children are also impacted. They are not immune to the anxiety and frustration the pandemic has brought upon us, even if they may not be able to verbalise what they are feeling and experiencing.
The Ministry and Department of Education and the Ministry of Health have done all we can to provide a pathway for our schools to reopen in the safest manner possible. We are now leaning on our parents, guardians, and staff to play their part by showing up for the pre-return testing, consenting to the Saliva Screening Programme, and supporting all of the layers of protection in place to keep everyone safe.
I know that we have regularly touched on the aspect of learning, however, I also want to share with you that our students have continued to receive services from school counselors and specialists during remote learning. Our counselors have also provided support to parents and guardians who have reached out to them.
They support families by regularly checking in with students via individual zoom and telephone sessions, delivering lessons on positive and appropriate coping strategies, providing parenting tips, making referrals for community resources to assist families, and visiting homes as needed.
Counselors hold virtual office hours, and parents, guardians, and students have been encouraged to arrange a meeting if needed. They are also responding to teacher concerns about students. In some instances, they have been consulting with teachers about students who are not signing on for remote learning, and they have joined online classes to observe student engagement during remote lessons.
This week, counselors are preparing activities for Mental Health Awareness Week, which takes place from October 3rd to 10th.
I have said it countless times, we all have a role to play in ensuring that our students are supported and prepared to be the shining stars of the future. Bermuda, let’s all band together to get our children back to where they belong, inside our schools.
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