Antonia De Freitas

‘new issue’:

Antonia De Freitas

PARENTS are being asked to purchase laptop computers as one of the items on the booklists of children entering secondary school.

The Ministry of Education is expected this week to issue guidelines to secondary school principals as to what is expected on their Form One booklists.

This followed the circulation yesterday of a San Juan North Secondary School list that included a “laptop” among the required purchases.

Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) pre­sident Antonia De Freitas confirmed to the Express that the inclusion of laptops on booklists was a “new” issue and is to be addressed by the ministry.

De Freitas said she was aware the booklist from San Juan North Secondary included a laptop.

She declined to disclose if other secondary schools had also asked parents to buy laptops for Form One pupils.

“It’s the first time we have seen that,” De Freitas said. “The minister has indicated that the ministry has taken a position on that issue and will be guiding principals, so that there should be nothing of the sort on booklists.”

The Express was told by one teacher at an East Trinidad secon­dary school that while a laptop was not being officially included on booklists, schools were urging parents to equip their children with the devices as a precaution, given the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A lot of schools are simply telling parents that their child should have a laptop for various reasons, including that it would be necessary if the turn of events is such that schools do not reopen in September, or are forced to close again,” the teacher said.

De Freitas said the practice also could not be encouraged as it was not in keeping with “equity” in classrooms.

She said it was not acceptable for any school to ask for the purchase of “electronics”, but the request by San Juan North Secondary may have been as a result of the Co­vid-­19 pandemic, which saw schools being closed in early March and parents and teachers encouraged to engage online learning platforms.

Primary schools were partially opened on Monday to accommodate pupils writing the August 20 Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination.

Head of the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) Zeena Ramatally said the organisation was also aware of San Juan North Secondary’s booklist, and the matter is to be discussed next week.

The school’s booklist includes, for purchase, “1 Laptop Computer”, with specifications listed as “Dell/HP/Asus/Lenovo, 14” screen, 1.6 GHz processor, 2 USB ports, HDMI, 500 GB hard drive, Windows 10, 4 GB Ram, wifi, bluetooth”.

Education Minister Anthony Gar­cia could not be reached for comment on his cellphone yesterday.

Under the former People’s Partnership government, Form One pupils received free laptops as part of the education reform policy of then-prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

On assuming office in 2015, the People’s National Movement (PNM) Government had scrapped the programme by 2018, citing a lack of transparency in procurement and overspending.

Education Minister Anthony Garcia that year announced laptops would no longer be given to Form One pupils for take-home and personal use, and each school would be equipped with 50 state-of-the-art systems for use in schools.

As the Covid-19 lockdown progressed and concerns were being raised as to how many pupils at home had access to laptops and the required technology, Minister in the Ministry of Education Dr Lovell Francis said on April 14 that 60,000 students were without devices.

The revamped programme was to cost $62 million, as opposed to the last government spending in excess of $500 million on the same initiative, Garcia had said.

The move was condemned by the Opposition, with former educa­tion minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh noting at the time the programme cost $250 million over five years.

Stakeholders meet

The Ministry of Education also yesterday hosted a virtual stakeholder meeting that included TTUTA, National Advisory Committee on Education, National Primary Schools Principals Association (NAPSPA), NPTA and Association of Denominational Boards, among others.

A statement from the ministry said the meeting “covered topics relating to the effective opening of all schools on September 1, 2020”.

“As participants discussed concerns and gave suggestions on the new normal come September, the ministry and the stakeholders were able to effectively ventilate the realities of the day-to-day operations of a school in the new academic year,” the ministry said.

“Areas covered included teacher training, physical distancing, rotation of students, home-based learning, Ministry of Health guidelines and other areas of concern.”

The ministry said it was “agreed that the National Advisory Committee will compile all suggestions made and a subsequent meeting will be convened on August 4 where a final document will be presented for review on all educational matters related to Covid-19”.

Speaking briefly on the meeting, De Freitas said TTUTA has again raised some concerns with the implementation of Covid-19 protocols in schools come September, including whether some facilities were conducive to proper physical distancing.