Even under normal conditions, the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination is a well-known source of stress for 11- and 12-year-olds.
One can therefore imagine what it must be like for the 19,300 children who are back at school preparing for the rescheduled exam on August 20. Not only are they in a significantly altered learning environment, but each new report of an SEA pupil having contracted Covid-19 must bring them new anxiety.
One would expect the adults responsible for making SEA decisions on behalf of these children to take every aspect of their best interest into account. It was, therefore, disappointing to learn that three of the main bodies involved could not reach a consensus on whether in-class SEA teaching should be stopped or not, in light of the recent upsurge in Covid-19 cases.
At a meeting with Education Ministry officials on Monday, the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association and the National Parent Teacher Association both called for schools to be closed. However, a dissenting view reportedly came from the National Primary Schools Principals’ Association, which argued that the number of schools which have had to be shut down due to contact with Covid-19 did not warrant closure.
If that is indeed their argument, we would suggest that the principals reconsider their math. True, 11 schools out of a total of 483 primary schools may be just two per cent. However, the more relevant figure in this case is the ten days over which the 11 schools were shut down. This suggests a level of exposure and risk and a rate of spread that should be unacceptable to anyone with responsibility for the care and protection of children.
While we understand the need to salvage the academic schedule and the 2020 SEA exams, the risk of doing so is now too high. We must not bury our heads in the sand about current developments regarding the pandemic and the statistics suggesting that the Caribbean is entering a new phase of infection. Not only Trinidad and Tobago, but the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana have all been experiencing an acceleration of infection. Over the past two weeks since July 20, the number of cases has jumped all the way from the Bahamas in the north to Guyana in the south: the Bahamas from 174 to 679; Dominican Republic from 25,778 to 73,117; Haiti from 4,980 to 7,476; Jamaica from 790 to 905; Barbados from 106 to 132 and Guyana from 337 to 474.
By comparison with the massive 400-per cent increase in the Bahamas, which on Monday prompted the government to return to a complete two-week lockdown, T&T’s increase from 137 to 192 cases may seem modest, but it represents a 40-per cent climb with an average increase of five cases per day, which is a dramatic change from zero-registered for the month between April 27 and May 31.
Clearly, we are in a different situation which requires risk reduction and not risk-taking. In the absence of the authorities taking action, some parents are making the tough decision to keep their children at home, at the risk of affecting their SEA performance. This is an unreasonable situation that calls for decisive leadership.