Tuesday 24 November, 2020

14,000 classrooms, $173-b needed for social distancing at high schools

By Lynford Simpson

Jamaica would need an additional 14,000 classrooms at a cost of $173 billion if the 500,000 students returning to high school in September are to abide by the recommended COVID-19 social distancing guideline.

It's a daunting requirement without even considering that it only accounts for students at the secondary level.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, Dr Grace McLean, made the revelation during Tuesday’s sitting of Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC). McLean was responding to a question from Government member, Leslie Campbell, regarding how students will be accommodated in the new school year.

To help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the social distancing guideline is for persons to be at least six feet apart from each other.

McLean was asked “What kind of contingency do you have in place to deal with that reality?”

Responding, McLean said “I am not able to provide you with the assessed costs in terms of the localised partnerships that we will be utilising at this time.

“I can only say that when the team actually did the review in terms of the number of classrooms that would be required, at one point, just for the high schools, just looking at it according to the requirement provided by the Ministry of Health in terms of the six feet distancing, we were looking at needing over 14,000 classrooms and it means that we would need $173 billion to be able to build those.”

A surprised PAAC Chairman, Dr Wykeham McNeill, asked McLean whether she meant millions or billions and she repeated that it was the latter before adding that “We know that it would be impossible (to come up with that kind of expenditure), hence we have to use up the spaces around us”. She explained that the ministry was looking to collaborate with churches, many of which are in close proximity to schools, to get access to additional classroom space.

“We’re developing these creative measures, my list is not exhaustive because our principals themselves also have ideas and we have found that stakeholders have been writing to the ministry expressing their interest in entering into partnerships where we need the partnership for spacing to be provided,” said McLean.

She outlined that the current classrooms may only be able to accommodate a third of the students returning to class in September. This was determined after the ministry’s team undertook a comprehensive mapping of close to 1,000 schools across the country.

The permanent secretary said it has been found that there are over 100 primary schools whose student population is so small that they will not require any additional space once social distancing protocols are enforced.

She said more than 300 primary schools will need “one or two extra spaces for them to be able to manage comfortably,” while another 150 primary schools, 16 of which are on the shift system, will require significant support.

The biggest challenge will be at the high school level, according to McLean.

“We already know that over 120 of our high schools are operating way above their actual capacity so they’re going to need additional support,” she said.

Apart from the churches, other locations are being identified where additional classroom space can be made available. Also, the government will be collaborating with independent schools which will be able to accommodate some of the students who will be placed in high schools under the Primary Exit Profile (PEP).

McLean also hinted that in places where there is a steady and reliable Internet service, some students could continue to receive their education virtually. And she said the ministry is looking to download lessons on tablets which would be beneficial to students who are without internet access.

Beginning this week, high school principals  will be asked to submit their individual plans to the ministry.

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