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A strong argument has been presented for the resumption of face-to-face classes in Barbados.

This development comes as stakeholders in the education sector continue to discuss the best approach for the reopening of schools, especially as it relates to mitigating the public health risks to students and school staff.

A study to assess the feasibility of returning to the classroom was commissioned by UNICEF in eight countries, under its Multi-Country Programme. It was conducted between November 2020 and February of this year, via survey.

The sample group surveyed from Barbados comprised 837 students –  414 from primary schools and 423 from secondary schools, as well as 150 teachers – 77 primary and 73 secondary.

There was a consensus among the participants that face-to-face classes were more conducive to learning, rather than the virtual setting. Additionally, they also expressed the view that they felt safe returning to the physical classroom, noting that they were generally satisfied with the safety protocols in place.

According to the findings, 60 per cent of all students surveyed did not report any difficulty adhering to COVID-19 protocols when school had reopened for the first term for the 2020-2021 academic year, even though a significant number cited the wearing of face masks for an entire day and the maintaining physical distancing as the hardest protocols to follow.

There was a consensus among the participants that face-to-face classes were more conducive to learning, rather than the virtual setting. Additionally, they also expressed the view that they felt safe returning to the physical classroom, noting that they were generally satisfied with the safety protocols in place.

It was also highlighted that Barbados had “a slightly higher compliance rate” for all protocols, in comparison to other countries involved in the study, with well over 90 per cent of students at both levels reported having their temperatures taken and hands sanitised before entering school, compared to between 79 and 86 per cent of their regional counterparts.

This high level of compliance could be attributed to the presence of monitors in primary schools, which some teachers have regarded as a great help in ensuring that students followed protocols.

Most of the teachers were satisfied with the precautionary measures being promoted at school. In fact, nearly 80 per cent of them agreed that their respective schools effectively communicated with the staff and students on the guidelines for protecting themselves while on the compounds.

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Barbados was also commended for its emphasis on COVID-19 safety messaging, with 95 per cent of all students reported seeing posters and billboards, with frequent handwashing being the most easily remembered.

In addition, 81 per cent of primary school students and 72 per cent of their senior counterparts said they felt safe attending school in person, noting that their schools provided clear information on how to protect themselves and others from contracting the viral illness.

As it relates to face-to-face teaching and learning, approximately 94 per cent of primary school students and nearly 93 per cent of those at the secondary level indicated that they were in favour of the physical classroom rather than online learning.

The teachers shared similar sentiments, citing some of the biggest challenges with online learning, such as lack of focus from students, distractions in the students’ homes, lack of parental support and concern about completing the curriculum.

At the time of the study, 58 per cent of teachers had been using the blended approach, a mix of online and face-to-face classes, while nearly 41 per cent were only utilising the physical classroom. Very few were only conducting classes online.

81 per cent of primary school students and 72 per cent of their senior counterparts said they felt safe attending school in person, noting that their schools provided clear information on how to protect themselves and others from contracting the viral illness.

It was noted, however, that the blended approach was more popular within the secondary schools.  

The teachers also expressed higher levels of satisfaction with the physical classroom, when compared to the virtual setting, listing several concerns with the latter.  In fact, less than 45 per cent of respondents were in favour of online classes.

This was mirrored in the responses by the regional counterparts, as 57.3 per cent of participants felt their students were struggling in the virtual learning environment.

It was against this background that UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean Area, Dr Aloys Kamuragiye, highlighted the need for return to the physical classroom for all students in Barbados and the wider region.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly worsened our learning crisis.  Nearly 160 million students in 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by school closures. Governments must prioritise reopening schools, safely. Our children need this for their mental health, their learning, their nutrition and their right to protection and equality of opportunity,” he stressed. 

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