Pandemic response reveals a contrasting picture

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The reaction to the pandemic from the countries we report on is revealing stark contrasts in fortunes as time goes on.

In part two of our global update, our correspondents in Canada, Dubai and Jersey report on the situation in their respective territories.

Canada

All but three schools in the Western Quebec School Board are in lockdown. This is because they border Ontario, where rates of infection are higher than Quebec. The situation has reached the point where once again the bridges between Gatineau and Ottawa have been closed.

At the same time, some of the teacher unions are in dispute with the Provincial Government over wages and working conditions, resulting in strike action.  The situation appears now to be resolved but staff are aware that teachers in Quebec are the second lowest-paid in Canada and there is a considerable difference in pay rates between them and their near neighbours across the Ottawa River in Ontario. 

This means that recruitment can be a major challenge and this is not helped by interviews having to be undertaken virtually. However, new teachers still wish to work at the excellent schools in the board and because of the rise in the number of parents opting for homeschooling during the pandemic, for the first time in many years the projections is that less students will be attending the board’s schools in September. This figure could change with a soft date for a decision from parents set for July, while  some will leave it up to September. This uncertainty does not make the role of human resources easy.

Along with this potential decrease in student numbers at school due to the increase in homeschooling, an increasing number of parents are requesting that their child should be held back a year. Normally around 4 per cent of students are held back  because they have missed a significant amount of that year’s schooling. This year, however, the highest demand is from parents whose children are due to transfer from elementary to secondary school. Without the opportunity to visit and meet students who have successfully made the change, parents are more cautious and principals are finding it more difficult to resolve the situation. 

For all of this Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Western Quebec School Board, sees light at the end of the tunnel. Covid rates in the Board’s schools are still comparatively low and the vaccine programme is now back on track, helped by the fact that teachers have been prioritised for inoculation. It is hoped that when children return to school from their summer vacation, things will have returned to something more akin to the old normal.  

Dubai

The United Arabs Emirates has, as reported previously, the lowest infection and death rates and the highest vaccination rates amongst the countries we report upon.  From the outset it has imposed a strict regime across all its schools and started a vaccination programme as soon as the vaccines became available.

The strict regulations in schools continue to be enforced by at least weekly visits by the health authorities to all schools. They have been in place for so long now that they have become the norm. 

It is now the month of Ramadan, which is recognised by Muslins worldwide through fasting, prayer, reflection and community. This curtails the length of the school day for all schools in Dubai from seven to five hours, so teachers can be at home just after midday. 

Within the schools, the process of recruiting students and teachers for the next year is in full swing. A mixture of on and off-site schooling is still being provided and staff are having to deal with the demands from some existing parents for their children’s examination grades to reflect the fees they pay rather than their attainment.  

Staff as with all residents, can circulate freely provided they wear face masks and respect the limitations imposed during Ramadan.  The authorities have been keen to recognise the contribution different groups have made during these difficult times. Teachers have been awarded free annual passes to access the many adventure and water parks in the City. This reward has already been taken advantage of as they and their families visit Legoland or Wild Wadi Waterpark. 

For many of the expatriate staff who wish to return home for the summer holidays or have family visit them, this is still a worrying time. The United Kingdom has placed the UAE on its red list even though it has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and very low comparative cases. The reasoning is that as a transportation hub it is accessed by many countries who do have dangerously high rates.  A petition to the UK Government has been started and there is hope that an internationally recognised vaccine passport could alleviate the situation.

Jersey

Our new Jersey correspondent, Jenny Posner, headteacher of St Martin’s School, has kindly agreed to step into the breach following the retirement of Lesley Stagg.  Lesley has retired to New Hampshire, USA and we take this opportunity to thank her for her invaluable contribution and wish her and her family well for the future.

Jenny writes that Jersey has remained in a very positive COVID position: “After the Christmas break, schools closed for the first week to allow preparation for the new term and then have fully opened since that second week in January. 

“Schools continue to be a very different organisation than before the lockdown since COVID restrictions have been in place. However, the children tell me that they much prefer being in school than learning from home. Children have also benefited from funding for 1:1 or small group work through the Jersey Tutoring Programme.  

“As we move further forward to a time where COVID isn’t the main focus, as a headteacher, I am reflecting on the practice and organisation which has worked well during COVID and how we can learn from this going forward. 

“At the end of 2020, as part of the Government Plan, the States of Jersey politicians voted to allocate around £11 million towards an Education Reform Programme. An independent school review conducted earlier in 2020 provided the evidence needed to provide the funding to support this change. The programme will run for three years and is intended to  create the foundations for a high performing education system in Jersey. We are now at an exciting start point of this programme, where we are in the design and consultation stages and being able to think creatively about what happens next for children in Jersey. All headteachers and their schools are being consulted and engaged in this process. It feels like an exciting time for everyone involved in Education.”

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As usual we would like to thank all our correspondence and hope that all our readers in our different communities across the globe take care and stay safe in this difficult times.

George