Anxiety, uncertainty and, in some cases, outright rebellion are the prevailing mentalities among parents in the Cayman Islands ahead of a school year like no other.
Children begin returning to school in phases from next week.
But the first day of term this year will be no ordinary school day.
No assembly, no loitering in the corridors, lunch will be eaten in class, and playing with friends at recess will be off the table.
Hand-washing stations have been put in place across school properties, and mask etiquette and social distancing will be taught alongside the times tables and the ABCs.
The central controversy for many parents is the requirement that all children must wear masks – even when sitting at their desks in class.
There were mixed messages about that policy throughout the week and it appears that the guideline may be relaxed before the school year starts, though no official announcement had been made by press time.
Concerns have also been raised about the staggered start to the school year and restrictions on physical education and music.
Some parents question the need for such strict protocols.
At the other end of the spectrum, others claim it is too risky to resume in-school learning, with the prospect of the borders reopening in October, bringing potential for a new spike in infections.
Though the Ministry of Education produced a document in June, outlining the guidelines for reopening, and re-iterated some of the key rules in a press release this week, several parents who spoke with the Cayman Compass felt the communication had not been clear enough and that officials had not adapted quickly to the changing situation on island.
Prathna Bodden, a criminal defence lawyer and mother of two children, said the prospect of sending her 5-year-old son to school in a mask was not something she looked forward to.
“That decision should be mine, as a parent. I agree with other parents’ right to put their child in a mask if that is what they choose, but I haven’t put my kids in a mask and I don’t want to do it.”
She feels it will be difficult and disorientating enough for children to start a new school year in the aftermath of a pandemic that has seen them out of class since March, without the added complication of masks.
She also believes it is impractical and unnecessary at this point.
“We struggled to understand each other in court so I don’t see how a class of 5-year-olds is going to manage,” she said.
Around 700 parents had signed an online petition by press time on Thursday calling for a change in policy on masks, particularly for children under 11.
Though government explicitly stated in a press release Monday that students would be required to wear masks in class, unless the children are sitting silently, officials may be reconsidering that policy.
Minister of Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly reportedly told public-school teachers at an orientation day that students would be permitted to remove their masks once they were at their desks.
Bodden said the communication from her children’s school, St. Ignatius Catholic School, had been good. But she feels, nationally, government has not been quick enough to explain its policies.
“I think everybody feels like the rules will change on this but it seems to be being left to the last minute,” she said.
She is also concerned that the focus of the new term will be away from education and on to hand washing and mask etiquette.
Hundreds of parents have written to the Compass or petitioned government with a variety of concerns about the reopening of school.
Education officials did not respond directly to questions for this article but have agreed to take part in a live online question-and-answer session hosted by the Compass on Friday.
Beyond the controversy over masks, the phased reopening of school is cause for consternation among many parents.
Raven Solomon, a mother-of-two and a nurse who has been closely involved with COVID-19 testing on island, said working parents needed schools to be open for all age groups.
She said her daughters, ages 3 and 7, had been safely attending summer camps since lockdown measures were lifted.
The staggered restart means she will be left with the challenge of home-schooling her oldest daughter while her youngest will be attending school.
“This poses major challenges for working parents who have already returned to work,” she said. “Who is expected to home-educate these children? Or even watch over them?”
Solomon, whose children go to Cayman International School, also questions the need for masks for children in classrooms, while adults are not required to wear them at restaurants or bars.
She said parents would be able to live with and adapt to the regulations if there had been better communication and clearer explanation of the logic behind them.
Government held daily televised press conferences throughout the pandemic, but wound down to once a week as the threat lessened, and now has not held a briefing for over a month.
Jackie Myles, who has a 6-year-old daughter at Montessori by the Sea, said Cayman’s leaders had done an excellent job of managing the pandemic, but communication appeared to have dried up just when parents needed it most.
“The lack of updates around the guidance for school reopenings is causing extreme frustration,” she said. “Children have seemed like an afterthought throughout the pandemic response and more so now than ever.
“The people of the country would like to understand why are we are still in this restrictive state, despite our positive data.”
Fears of a second wave
For other parents, like George Ebanks, the idea of sending children back to school while the threat of the pandemic still lingers is negligent.
With the borders expected to reopen in October, he said there was no guarantee that the island or its schools could remain COVID-free.
Ebanks’ 90-year-old mother lives at home with the family, and he is concerned that his daughter could pick up the virus at school and pass it on to her grandmother.
“I think if the borders reopen in October, we will see spikes in cases, and who is to say it won’t get into the schools. What if she picks it up at school and brings it home to her grandmother? It could be fatal.”
Ebanks, who is on the Parent Teacher Association at Savannah Primary School, said he was considering refusing to send his child back to school.
He believes continuing with home learning should be an option for parents in his position.
He said his daughter had access to a computer and a printer, and had prospered during lockdown.
“It has actually made me a better parent because I was able to listen in on some of her lessons and get a better understanding of her assignments,” he said.
He accepted that not all parents had the resources to help their children in the same way, and is advocating for government to fund computers and WiFi access for those students who don’t have such facilities.
Teacher, mother, principal
For Melvy Chelisa Bautista, the return of school is a blessing.
Home-schooling three children, aged between 9 and 16, in a cramped apartment with one computer, has been a serious challenge.
Though she has some trepidation about the lingering threat of the virus, she said she trusts the government, based on how it has handled the pandemic so far.
Bautista, originally from the Dominican Republic, lost her retail job during the virus, and has been struggling to get by with support from her children’s father and from the charity Acts of Random Kindness.
Her youngest son Carlos Ebanks, 9, is part of ARK’s Mentor Educate Reinforce programme and received targeted one-on-one tutoring over Zoom during the pandemic.
Sometimes those lessons were delivered over cellphone, with spotty reception and intermittent internet access.
Despite the hardship, she was positive about the experience and confident that her children have kept up with their schoolwork in the most trying circumstances.
“I have become a better mother because I learn so much with them and they learn so much with me,” she said. “Even though I lost my job, I am happy that I got time to spend with my kids. It is hard to be teacher, mother, principal… everything. English is not my first language and I learn so much with them.”
With three kids across the age spectrum at George Town Primary School, John Gray High School and Cayman Islands Further Education Centre, the logistics of getting her children to school is another challenge.
“I have to get everything ready, including the mask, and then try to multiply my body. Being a mother is not an easy job,” she said.
“I am scared a little bit to send them back. I already have the masks for them and government has done a good job with the pandemic, so I am happy with that.”
Back to class
Kari Fraser’s children have already been back in class this week.
She said both her 3-year-old and her 6-year-old had been required to wear masks in class.
She is glad that schools are back but hopes that mandate will soon be changed.
“Why are we asking kids to do something we can’t do ourselves?” she said. “it seems a little overboard.”
She added that her children had both adapted quite well to wearing masks, though she has to remind the younger child not to try to eat it.
Despite concerns about some of the protocols, she is happy the schools are opening.
“It was extremely difficult for me and my husband during COVID. We were both working from home and trying to teach both children as well. There were some days we wanted to pull our hair out.”