It’s one of the most contentious topics for parents and educators alike as Cayman approaches the 2020/21 school year – mask requirements in schools.
Cayman Compass Editor-in-Chief Kevin Morales on Friday hosted a panel of educators and education administrators for an ‘Ask the Experts’ roundtable discussing several aspects on the new school year. Participants included:
- Ministry of Education Acting Chief Officer Lyneth Monteith
- Acting Director of Education Services Tammy Banks-DaCosta
- John Gray High School Principal Jonathan Clark
- Edna Moyle Primary School Principal Danielle Duran
- Cayman International School Director Jim Urquhart
- Island Montessori Owner/Principal Clare O’Keefe
You can check out the full roundtable above, but here are a few excerpts surrounding the issue of masks, student compliance and communication. The Cayman Compass did reach out several times to Public Health with questions surrounding the new school year, but our questions were not answered prior to this roundtable.
CC: What is the latest update with students/teachers having to wear masks?
LM: Students will be required to wear masks when entering the school building and moving along in the corridors. However, sitting quietly at their desks completing work and while eating, their masks can be removed. So, in effect, once they’re not actively engaging with persons or within 3 feet of persons – teachers, their playmates – they can remove their mask. But we do know that masks are one of the deterrents to the contracting of COVID-19. So, certainly we are doing our part to ensure that we protect ourselves, students, teachers, all others, on the school compound.
CC: Cayman has had two positive cases reported over the past 37 days, both of whom were in quarantine. Is it really necessary to wear masks?
LM: Well, Kevin, that is not for us to have those discussions. Once again, I did reminders that we’re under the government’s regulations at suppression level two. So should the government indicate that there is further uplifting of the restrictions, then we will follow suit.
CC: So the only time a student would be required to wear a mask is entering and exiting the building, when they’re in the hallways, when they’re entering the classroom, and just sitting down into their seats and getting organised. But once they’re actually at their desks in their seats, they are properly spaced at 3 feet apart, at that point they would be able to take the mask off?
LM: Obviously, Kevin, just to qualify that there are times when they’re in the classroom, the teachers having a whole class session where she is speaking to the children, the children are responding as well. So they would be required to have their masks on at that time. And just to further qualify, it’s not just for public schools, this information was shared with private schools as well.
CC: Is it realistic to expect that students are going to be able to adhere to these standards?
LM: For all of us, adults and children, it is an adjustment. The routines and the protocols – the beginning of the school year is like setting our routines. When children go to school at the beginning of the school year, they learn or they’re reminded how to enter the class, how to answer questions, etc. So this will form a part of establishing those routines. There is a certain amount of repetition. So I’m sure that adults listening and also the leaders on the call will say as well that we have to remind ourselves about what is required and to ensure that we’re doing it, so it is a part of that. So certainly, I know the concern and I understand the concern. It will be a matter of repetition. It will be a matter of talking about why it’s necessary. And in some cases, demonstrate and encourage. And it’s a process.
CC: How much weight do you think your insight and your recommendations hold with those at Public Health? Do you think they’re listening to your concerns that you’re passing along from parents?
LM: I think, as always, that the country has demonstrated that all the experts, opinions and discussions and insights have been taken into consideration for all of the rest of the regulations that have come forth. So I can’t sit here and qualify whether they are taking it into consideration or not, but I do know that those discussions are ongoing.
JC: Our school is really not broken this year. So although we did come out of school in March, we’ve had the Caribbean exams this year. The CXC and CSEC examinations were going on through July and August for us. So we’ve had a dry run of this to a certain extent. And I just wanted to reassure parents and thank parents, especially, because our Year 11 students, our Year 10 students, and some of the Year 9 students sitting early exams came into school and they came into our gymnasium. So our exams were done on paper in a big socially distanced gymnasium – and we are blessed with that gymnasium, the timing has just been perfect for us to have that gym to be able to sit [exams]. We had special permission for students to sit exams there – and other exams, they were done online. And they sat at sanitised laptops in small numbers in rooms across campus. The parents did a fantastic job. The students did a great job and we’ve not seen them for a long time other than online lessons. And they were so responsible. I think I lent out one mask in all of our exams. The parents were prepared, the students were prepared. We’d ask them to actually drop their children in for ease, although we did have some bus transport for the bigger exams. And again, the protocols are being introduced now. We’re really trialled at that stage and the students were set 9 feet away instead of the normal 4 feet away for exams. So we had social distancing, and exam distancing and then some.
They were responsible, they understood the consequences; that this wasn’t just about them protecting themselves. It’s about protecting others and their family when they go back home again, they had no issues to sanitise, we had no resistance whatsoever.
“I have messages from parents all week long asking me for clarification, but I don’t have that information.”
CC: Danielle, you’re a primary school principal. What do you anticipate will be happening with these masks? Are you concerned, especially for the younger students?
DD: So one of the things that we have to remember is that early years are actually mandated a bit differently … children who are 6 and under are not required to wear a mask. … Your Year 1 students, however, in terms of their seating arrangement within the classroom, their tables will have dividers placed on the tables. So there will be some form of protection from that aspect. Because, again, they’re not mandated to wear those masks once they’re 6 and under.
With that said, we’ve looked into other options. So we recognise that the younger students have phonics programmes. So ordering things like the see-through masks for both teachers and students, so that even while they’re engaging in those phonics programmes, you can still actually see the teacher speaking, see the students speaking. I think that’s really important. We have to look at things like if they weren’t able to use the classroom space for a lot of speaking and listening activities, larger spaces, such as our canteens, where we can spread students out even further, but have those whole class discussions and things like that are all options that we’re going to be utilising.
I as well understand the concerns of parents. But I do believe that our students are capable of being responsible with many, many things. And this included, as Miss Monteith said, other year groups that are in the classroom and doing independent, quiet work, or eating, it would be up to the teacher to instruct students to say, ‘This is a time where you’re free to kind of remove your mask,’ right? So it’s all about instructing and leading, and modelling the behaviours that we’re expecting, reminding students, and I really do think it’s possible.
CO: I’ve spoken to several speech therapists and the feedback I’ve received is that the see-through masks fog up with the heat from your face. So with regards to learning and phonics work, it will be very difficult for teachers and students to learn. I know we can be positive, and we can attempt to teach this way. But, realistically, we have to, I suppose, figure out safety and good teaching practice at the same time.
The teachers, at the moment, it’s a little unclear whether we can take [the masks] off when we’re talking to the children at a distance. And we’ve not received very clear guidelines, to be honest, with regards to what the rules are because early childhood has different rules to the school.
We opened during summer camp with the June restrictions, which were very strict, and the children did extremely well. They were so happy to be back at school, they were happy to see their friends. We did a tremendous amount of work outside, as much as we could with the weather. But, realistically, when we come back into the classrooms, I don’t envisage how we can expect 6-year-olds to work with phonics, to work with their friends. And you know, at that age when they’re sitting 3 feet apart, and telling them to be quiet – obviously, in restaurants, you’re not quiet, you’re talking. So if we’re allowed to do it in restaurants with adults, I don’t understand why children of 6 years old are expected to sit at a table and not talk and then put their masks on. And then we’re encouraging them to touch their faces, to touch their masks, to put them down, to take them off. I just don’t know if it is realistic.
LM: Danielle (Duran) articulated very well – she’s a principal, they’ve got the areas that she spoke about, perhaps taking the children, if it’s a small class, into the hall, if you have a hall, that is a bigger space. I think that this pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to be creative and to innovate. And I truly appreciate that all answers are not there.
And certainly, I am not saying that it’s easy to have 6-year-olds who don’t engage in their usual social habits. We’re not saying that, either. It is, however, an ongoing discussion. I know that the authorities do continue to engage in discussions as to what we should do. At the same time, always think safety first, it’s about safety. It’s about keeping everyone safe.
CC: Can you confirm if the ministry, though, has voiced any concerns about maybe that specific age group, or younger children, and whether it’s actually realistic to to expect them to do this?
LM: So we continue to have conversations. If there are specific questions, we do go to Public Health as well. That is why we’re here, where we are seeing if you’re sitting quietly at their desks and not talking or eating or within the 3-feet distance, that they don’t wear a mask that has come out of conversations. So conversations continue, but I would encourage other schools – if you have specific questions to ask, you can go to Public Health and ask the questions.
CO: I have been to Public Health several times and the answers I get are – I either get told to ask the Ministry (of Education) or to ask the Department of Education or I get told a different scenario than the one I was told previously.
So, in terms of bubble size being a maximum of 25, I’ve yet to receive any information despite emailing numerous times. My parents want to know if we can do after-care and if the children in after-care can be mixed with other bubbles or other groups, and I can’t receive the information. I have messages from parents all week long asking me for clarification but I don’t have that information and I don’t know where to get it from because I have emailed Public Health.