It is not the introduction Jim Urquhart expected when he accepted a new job as director of the Cayman International School.
The Canadian educator spent his first weeks on island quarantined at the Palm Heights hotel, watching the waves from the window of the room where he isolated for 15 days with his wife.
Behind the closed doors, he had plenty of time to consider the challenges of taking on a new job in a new country in circumstances that neither he nor anyone else in the world had ever really considered.
Urquhart, who arrived in mid-July, came out of isolation in time to oversee the final preparations for the return of students next week.
Much of the logistics had already been organised – based on guidelines from government – by staff on the ground.
His aim now is to address the varying expectations and questions of parents, meet the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic, and ensure the focus remains firmly on education.
“No one has ever started school year in a pandemic before, so if there is confusion, that is understandable,” he said. “The whole world is both anxious for children to return to school and anxious about children returning to school.”
While there is scepticism and, in some cases, outright opposition among parents to some of the measures the Cayman Islands government has put in place for the new school year, Urquhart believes the guidelines for schools have been clear.
There is little room to manoeuvre, even for private schools like the Cayman International School.
Proving particularly unpopular have been the mask policy and the staggered start, which means around a third of the school’s students won’t return to class for another two weeks after the official beginning to term.
But he believes some caution is justified, despite the island going more than a month without any COVID-19 cases showing up in random testing.
That COVID-free streak ended on Wednesday, when two people who had travelled to Cayman tested positive when they were screened after 14 days in isolation at a government facility.
“I don’t think we should have a false sense of security around the virus. We have seen globally that as soon as a country lets its guard down, it creeps back in.”
For educators, the coronavirus creates some practical challenges. Physical education will be restricted to individual non-contact sports, for example. Football and basketball are out of the equation for now.
In the music department, choral, wind and brass instruments will be left in the storage cupboard. Even something as simple as sharing a beaker for a science experiment will be off limits.
Recess will be staggered and children will be required to socially distance.
School drop-off – always a fraught time for parents – will become a more structured exercise with detailed instructions for where and when to drop children at the Camana Bay premises.
After nearly six months out of the classroom, and with the added stress of pandemic protocols, Urquhart accepts it could be difficult to get children focussed on learning.
Part of the education experience, at least in the opening weeks of term, will be about helping children process what has happened to them and to the world over the past months.
“We have to address the elephant in the room,” he said. “We can’t just sit down and get straight into the quadratic equation.”
While he believes some children have prospered during lockdown, learning independently, he said others would have struggled. It is not just a matter of computer and internet access, some children learn better in a collaborative environment.
“School-age children are often more adept than the adults at online learning but there is a social aspect to learning that you can’t get at home,” he said. “Children need to bounce ideas off each other.”
A ‘typical’ school day at CIS
- The morning starts with self-screening at home. Students with signs of fever are advised not to come into school.
- Drop-off in the designated zone for your year group (outlined on the CIS website).
- No assembly. Students proceed straight to their first class. The youngest students may walk with their parents to a designated area.
- Masks must be worn while moving around the school and in class from kindergarten to grade 12
- Students hand sanitize at mobile stations before and between class
- Teacher takes temperature of students with a digital thermometer as they enter classroom
- Lessons are conducted with masks on and desks at least 3 feet apart.
- Children and/or teacher wipe and clean their desks and proceed to their next class, following markers in the hallways to maintain social distancing.
- Lunch is taken in class or at designated areas outside with no meal service provided or deliveries available at this time
- Recess is taken in stages and zones
- When the final bell goes students are picked up in their designated zones. Afterschool activities, do not begin until the end of September.
NB: Guidelines will vary slightly for students in different age-groups and from school-to-school.