Anxiety over the potential threat of COVID in classrooms is casting a shadow over the new school term.
Many parents have expressed concern about the possibility of Cayman’s borders reopening and the impact that could have on students.
With no vaccine available for children under 12, the situation is fuelling concern over possible outbreaks in schools, once tourists return, and potential disruption to teaching and learning as a result.
While COVID-19 poses a comparatively minimal risk to children, the faster-spreading Delta variant has impacted minors at a higher rate.
At the end of August, children represented around 15% of all reported cases in the US and around 3% of all hospital cases.
In the UK, health authorities deemed the risk posed to children from COVID-19 to be so small that the net health benefits of vaccinating children aged 12-15 would be minimal. It remains possible, however, that UK government ministers will overrule that recommendation from scientific advisers and push ahead with a vaccination programme.
The UK has adopted a policy of ‘living with COVID’ after vaccinating 70% of its population, and schools there reopened this week without masks or social-distancing requirements.
Cayman Islands Governor Martyn Roper said at a press briefing on Wednesday, 8 Sept., that the risks to children from COVID-19 remain “extraordinary low”. Citing UK data, he said the chances of children dying from the virus were around one in 500,000. The greater danger, he suggested, is that children contract the virus and spread it to unvaccinated adults.
Premier Wayne Panton said a host of measures, including masks and social distancing, were being considered for Cayman’s schools once the borders reopen.
“We need to over-prepare,” he said, at the briefing.
“We have an obligation to parents and to the children directly to ensure they are able to go to school, they are able to be protected and operate in the safest possible environment. We are not going to cut any corners on that.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it is in the process of preparing a guidance document for schools and would implement enhanced health and safety measures on a phased basis.
There is no current mandate for teachers to be vaccinated and the spokesperson said she was unaware of the current vaccination rate among school staff. The ministry will follow Public Health’s advice on vaccine mandates and other measures, she said.
Schools put plans in place
Meanwhile, school principals are keeping a close eye on the evolving situation.
Jim Urquhart, principal of Cayman International School, acknowledged there were some concerns in the school community, particularly around new variants.
He said it was possible that mask wearing and social distancing would be required in classrooms at some stage and school leaders are on standby for any new guidelines from health authorities.
It might be wise, he suggested, to consider such policies prior to reopening, in an effort to get pupils into the habit in preparation for an increased risk of exposure.
Urquhart said the staff vaccination rate is currently “97% and rising” and he does not believe it will be necessary to compel teachers to get the jab, though he said the school would follow the government’s lead if a policy is implemented.
Parents who are not fully vaccinated will be asked to “limit or even refrain from coming on campus”, he added, to reduce the risk of children contracting the virus while in the school’s care.
Practices including hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning protocols and staying home if ill, remain in place for the new school year while CIS has stocked up on personal protective equipment, in case that proves necessary. He said the previous reopening plan was being reviewed and the school was ready to implement appropriate measures as needed.
“We must be collectively prudent in our community practices at home and at school,” he said. “Considering that in a typical calendar year, the most engaged of students spend about 20% of their time at school, issues around safety and the reopening of the Cayman Islands for all people on island regardless of age, requires a cooperative effort between homes, places of work, places of learning, services, places of commerce, places of recreation, tourism, visitors, places of worship and, of course, with families and friends.”
Other schools are taking a similarly cautious approach as they await guidelines from the Department of Education Services.
Joanna Boxall, owner of Little Trotters pre-school, said government had done an excellent job so far and she is confident that will continue. Once guidelines are released by education officials she said, “We will pull out all of the stops to comply, going above and beyond where necessary.”
She said there had not been much concern or feedback communicated to her from parents at this point.
“I think they trust that we are so passionately child-focussed that we will do everything in our power to protect, love and nurture their children as if they were our own,” she added.
At St. Ignatius Catholic School, parish administrator Father Naveen D’Souza did not respond in detail to questions from the Compass, saying only that the school ensures “safety protocols are in place” and that these are communicated with parents and members of the school community.