Interview of Rishi Nursimulu (RN), Founder & Chairman of Dukesbridge, David Jenkins (DJ), Head of LeBocage International School and Jeff Hart (JH), Head of Clavis International Primary School. They spoke to on the current situation in the education sector, online learning and parent expectations. The ministry recently kickstarted the vaccination campaign for school personnel. What are your views?

RN: It’s great that the Ministry is giving priority to teachers and school staff. This has allowed many of our staff to get their vaccination done already.

DJ: I think this is a very positive move; the more people who can get vaccinated, the greater chance we have of getting through this.

JH: It is wonderful that the ministry has put a spotlight on school staff and provided this opportunity. It has been encouraging that so many are getting vaccinated and it will give some reassurance to many parents who have entrusted us with their children. How are you going to deal with those who refuse to be vaccinated when school resumes?

RN: Whilst we have encouraged everyone in line with the Ministry’s recommendations, it is important not to apply undue pressure on the teachers who are not convinced about getting vaccinated. These teachers have stated that they would be happy to go for tests every fortnight like other frontliners, the Minister has also mentioned the possible availability of self-test kits. We stand guided by the Authorities on this but as the Prime Minister stated, we are going to have to learn to live with Covid-19.

DJ: We have encouraged all of our staff members to get vaccinated. We have also run an informative session with an experienced doctor as a means of providing a forum for a Q&A for our staff. We will adhere to all health and safety protocols when school resumes.

JH: Vaccinations have always had an important role in the history of our world, saving and improving countless lives, but it is important to respect the hesitations and concerns some people have. Being vaccinated ultimately falls within the civil liberties of Mauritian people to make that choice for themselves. We will follow the requirements of the government and will continue to encourage and educate everyone to get vaccinated. Do you think to protect children, it should become compulsory to get vaccinated?

RN: Like many, I got vaccinated because I would never forgive myself for being the cause of a complication with a child or staff member, but I can certainly understand teachers who are feeling nervous about getting a vaccine which has not yet been approved by WHO. This is a decision that the Government needs to make but would it not be odd for it to be compulsory for teachers when it is still not compulsory for medical staff who are more directly exposed?

DJ: I don’t know.

JH: That’s hard to say. I will leave that to health officials and medical experts to make that call. Can your school make it compulsory for you staff to get vaccinated?

RN: No, taking any action against an employee who refuses to get vaccinated would go against the prevailing labour laws. The Ministry of Labour needs to harmonise its stand with the Ministries of Education and Health on this.

DJ: Can any school?! We will follow the law of Mauritius.

JH: No, unless there is a government law that requires school employees be vaccinated. What is the feedback obtained from parents on homeschooling and the fact that school will potentially be open in June?

RN: Our online homeschooling programme has been very well received from parents of our youngest children to the higher grades in primary school. The feedback is generally very positive and we have learnt, adapted, improved our systems as the weeks went by.

DJ: Overall, I think parents are happy with the online programme we are offering. However, while this may fill the academic role of schooling, the social interaction and overall well-being of kids (and staff) is a concern.

JH: We have not received much feedback on the extended date for re-opening, but I do know that parents, like teachers, all prefer to have their children in school as soon as it is safe to do so. Are there specific areas of teaching that you believe cannot be achieved remotely?

RN: This lockdown has challenged us in a big way to find new ways and means to continue the learning remotely. I am amazed as to what our younger students have been able to achieve through technology. For example, our 4 year old students are able to trace and form letters virtually on the teacher’s screen using an iPad, the teacher can erase and guide the children with relative ease. That said, online teaching is rather limiting, in particular because our lessons tend to be enquiry-based, interactive and play-based, with worksheets being only a small part of the class. We also use a lot of singing, dancing together and physical activity in our classes – it’s really different to do them solo at home in front of a screen.

DJ: A lot is possible, but it is difficult, and being in front of a screen for 6 hours a day is not ideal for teaching and learning.

JH: There are very few things that cannot be taught remotely; however, the effectiveness of remote learning varies greatly in different circumstances. Classes that require hands-on engagements, like developing fine motor skills, art activities, or any number of science experiments across the year levels, as examples, will be less effective when students do not have access to the resources they would at school. Another thing, it comes down to is age and maturity. When we have to rely a lot on video conferencing and digital learning, a 4-year-old, for example, does not have the capacity to sit and remain focused in front of a screen for any significant period of time. Nor would we want them to. It has been recommended that children do not go out during the coming month. How are working parents dealing with this situation?

RN: Personally, I have found working from home whilst babysitting to be challenging. Children need to be supervised at all times to avoid disasters and work requires dedication and accuracy. If we are now expecting people to go work-on-site, who’s supposed to take care of the kids? Authorities can’t say “it’s not my problem, sort out your own lives”. Childcare and schools are part of the ecosystem that keeps men and women in jobs, that keeps the economic engine alive, that contributes to the mental health of parents and children – in addition to the obvious role of educating children. It’s a major conundrum.

DJ: I don’t know.

JH: I don’t know Based on your experience and feedback obtained from parents and teachers both, when ideally do you think schools should resume?

RN: We recently carried out a survey amongst our parents and 75% of participants indicated that they wanted school to resume physically as from May itself. I think that says a lot about parents’ desire for children to be properly supervised (and educated) in a safe environment whilst they are at work. Private schools have a different calendar to that of Government schools which will not resume until June anyway. As we are currently in-session, we have asked for a meeting with the Minister to discuss ways our children can be accommodated as safely as possible in the same way that Government schools were allowed to open for approx.. 20,000 exam students and invigilators in the thick of the lockdown at a time when cases were rising.

DJ: Schools should be allowed to open when they feel they have the necessary means to do so safely. This will differ from school to school (student numbers, spacing etc.). At the end of the day, we need to take the advice that is provided by the Ministry of Health. I want my school to open and I want to see the kids back where they belong, however, I have no intention of putting anyone in harm’s way.

JH: As soon as authorities say it is safe to allow groups to congregate together. I do not want to wait until mid-June to return to class if it is not necessary. If we have the means to ensure a safe learning environment for students and the ministry has said people can work together then we should be able to open. Many parents are voicing out that fees to private schools should be waived or reduced for the lockdown period. What are your views?

RN: Whereas we did receive quite a few queries of that sort during the first lockdown last year, I have to say that our parents this year have been extremely supportive of all the efforts the school has made during the lockdown for our online homeschooling programme. We have set up a hardship fund for parents who have lost employment because of Covid-19 and for those in financial difficulty, they are on payment plans.

DJ: I have not received any complaints from our parents, so I cannot comment on this.

JH: We really have not had parents voicing concerns about school fees, though I do understand people’s desire to get value for what they pay for. The constraints placed on us have impacted everyone and we have been forced to change how we do things and our expectations; however, at the same time, I do not believe we have to lower our expectations.

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