Return to School Testing Acting Minister of Education Remarks 13 January 2021

Thursday, January 13th, 2022

Good Afternoon Members of the Media, and the Bermuda Public.

Thank you, Minister of Health, for your update.

This last wave of the Coronavirus has again disrupted our day to day activities. I can say first-hand, as a parent, getting my child back to school has not been the easiest of processes. We have had to consider testing regimes, remote learning, and, in some cases, the challenges of being in quarantine. This current spike has not made engaging in learning the most manageable situation for any parent.

Let me begin by expressing my thanks to all the parents and guardians who have been troopers as we have had to navigate the many testing protocols and processes to get our children back to school. I want to express sincere gratitude to the teachers, staff and principals who have been working with the Ministry of Education to find the best way forward for our young people and are demonstrating willingness to exceed ordinary efforts. Collaboration is vital and I am satisfied we have all had the best interest of our children at the forefront of every decision. I look forward to continuing the collaborative efforts in this regard.

It is no secret, however, that we have also come under fierce criticism borne out of extreme disappointment and inconvenience.  But my hope, as we move forward, is that we can all pull together to win together. Because notwithstanding the challenges, failure is really not an option.

Yet, moving forward should also mean acknowledging the past and the present. An unprecedented level of demand for PCR COVID-19 tests – and subsequent delays in processing results - put us all in a difficult position. We were forced to stagger the reopening of schools. This was not ideal for many of our parents and guardians. And it certainly was not the best outcome for some of our students. Staff members were, of course, also inconvenienced. And many had to retest when the three-day window expired.

The Ministry and Department have been fielding many questions, criticisms, and suggestions. Parents and Guardians have asked questions such as:

•      Why did we not have a backup plan?

•      Why was so little notice given when schools were cleared to open?

•      How can you ensure a safe environment if the saliva testing programme is being paused?

These are reasonable questions and I can assure you that our ability to plan and adapt under these circumstances will be reviewed. I can also assure you that staff at the Department and Ministry have performed yeoman’s service – responding to multiple and sometimes conflicting demands at a moment’s notice.

Tough decisions have had to be made and will continue to be made as we move into the future.  Some will disagree with these decisions. What won’t change is our overriding priority - ensuring safe in-school learning for our students.

We may not have always agreed, but we have all had the best interest of our children at the forefront of every decision. I look forward again, to continuing these collaborative efforts.

I am pleased to say that this morning I held a meeting with the Education Emergency Measures Committee (EEMC) and shared a number of Ministry updates. These included: a change in the COVID pre-return school testing policy; an update on the re-testing of our students; information about the at-home antigen pilot test that will be launched this weekend; and, the school saliva screening programme.

Let me first share that about the change in the policy. Previously, it was mandatory that all staff and students in public schools produce a negative PCR test results before entering school buildings after a school mid-term break. This requirement was introduced to protect the health and safety of students and staff, and as a necessary measure to prevent and reduce bringing COVID 19 into school buildings upon re-opening. The policy will now be that all staff and students must produce a certified negative antigen test result before entering school buildings after a school break. This will ensure that results are received in sufficient time to support in-person learning.

Due to the delay in students receiving their pre-return PCR tests in January, many had to re-test to return to school buildings. We are thankful to the Health and MDL team for collaborating with the Ministry this week to schedule re-testing of students. On Monday this week Preschool students were re-tested, just yesterday and today our primary school students are being re-tested; and, this morning we were informed that our middle school students will be re-tested next week Monday. Parents of middle school students will need to book an appointment to have their children re-tested. This information will be sent directly to parents from their respective school principals.

Following the advice of the Ministry of Health, and engagement with school staff and parents, the Ministry will be rolling out at-home antigen testing for all public schools.  While there are pros and cons that at-home antigen testing is faster, more efficient, and can be done in the privacy of one’s home, it also provides immediate results and eliminates disruptions to teaching and learning schedules in schools. Staff and students of selected pilot schools will start testing this Sunday evening, with all other schools starting later next week. Due to a generous donation, antigen tests are being provided free of charge. Parents of pilot schools have received information on the testing programme, and information will shared early next week with the staff and parents of all other schools.

There have been several questions regarding the weekly school saliva screening testing programme. This programme has been placed on pause. However, the Ministry is cognizant of the rise in the number of positive COVID cases and the importance of keeping our schools safe for students and school staff. Therefore in addition to the antigen testing pilot that will commence this weekend, the remainder of our schools will be provided with at-home antigen tests commencing next week Monday so that all students participate in weekly antigen testing commencing on Wednesday.

The Ministry of Education is happy to acknowledge that we are making progress. However, we urge parents and guardians to continue to work with us by sharing your questions with school staff, administrators and leaders which will assist with understanding. With the at home antigen test programme we ask for your honest word in providing the correct test results. It is imperative that all the instructions are followed correctly and that parents/guardians report the results before a student returns to school.

Ultimately, however, success will depend on the actions of each individual parent. The at-home antigen testing relies entirely on accurate reporting of results by parents.

Support and co-operation of all parents and staff will help keep schools safer for students, staff and families. This includes regular, accurate reporting of at-home antigen testing results, and staying home following a positive test result.

I implore all parents/guardians, school staff and all of our students, let us pull together to win together.

If there are questions or concerns, please contact the COVID unit at covid19unit@moed.bm.

Thank you, and please be safe, Bermuda.

 

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