While most parents, students and teachers in Jamaica wait anxiously for the new school year to begin on October 5 (having been deferred from September 7), several in that category have been back at school for nearly a month already. Many children studying abroad went back in late-August and some private schools in Jamaica went back about the same time. So, how has it been for some of them?
My daughter started boarding school in the USA, in New England, in September 2019. She was having a great junior year, with excellent grades and a fuller athletics program than she’d enjoyed in Jamaica. She had decided to make the move and had done the research and sold the case to her mother—I was resistant to the end, but bent after I went to visit the school. To our great joy, she was representing well as a Caribbean-US girl and as a self-motivator. She’d found herself amongst a few Jamaican friends and some acquaintances from The Bahamas. She was inspirational in the school having a fund raising drive to aid Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. Then COVID-19 struck.
She spent an unplanned 6 months at home, after spring break, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant she was not able to return to school. She enjoyed being home in Jamaica, but did not really enjoy when school resumed for the spring term, and she had to continue classes remotely, online. She missed the opportunity to try a new sport, varsity softball, which should have had spring training in Florida in March. She really missed the trip to Disney World that’d been planned as part of the trip. 😩Boo! COVID sucks! 😡
She returned to school in late-August, however. She had to return with a negative PCR test result, less than 10 days old. Testing wasn’t fun, at UHWI, but negative results were a great comfort. 👍🏾🙏🏾
Her own take on the transition was interesting (as shared in a Whatsapp message):
“…as i knew I was going to be travelling to the US by myself, the thought gave me so much anxiety and even going through the airport on the day I was very anxious especially in jamaica because I didn’t know if ppl would take it seriously and be wearing their masks correctly but I was pleasantly surprised and I didn’t know what to expect in ja or in the US but luckily I had an older friend there with me to help me out as well. some people in the miami airport were a little non chalant about wearing their mask and as i passed them while being socially distant I was very passive about them not wearing their masks. but now that i’m at school i’m settling in quite nicely, not a log of ppl on campus but student will be tricking in soon mainly on the 3rd and i’m so excited but the freedom i have will be tightened up (like ordering food).”
She’s a senior now in high school, so is also in the throes of college applications. Broadly, US colleges have decided to make applications ‘test optional’ for 2021 entrants. She has an SAT result, from a test sat last fall; she wanted to resit to try to improve her score, and managed to do that at school last week, adding the essay component, which made the exercise about 4 hours long.
Meanwhile, college enticements are flowing in; online sessions and tours are being offered; some in-person visits are resuming. It’s an active and exhilarating time, with its full bucket of anxieties over choices and what is the right strategy to get what you what, where you want. Oh, to be 17! 🙂
As the application process advances, one can’t help but focus on how colleges are preparing for entry in 2020 and beyond, with installation of protective facilities (eg isolation areas) in case a major outbreak occurs at the college. Many have medical facilities associated with them, but how they would be used and be available in an emergency is to be tested.
Her first two weeks involved quarantine in her dorm; her room mate arrived after about a week. They had meals brought to them. COVID testing is every 3-4 days, and rapid results methods are being used. The dorm house has a nice porch, so it was at least an option to sit there and enjoy the approaching fall cool weather and the changing leaf colours.
Masks are mandatory and social distancing is applied.
Classes resumed a couple of weeks ago. Day students were registered last week. Online options exist for those who prefer them, and classes are recorded. Face-to-face classes have resumed. Life on campus is resembling normal life, but with many restrictions. For instance, movie night over the weekend was outdoors.
Students were able to walk in the woods around school. But, some organized sports have resumed: my daughter has had a week of soccer practice; a limited schedule of inter-school matches will be arranged for the varsity team, while the junior varsity will play intra-murally.
My daughter was able to leave campus at the weekend for a trip to the plaza and pharmacy—masks and social distancing in force. School will run until Thanksgiving in late-November, students will leave campus and not return until 2021. Online tuition will resume after the Thanksgiving holiday through to the Chrismas/New Year break.
We speak often, including video chats, as the fancy takes us, but often between activities when my daughter is walking to or from her dorm or a class. Her days are full but still fun. I’ve not detected any health-related stress in her voice. She had trouble sleeping in her early days back but Sleepytime tea seems to be working well.
I have a Jamaican friend, who teaches in a private school in St. Andrew. Her son is at a private university in New England, as a junior (his 3rd year). He also preferred returning to campus because he felt he could focus better. He also felt that the protocols were well thought out, so the safety factor was key. The state requires quarantining or a negative test. The school has easily accessible testing stations throughout campus. They test every 3-4 days and the turnaround time is about a day and a half.
Students have to be creative with socialising as only people who live in the dorm can enter the building. So, friendship circles have shifted somewhat to include persons who live off campus. Add to that, many friends have not returned to campus at all as they have opted to attend class remotely. There is some concern about how this will evolve when winter arrives as outdoor venues won’t be as comfortable. Culturally, New Englanders are very self-conscious so compliance for mask wearing and social distancing is enforced by everyone. If someone steps in without a mask the social pressure is there to get them to conform. Creates a greater sense of overall safety.
As a parent I have several issues to deal with while my child returns to being educated in the current situation. First, there’s anxiety coming from separation and distance. But, I’m confident in my daughter’s school and how they managed the online teaching during spring term, the summer preparation, and now the fall resumption. I hear confidence in my daughter’s voice as she discusses her days and activities.
She had previously attended AISK, which is leading Jamaican schools on how to bring technology to bear to facilitate resumption of classes.
Interestingly my friend, although she had the same anxiety, as things evolved locally she felt that her son would be in a more controlled environment at school. Their testing procedures are more accessible and the systems are in place should he end up in quarantine.
Her concerns about distance was similar. There is no just jump on a plane anymore. Christmas break may not be an option as quarantining on return to Jamaica will take up most of the time and so he feels that it won’t make sense. She completely understands but it’s heartbreaking when one considers not being able to see him until next summer.
But what do teachers see? My friend sees that protocols have to be simple for them to work. Classes have to be small. Kids will be kids and will forget protocols and so numbers have to be at a size where they can be easily monitored. The students have been more or less cooperative. Teachers spent a lot of time explaining the rationale behind the systems to students and they get it. Adults have to be on guard all the time to remind kids to social distance. Yes, it’s great to have kids back. The toll on teachers is extensive. Their duty schedule is expanded because the kids are now in self-contained units for the whole day. In addition to the physical toll teachers also worry about their level of exposure everyday and the possibilities of getting sick. The mental health component is real. The level of anxiety is high.