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Video: Education Minister Press Conference

[Updated] Minister of Education Diallo Rabain is holding a press conference at 4.15pm this afternoon [Feb 16] to update the public on Return to School Testing. We will have additional coverage later on and in the meantime the live video should start at around 4.15pm.

Update Feb 17, 6.07am: Minister Rabain’s remarks:

Good Afternoon and Welcome

I would like to take this time today to provide updates on some Covid Related School Matters as we prepare to return to school on Monday.

Return to School Testing

As per our return to school policy established in October 2021, when students and staff are out of school for 5 days or longer, we require a negative certified antigen or PCR test as a prerequisite for in-class teaching and learning.

Some have questioned this policy. However, the Ministry and Department of Education has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our students and teachers, with the ultimate goal of keeping schools open for in-class learning. Therefore, we must continue to uphold the policy of certified antigen testing or PCR testing prior to returning to school.

When considering the return after the break for the BPSS, the Department of Education devised 3 options to return to school testing.

  • Option 1 was identical to what we have always done and would have all students testing the weekend prior to the return on Monday, February 21st.
  • Option 2 presented a staggered start to the return from the break with all Pre and Primary schools testing on the weekend for a February 21st start, Middle Schools testing on Monday, February 21st for a Tuesday, February 22nd start, and Senior Schools testing on Tuesday, February 22nd for a Wednesday, February 23rd start.
  • Option 3 was to continue the Antigen screening program to allow for students to submit their results on Sunday night and start school on Monday, February 21st.

During the EEMC meeting held on February 4th, after consulting with our union partners, the BUT, BPSU, and BIU, as well as MDL and Health representatives, they recommended, and it was unanimously agreed, that Option 2, a staggered return, would be the return to school procedure for Monday, February 21st.

I wish to thank our stakeholders for their contribution to this decision, as I believe that everything begins with a conversation. Our collaboration with the EEMC members has resulted in a final decision that all parties have agreed on. MDL has already put together the schedule for testing that has been distributed to all parents and guardians. Again, I want to extend my appreciation to all of those who came forward to ensure we have a plan that would be in the best interest of our school’s ecosystem.

At Home Antigen Testing Program

There have been queries received from parents and guardians about why the use of at-home antigen testing was not utilized this time around for the return to school testing. As I stated, this was a collective decision that was also based on the current data around the antigen program and submissions by our stakeholders.

As a result of the then Omicron outbreak and its effects on the MDL testing capabilities, the return to school in January was a difficult one. Additionally, the weekly saliva screening that was currently in place for students had to be replaced with an at-home Antigen screening program.

While it was always intended for the pilot program to launch in January with 10 schools, the difficulties with the Omicron outbreak forced the program to be expanded to all schools. While this program was very quickly assembled, extensive outreach to parents, guardians, and staff took place via 6 zoom informational sessions, tailored for parents and staff for each of our different school levels.

The features of the At-Home Antigen Testing Programme are:

  • It is not mandatory, but all students and staff are encouraged to participate.
  • Students and staff were provided with a supply of free antigen tests which were generously donated to the Department of Education by ABIR, ABIC, and BILTIR.
  • The acceptance of antigen tests indicated an agreement to participate in the testing programme.
  • Tests must be taken twice per week: once on Sunday evening and once on Wednesday evening.
  • Each test result must be reported electronically using a link provided by the Department of Education.
  • Positive results must immediately be reported directly to the school and the Department of Health by the parent of a Covid-positive student or by the Covid-positive staff member, and not by the Department of Education.

As we have entered into the Mid-Term break, the antigen screening data received and the process of receiving that data is being examined to determine the best way forward. This process will also allow us to improve the receipt of the data more efficiently. To date, I can announce that participation is not at the levels it was at with the saliva screening program. With a participation rate of approx. 57% across all staff [50%] and students [59%] submitting forms bi-weekly, we need those families who are not reporting, to do so to ensure the safety of everyone.

Starting with the return to school next week the following are some of the things being worked on:

  • All pre and Primary Schools will return to saliva weekly screening.
  • The current antigen online form is being revamped and retooled to be more efficient and allow for critical participation data to be more quickly analyzed.
  • PR campaigns around the need to participate and reminders to submit your results are being developed.

I would like to thank all of those who have worked very hard to get this program up and running at such short notice. While not perfect, it has done a good job of doing what was intended, and moving forward, I am confident we will see much more participation.

Revised School Guidelines

One of the major talking points of late is the guidelines in place within our schools and if we will see any movement from where we are currently, that is in Phase 1. I have received many emails, WhatsApps, and social media posts asking the same.

Firstly, I want to state that we are constantly looking to strike the right balance in the approach to maintaining the safety of our staff and students; with the ultimate goal of keeping schools open for in-class learning. We may not always agree, and we may not always even get it right, but the decisions that are made are done with the best interests of our students, educators, and the island as a whole in mind. While the decisions may be difficult, it remains my intention and the intention of this Government to provide a safe in-school experience for our students and staff.

As a parent and as the Minister, I am excited about the discussions currently taking place to examine what life with Covid inside our schools can look like. We want our children to have an educational experience that is similar to what we expect them to have. Things like sports days, graduations, field trips, assemblies, end-of-school celebrations, inter-school sports events and school photographs to name a few will be returning soon along with revised mask-wearing guidelines.

We are also examining the current requirement for close contacts of positive students to quarantine. We are looking at ways to move towards fewer students having to quarantine as a result of being deemed a close contact.

We are still discussing these various initiatives and how they may be best implemented; however, I look forward to being able to give more information on Friday, during my Ministerial Statement in the House of Assembly.

As the country moves towards living with Covid, there will continue to be precautions and guidelines that are necessary to remain in place to keep our schools safe and open. Even though Covid19 remains a relatively mild illness for most children, we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist or has no impact on their long-term health.

We will always be dependent on our dedicated staff, and our families at our schools, to ensure protocols are adhered to. I thank you for your continued efforts as we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Your sacrifices are not in vain. Our desire to keep our schools safe and open for in-class learning will always be our goal and with your continued support, we will keep our school doors open.

Thank you.