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Schools to remain shut until January 25 as learning goes online

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

• Education Minister Dr John Cortes pays tribute to ‘silent resilience’ of pupils and urges community to work together in challenging times

Gibraltar’s schools will remain shut until at least January 25, the Gibraltar Government said on Thursday, with contingency schooling to resume from next Monday via online teaching platforms.

Schools had been expected to open on January 11 but against the backdrop of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases will now remain shut for another fortnight, perhaps longer.

This position will be reviewed on a weekly basis by the Government, the Department of Education and the teachers’ union, NASUWT, acting on public health advice and the latest virus data.

In announcing the development, Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Education, said teachers would pull out all the stops to ensure continuity of learning during this difficult period.

And he paid tribute too to the pupils who had already shown huge resilience during 2020, when Covid-19 upturned the education system much as it did all areas of community life on the Rock.

“They are the silent sufferers in all of this,” Dr Cortes told the Chronicle.

“They do not express their views or vent their frustration through social media, but their lives have been changed so drastically over the past year.”

“They’ve been without schooling for large periods, not seeing friends, cousins, grandparents.”

“And yet they still smile and they still laugh, resilient and strong in a way that us adults can no longer be.”
In a message to parents, Dr Cortes said: “It is a difficult time and we are going to be outside of our comfort zone.”

“We are all doing things we would rather not do and we are all going to be inconvenienced and put out, but I ask for patience, consideration and solidarity, and love for the whole of the community and let’s get through this together.”

Dr Cortes told the Chronicle plans had been put in place to improve the online learning offering following lessons from the first lockdown last year.

In contrast to last March’s lockdown, school pupils will be able to continue with their curriculum-based learning in line with students in the United Kingdom.

“This time round it is going to be completely different,” Dr Cortes said.

“It may not be in particular for the younger children, for whom a lot of learning is activity-based, but the whole offer is re-jigged and they are using similar platforms, namely SeeSaw, but the content is going to be different.”

“All the schools have been working very hard over the last few months getting ready for this, because to some extent this was used last term when many pupils were in self-isolation.”

Programmes will be formulated and managed by each school following guidance from the Department of Education and details of this will be made available before Monday.

The Department of Education has published the Contingency Learning Guidelines on the delivery of the curriculum.

These guidelines apply while pupils are unable to attend schools and provide information on contingency learning, both during the current lockdown and for the weeks and months ahead.

The Contingency Learning Guidelines can be found on www.education.gov.gi.

Parents are asked to familiarise themselves with the guidelines so that they are aware of the role each key stakeholder in the contingency learning process should play, a spokesman for No.6 Convent Place added.

The online lessons will differ from a classroom-based approach to teaching.

“This is not going to be online teaching, it is going to be online learning,” Dr Cortes said.

“It is very difficult to run and very difficult for a teacher to have control of a virtual classroom.”

“It is very difficult when there is more than one child in the household, of different ages, and they might not have different devices and different rooms to be able to access the online classroom.”

“Exercises are given and they are sent in and marked, educationally it is not recommended, but practically it will place demands on households which they cannot beat.

Secondary School pupils will be given coursework and homework to do from home, which can then be handed in online for marking.

During the first lockdown, homework was given in order to keep children “occupied”, but this time round they will have to continue with their curriculum.

Dr Cortes said this comes down to the resilience in children, adding: “Children had recovered very quickly and most of them had caught up a great deal.”

“Clearly different children responded in different ways, but I am eager to get them back to school because there is nothing like the real school experience.”

CHILD SUPERVISION

Schools will be open for children of key frontline workers, particularly where both parents have to work during school hours.

But this will just be a childcare facility, rather than having an educational focus. Parents and children will be expected to keep up in their own time at home.

“Unlike last lockdown, because we are going to have more formal learning, the teachers are not going to be able to do that and supervise the children at the same time,” Dr Cortes said.

“Core teachers will focus on the curriculum and school support staff will be supervising the key workers’ children who are in the class.”

“We don’t want many children in the class in order to reduce the risk of infection, and it will not be possible to sit down with them and do the online learning while they are in school.”

“Those who go into school will have to do the work after the school hours, and even if they take their device with them, they won’t be able to do any supervisions or answer any questions.”

There is no confirmation yet on which schools will be used for this but the Gibraltar Government said only a limited number of children will be catered for during normal school hours, and only if both parents are key front-line workers who have to work at the same time and only for those days when that is the case.

The Government said there will not be a public subscription as was the case during the first lockdown, and parents who are key workers must contact their heads of department to apply for their children.

In addition, this will only run throughout the course of the normal school day.

The arrangements were welcomed by the GSD on Thursday but drew stern criticism from Together Gibraltar.

EXAMS

With formal GCSE and A-Level exams cancelled, Dr Cortes said local teachers expressed their disappointment at the announcement from the UK Government.

However, he added: “Not all is lost, the grades will have to be done in the school, possibly like last year but possibly better because now we know so much more in advance, we can better programme the work.”
“If we were to be in lockdown for months, and the work was to be done at home, the assessment will not be easy but let’s hope that does not happen.”

ST MARTIN’S SCHOOL

The Government said it recognised that the temporary school closure was more disruptive and stressful for the pupils of St Martin’s School and their families.

With that in mind, it will review the position for this school at the end of the coming week, after five days of school closure, to see if it can reopen St Martin’s on Monday January 18.

“The nature of schooling at St Martin’s is such that social distancing can often not be maintained and so it is considered that with high prevalence of the virus the risk of infection which could spread within the school is higher, which is why St Martin’s will not open on the 11th either,” a Government spokesman said.

PUPIL WELLBEING

School staff and counsellors will continue to actively engage with learners and their families to support them as best as possible during this challenging time, the Government spokesman said.

Schools will continue to be in touch with the pupils and the reach-out programme will continue to operate.

Meanwhile school counsellors will maintain contact with their current student caseloads but will also make themselves available to help with other student or parent mental health concerns, and the contact number will be made available across social media.

PARENTS

Parents are encouraged to work with their children in order to establish a routine for learning and fitness that works around their family setting.

A spokesman for the Department of Education acknowledged this will be a testing time for the community, as remote learning is not without challenges.

However, teachers will be doing their utmost to support their learners throughout the period.

“Together with parental support, we can work as teams around each child to continue to support their learning journey,” the spokesman added.

“We urge households to adopt as positive a mindset as they can muster and do their best within the current challenges our community is facing.”

“By working together, we can all do our bit to get our community back to normality sooner rather than later.”

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