Cayman Islands

Cayman Islands: Education recovery phase 2: Safety still top priority

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Getting children back to school in a safe environment was the goal of the Ministry of Education, which will hit a high point on Monday (29 November) with the launch of Phase 2 of an intensive $18 million rebuilding programme to continue until the end of the school year.

"Hurricane Ivan has left our government education system particularly hard hit: schools have suffered $18 million worth of damage to their buildings, and additional millions have been lost in contents," said Minister for Education, the Hon Mr. Roy Bodden, JP.

"We quickly realized that the scale of the damage was such that we would have to focus all available resources on helping our schools and staff to recover," Mr Bodden said. "I assure parents that, from the ministry's perspective, the rebuilding of our schools has always been and remains a national priority, and that all resources available to us were quickly applied to the rebuilding effort."

As part of stage one planning, a target date of 1 November was set for the reopening of all schools. The Year 12 at John Gray began earlier, on 21 October. East End Primary School Learning Centre opened on 18 October. The opening of other schools/classes has been staggered, between 25 October and next Monday (29 November) 2004, when all schools will have re-opened, including the Alternative Education Centre.

Permanent Secretary for Education Mrs. Joy Basdeo said: "I know that when reopening dates were changed this caused uncertainties for parents. However, we provided regular advisories and updates for them. Parents need to know that any delays were unavoidable and were always made in the best interests of their children."

Due to a number of ministry initiatives, by the end of the year, government primary schools will come close to providing the usual 190 school days, as will John Gray's years 11 & 12. George Hicks and John Gray Year 10 will have less time in school and the ministry is working with the schools on initiatives to tackle this.

Mrs. Basdeo said that in the post-Ivan weeks and months, efforts were concentrated on cleaning up the schools to ensure that when children returned, they would be safe from debris and from mould. "I am not sure that many people are aware of the potential impact of 'mouldy' classrooms on children's health. We had to make sure that we did not endanger vulnerable children's health."

Efforts during this period also concentrated on repairing sufficient rooms that could be readily brought on stream for occupancy as soon as possible after Ivan.

Where sufficient classrooms could not be made available, alternative sites were identified and prepared as learning centres. "We were not aiming for 'school as normal', except for our Year 12 examination students, Mrs Basdeo explained. "However, we aimed to provide safe and productive educational environments for our children, so that their parents could get on with the business of rebuilding their lives and our country."

Twenty temporary classrooms were ordered in late September. However, time has to be allowed for their construction and shipping, and the earliest that they can be expected is January 2005.

Repairs to buildings were just one of many areas that had to be tackled before a school could be reopened. Essential facilities had to be in place, such as electricity, sewerage, facilities for food and water, as well as basic health and safety measures.

Classes/teachers had to be prepared and texts and other educational materials secured. Learning centres were often set up in large open spaces that then had to be subdivided. Dividers as well as tables and chairs and other equipment also had to be found.

Mrs. Basdeo also noted that the ministry team faced many challenges as they worked towards the original 1 November target date: there were some contractor issues; problems with getting materials on a timely basis and with obtaining electricity or generators for the schools.

Another major hurdle that delayed the restoration of some schools was their use as shelters. In addition to Prospect, six more schools were being used as shelters: John Gray, George Town, Bodden Town, East End and John A Cumber in West Bay. It was discovered later that in addition to the impact of Ivan, vandalism and theft by shelter residents at Bodden Town Primary had increased damage to the school.

And aside from the buildings, teachers, as the rest of the population, also had their problems: "At the same time, we found out that many of our educational staff had suffered terrible personal losses -- to their homes, cars and other possessions. The first survey by the ministry indicated that as many as 79 teachers were homeless. Recently revised figures now place that figure at around 35," Mrs. Basdeo said.

In addition, the Education Department suffered structural damage and flooding and was declared uninhabitable.

So now, having completed phase one, the ministry is moving ahead with the massive programme of rebuilding the parts of schools that are not habitable at the present time.

The second stage of the rebuilding process is from November to the end of the school year, when all repairs to all schools should be complete. Mrs Basdeo noted, "Of course, as we work towards this target we will face similar challenges to those encountered earlier. In addition, as children are now in schools, we have to continue to monitor to ensure that the rebuilding process in no way poses any danger to the health and safety of the children, or unduly affects their educational progress."

And rebuilding will affect all schools. "Although the extent of damage to schools varies, no school was left untouched," the Permanent Secretary said. "Even Prospect Primary, the new school that opened a few days before the storm, had some damage".

(GIS)