The Ministry of Education will mobilize more than 100 substitute teachers due to the vaccination deficit

Director of Education Clare Browne (file photo)

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By Orville Williams

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The Ministry of Education is set to deploy more than 100 substitute teachers to the school system, following Cabinet approval to hire a group of temporary educators.

This week’s post-Cabinet report stated that “the Cabinet has received a list of the teaching staff required, numbering 109, to make up the shortfall due to the absence of teachers who have not taken up the [Covid-19] vaccines”.

He went on to state that “the Cabinet has authorized the employment for three months of these 109 substitute teachers”.

This announcement coincided with another that face-to-face learning will resume shortly for students taking exams in primary and secondary schools. For primary schools, sixth-grade students will be allowed to return to classrooms, as well as forms four and five at the secondary level.

According to the report, this proposal from the director and deputy director of education was made “based on their analysis of the current vaccination status of teachers and students.”

So far, 85% of public school teachers are reported to have been vaccinated, along with 83% at tertiary level. Some private schools, the report adds, have already achieved 100% vaccination compliance.

Since the public sector vaccination mandate was first announced, the government has been preparing for a fallout, based on adverse comments from affected employees and other critics.

Most of the country’s major unions oppose the move, including – perhaps most prominently in this case – the Antigua and Barbuda Teachers’ Union (A&BUT), which has said the majority of its members who participated in a vote on the issue were not in favor of a mandatory vaccination policy.

Despite the backlash, the administration has stood firm, insisting that all public sector employees — including teachers — must adhere to the vaccination policy or find themselves, even temporarily, without a job or pay.

He said shortly after the initial announcement that temporary workers would be brought in to fill potential gaps caused by people not following the policy. A few weeks later, the Ministry of Education announced that it was starting to train a group of future temporary educators.

Director of Education Clare Browne told the media yesterday that she was happy with the level of training initially carried out to prepare these teachers to enter the classroom. He noted, however, that the profession is one that requires constant development.

“At the level of initial training, we are satisfied, but even after 10 years, the professionalization of teachers is a continuous process. Thus, even after several years of service, one must continue to study [and] you must continue to prepare.

“Education is a dynamic thing and there are a lot of new things emerging, so training will continue. Once we have acquired the teachers, the first [idea] is to get the funding and we did.

Browne said the number of teachers who will be needed is likely to change, depending on the impact of Covid-19 infections which could medically prevent some people from being vaccinated for a longer period. These people, he said, were not included in the initial number presented to Cabinet.

He also talked about teachers who have applied for vaccine exemptions and how that process could affect staffing needs.

“It is not a fixed number, as the 109 would be based on people who we know have definitely not taken the vaccine and have not made any exemption requests.

“We cannot assume that all candidates [for medical or religious exemptions] are going to be favorably considered, so once the process is complete and the results are returned, we will know who failed; if they have not obtained exemptions; whether or not they will get vaccinated and return to class.

“Then the numbers may go up, but we don’t envision it’s going to be huge numbers of people,” Browne explained.