By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 20, 2020
As a teacher, I was interested in the exchange between Anthony Garcia, the minister of education (MOE), and Antonia De Freitas, president of the TTUTA, with regard to how best to continue teaching our nation’s pupils while schools are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The MOE wanted to “determine the extent to which students had access to learning materials while schools were closed” (Newsday, April 11) so it could determine the best platform to deliver online teaching for our pupils.
De Freitas advised her members that such a demand was “spurious” and “unreasonable.” She insisted: “There is no request for teachers to use their personal devices to teach from home. She advised members that they are not required to account for work done during this period and cannot be mandated to do so” (Newsday, April 1).
Subsequently, the minister assured her that the government would continue to pay teachers “their full salaries during the period of closure” since teaching and learning were continuing online. The only hitch is that approximately 70,000 students do not have access to the internet and many teachers do not have computers.
Since the government continues to pay the salaries of these teachers they are still in the employ of the government which suggests that they are working, albeit from home, for their employers. De Freitas also suggests that the government must supply devices such as computers for teachers to work from home. Perhaps arrangement can be made for teachers to borrow computers from the government or the corporate sector to do their jobs?
When my school closed on March 16, we were asked to teach online. From March 16 to March 30, the college offered a few online classes to show us how to use the Zoom technology to teach our classes. We were all expected to continue our teaching online since we were being paid to do so. Most of us were happy to have a job since about 22 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits as of April 15.
I doubt that any of my colleagues called the college’s demands “spurious” or “unreasonable.” No one said that he was not using his personal devices to teach from home even though the college loaned a few computers to professors. We began to teach online on March 30.
Within a month, our college experienced a deficit of $5 to $6 million (US) in its operating budget. With the stock market falling—which eroded its budget substantially and our having to refund students a part of their tuition—the college announced a hiring freeze for faculty, and administrative and union positions, through December 2020.
The president took a voluntary salary reduction of 20% through December 2020. The provost and members of Senior Administration took a 15% reduction for the same period. One of the key principles that guided the college’s decision-making process was, in our president’s words: “We will act in the spirit of shared sacrifice and willingness to embrace change.”
The T&T government is generous. The minister announced government’s willingness to ensure that our teachers are being paid. Where is the money to come from? The government expects that this crisis will eat up about 10% of its GDP or $15 billion dollars. It has taken $1.5 billion (US) or $10 billion (TT) from the Heritage and Stabilization Fund, funds we have been putting away since 2007. We have borrowed about $200 million ($1 billion TT) from CAF (Latin American Development Bank) and lost about 2% of our GDP because of the decreased rents we will receive from our oil and gas products.
This enormous government expenditure is not sustainable although the government believes it is a “one-time thing.” I am not too sure this is a correct assumption.
Julie Turkewitz reported that last week in Bogota, Colombia, 40 children from the Wayuu, the country’s largest indigenous group, gathered before class started for their morning arepa, a traditional cornmeal pastry, stuffed with meat. It’s their only meal of the day. She continues: “But since Colombia went into quarantine and schools shut down two weeks ago, Josefa Garcia, a school administrator has not received any of these meals from the country’s ministry of education. Nor have the children.
“And many of the students, some of whom have watched their brothers and sisters die of malnutrition…are starting to worry about survival.
“Our fear is that if we don’t die of the virus,” said Ms. Garcia, 68, “we will die of hunger” (New York Times, April 10).
This is how bad things are in some countries but yet some of us are concerned only with our privileges and entitlements. This is why the example of our first responders is so exemplary. They continue to give their services unstintingly. This virus will change the world as we know it and how we construct our reality.
Our attitude seems to be: “We are all in this together but the government must pay.” Unless we understand that we are the government and all of us (even our children) will have to pay for whatever services we receive, we will not be ready to face the realities of a post-coronavirus era.
Pandemics and economic collapses tend to reorder societies. However, it is “in grappling with uncertainty, that we define our humanity” (Financial Times, April 11). Whatever happens, we must use this pandemic to reeducate ourselves about our community responsibilities.
One wishes devoutly that our teachers take the lead in this endeavor. Part of their responsibility is to “re-chart the ruin and piece it together in its beginning” (Trinidad Guardian, December 20, 2005) as Brother LeRoy Clarke says in his work.