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HomeCommentaryOpen forumOpen forum: DOE Responds to Senator Gittens’ Opinion on Return to In-Person...

Open forum: DOE Responds to Senator Gittens’ Opinion on Return to In-Person Learning

Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin with young student at Ricardo Richards Elementary School (Submitted photo)

The Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) condemns and rejects the baseless claims made in an opinion piece issued by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens on March 1 regarding the readiness of schools in the St. Croix District to return to in-person learning.

The senator’s deliberate mischaracterization of the district’s schools on the eve of the March 2 reopening is shameful and divisive. It is a slap in the face of the incredible work executed by the Department and its dedicated partners in bringing the Territory to a place where we can safely return our most vulnerable student groups to campuses for much-needed in-person instruction.

These are the facts:

The Virgin Islands Department of Education’s decision to open campuses for in-person learning was not made in silos – the Department has always been guided by the USVI Department of Health and professionals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in all of its decisions during the coronavirus pandemic

In addition to receiving the blessing to reopen campuses for in-person learning from the USVI Department of Health, Environmental Health Division, approvals were also issued by the USVI Fire Service following an extensive inspection

The USVI Board of Education, the final authority on this matter, also issued a resolution authorizing St. Croix public schools to return to in-person learning

Senator Gittens’ opinion piece falsely states that the Department of Education held “controlled tours” of its schools prior to resuming in-person instruction. In fact, the Department readily and transparently accommodated senators’ requests to tour schools in both districts on January 26 and 27. Senators were given full range to visit all areas of the campuses. Senator Gittens did not participate in school tours on St. Croix and participated in a very limited fashion during the St. Thomas-St. John tours.

On March 1, Senator Gittens independently visited two of the district’s 13 schools—one of which has not opened for in-person instruction by the sole discretion of District Superintendent Carlos McGregor. Of the two schools the senator visited in a last-minute effort to stir public controversy, he posted four photos showing various areas of ongoing maintenance on one campus and one photo of chipping paint on a handrail on another campus. The senator has deemed those photos as evidence for his rationale for an ill-informed opinion. The senator’s approach is lazy and quite frankly, sad.

Senator Gittens conveniently did not post photos of the hundreds of new, fully stocked automatic soap, paper towel and hand sanitizer dispensers installed all over our campuses. Senator Gittens conveniently did not post photos of the many handwashing stations, the Plexiglas partitions at teacher desks, the high-tech infrared thermometers, nor the variety of signage mounted far and wide on every campus showcasing safety protocols.

Senator Gittens conveniently did not post photos of touchless water fountains, the colorful markings across campuses and inside classrooms indicating where students should sit or stand to maintain social distancing, the isolation rooms, nor did he post photos of teachers, school administrators, maintenance workers, school monitors and kitchen workers reporting to duty early and working late to ensure schools are in the tip-top shape they are in to greet students.

Contrary to the senator’s opinion, the VIDE has not rushed to reopen schools. Rather, we took our time to ensure all pieces were in place, based on health guidelines, in order to operate safely. The more our students and staff become acclimated to following the new on-campus safety protocols, the easier the process will become for everyone. Furthermore, returning to in-person learning now will help strengthen our operations in anticipation of all students returning for the 2021-2022 school year.

It must be said that the five photos Senator Gittens posted to his social media platforms do not represent the ability of our schools to operate safely for in-person learning. A more accurate representation of images and a live video walkthrough of classrooms can be found on the Department’s Facebook page. We are proud of our accomplishments, and move forward with the best interests of our students and employees in mind.

The Virgin Islands Department of Education calls on Senator Kenneth L. Gittens to issue a public apology to all of the hardworking employees of the VIDE and our dedicated partners who have made the safe return to in-person learning possible.

Virgin Islands Department of Education

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