During the vacation period at the end of every school year, the Ministry of Education undertakes repairs at primary and secondary schools so that students and teachers alike enter facilities that are in better shape at the start of the new academic year.
More often than not, though, within a few weeks of the new term, some environmental issue arises that forces the school to close until it is rectified. It is terribly inconvenient: children who may be getting ready for examinations end up missing classes; some parents and guardians have to take time off work to look after their children if there is no one else to do so; others see their morning and evening routines disrupted when the students are accommodated elsewhere.
For years now, we have seen a multitude of such incidents at both primary and secondary schools. In more severe cases, like the much-publicised ones at the St. Leonard’s Girls Secondary School in the 1990s and the Louis Lynch Secondary School in 2006, the schools actually shuttered permanently, displacing students and teachers in the process.
With both of these schools, there are former students and teachers who may have died of illnesses possibly linked to exposure to harmful substances in the atmosphere during their time there.
This term alone we have seen issues at Ellerton Primary School with a broken fence that allowed unsavoury characters to trespass on the property; cow itch problems on land adjacent to the Blackman and Gollop Primary School; and a myriad of structural and environmental problems at the Milton Lynch Primary School which led parents to protest this morning.
The Milton Lynch issue is particularly serious, in that children have sustained injuries from broken cabinets; the bathroom facilities are in ruins; some pupils with respiratory conditions like asthma have suffered greatly from pigeons nesting in the roof, rat infestation, stray dogs running through the compound, and cow itch on adjacent grounds.
Shortly after the start of the school year last September, president of the Barbados Union of Teachers, Sean Spencer, made an urgent appeal to the relevant authorities to pay greater attention to maintaining school properties.
His comments came in the wake of a host of environmental problems at the Lester Vaughan Secondary School, the newest state school property, which was closed for just over a week in efforts to rectify them.
He said then: “Educators are often confronted with physical and environmental conditions that must be addressed by systematic special checks and proper maintenance procedures. A healthy and safe work environment for teachers is equally a healthy and safe environment for our children.”
Since the school year began, there have also been serious environmental issues for which industrial cleaners were summoned at St Leonard’s Boys’, Coleridge and Parry, Ann Hill and St James Primary schools.
We are all aware of the economic challenges facing the country. But these school problems did not surface overnight – some have grappled with them for years – and we must get out of the mindset that Government has to do everything.
Secondary schools have boards of management, and all schools have Parent Teacher Associations. Some of the members of these boards or organisations either own businesses or hold senior positions in the corporate world. So may we humbly make a few suggestions that will ensure that when we send our children off to school from Monday to Friday we are not indirectly jeopardising their long-term wellbeing?
Industrial cleaners visit commercial banks, office buildings, bigger retail stores, and shopping malls and clean them out every night. But why does a school have to wait until annual ‘summer’ vacation, or until the problems get out of control, for the industrial cleaners to come in?
It may not be practical to clean them every night, but schools are just as heavily trafficked and more untidy after a day’s activities than buildings where most of the occupants are adults, and you cannot realistically expect the maid or custodian to clean the “heavier stuff”.
So it might be a good idea to have more comprehensive cleaning done on weekends. If there is a problem with birds in the rafters or rodents on the property, need we remind these school managers that there are several pest control companies on the island?
Owners of land adjacent to schools who fail to maintain it adequately, especially when school is in session may need to be cited for breaches of the Health Services Act, especially if their indifference creates health problems for students and teachers.
Any damaged gates or fences surrounding school properties should be repaired immediately, and more security officers should be deployed at bigger campuses. Security cameras might also be a good investment, but they must be checked daily, properly maintained, and replaced if they get damaged.
And now that we are on the topic of damage, it is no secret that a minority of students and neighbourhood residents are known to vandalise windows, toilets, doors, cabinets and furniture. In that case, parents of offenders should be made to replace these items, and pay the carpenters, plumbers or electricians that carry out the work.
Students should clean up any graffiti they leave on desks, chairs or walls, and penalised if they drop garbage all over the schoolyard or the classrooms. Given the problems with garbage collection on the national level, schools should consider hiring one of the private firms to remove any excessive build-ups of waste on their compounds.
Indeed, some school plants have outlived their usefulness or the student body has grown too large for the existing buildings to adequately accommodate them. But regular and preventative maintenance can go a long way in keeping school campuses up to scratch until the funds become available to build new schools.