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Weldon ‘drained’ by tension over public schools return, Pati records reveal

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Carika Weldon, PhD (File photograph)

A former science adviser to the Government said she was “drained” from tension that arose during planning for the return of public schools after Christmas.

Carika Weldon told Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, that she wanted to speak on behalf of the Molecular Diagnostics and Research Laboratory, where she was the director, and not have her words twisted.

Her comments were in a string of e-mails that included an official recommendation from the scientist for Government schools to start the new year with remote learning.

The education ministry insisted last December that classes would be in-person after the winter break but it sent out details for a staggered reopening on January 4, the day before the term started for pupils.

Copies of e-mails were released to The Royal Gazette in response to a Public Access to Information request.

They showed that Dr Weldon asked on December 22, 2021 for a joint meeting between the Ministry of Education, the MDL and the Bermuda Union of Teachers.

She wrote to Mr Rabain: “I have just seen your TV interview on the news which has completely erroneous statements about MDL in regards to back-to-school testing for BPSS staff.

“MDL never said that we cannot handle the load of testing BPSS staff on January 4, as requested by the BUT.

“I in fact said the exact opposite, that we can make it work, if teachers are remote on the 4th and are not back on the 5th."

She wrote that the Commissioner of Education said that staff – who were due back on January 4 – had to report to buildings so that option “could not work”.

Dr Weldon added: “I am drained from this tension that MDL has nothing to do with, and being thrown in the midst constantly.

“I would like to speak on behalf of MDL, and not MoE twisting or changing my words for their use with BUT or the media.”

She received a response from Valerie Robinson-James, the education ministry’s permanent secretary, who was copied into Dr Weldon’s e-mail and said that she noted the meeting request.

Ms Robinson-James asked: “Is there a number I can call so we can discuss this?”

The records released to the Gazette did not appear to show any other e-mail reply.

Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A Bermuda Tonight broadcast on December 22, 2021, said that education officials originally scheduled teachers to be tested on January 1 but the union “protested that it should not be done during teachers’ personal time” and instead the screening should take place on January 4, when staff returned to work.

The report said Mr Rabain insisted that scheduling PCR tests on January 4 would be problematic.

Speaking to Bermuda Broadcasting, the education minister said: “We had spoken to MDL and MDL had stated that … they would not be able to handle the volume of testing on that day prior to going into school.

“However, we offered that there be multiple days for testing and not just the one day.”

Mr Rabain added then that, as well as helping to protect the healthcare system, there was a desire to make sure that “in-school, in-classroom learning” would return two weeks later.

He said: “What we put in place, we are confident it will do everything that needs to be done in order for us to return to in-person learning.”

An e-mail from Dr Weldon to the minister on December 29, addressed to him as the Acting Premier, said: “I write to officially recommend that BPSS remain remote next week.

“The active cases numbers and testing capacity is at its limit with the positivity rate”.

Mr Rabain copied in the PS and Tinee Furbert, who became acting education minister soon after, to his reply and thanked the scientist for the “heads up”.

He added: “We are awaiting the data to be released from Health (tomorrow afternoon) before we make any additional changes.

“We need to see the data to compare to our matrix developed by Health that governs the status of schools, which includes the tipping point for the positivity rate.”

Mr Rabain requested figures for sample processing and positivity rates, which Dr Weldon provided.

The ministry said on December 31 that public schools would open to pupils on January 5 with Phase 2 regulations.

That announcement was made despite BUT safety concerns because of a spike in cases caused by the Omicron variant.

The BUT also predicted that Covid-19 test results would not be turned around in time.

A media release from the education ministry and department sent just before 6.20pm on January 4 advised parents that schools would open on a staggered basis.

Ms Furbert said then that several schools did not have enough teachers cleared to return to classrooms and there were also students waiting for coronavirus test results.

It meant that four preschools could open but only class groups could attend at most others.

Seven primary schools would open for “specific classes”.

Staff levels were not sufficient at any other schools to open as planned.

An update from Dr Weldon to Marc Telemaque, the Cabinet Secretary, and others at 1.24am on January 5 said that she estimated about 500 to 700 samples related to Government schools were still to be tested.

Dr Weldon revealed in January she had earlier warned that thousands of additional tests before the reopening of public schools was unworkable.

She said then: “I was told that education had to be pushed forward and we had to make it work.”

The scientist, who was speaking after the announcement that she would quit her job at the end of January, added she knew by December 29 that “the maths is pretty simple, and we didn’t have enough staff to do it”.

Without naming who she had spoken to, Dr Weldon said: “They didn’t respect my opinion.”

She added: “It’s really just about civil servants.”

The Ministry of Education was asked by the Gazette for copies of correspondence that related to Dr Weldon between the minister or any acting minister, the commissioner, the ministry and its officials over the 12 months from January 14, 2021.

Similar requests were made to the Department of Education, the Ministry and Department of Health and the Cabinet Office but substantive responses have not been received yet.

Dr Weldon, when contacted by the Gazette for comment, said she had spoken about some of the matters already and had nothing to add.

The Ministry of Education was asked for comment but none was received by press time.

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Published March 29, 2022 at 5:13 pm (Updated March 29, 2022 at 5:13 pm)

Weldon ‘drained’ by tension over public schools return, Pati records reveal

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