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Govt says schools decision was ‘prudent’

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Government has been criticised for its handling of school closures in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Gabrielle, with claims that its overnight reversal of a decision to keep students at home led to an “unsatisfactory and disruptive chain of events” and a “confusing day”.

But Public Safety Minister Michael Dunkley insisted the initial decision to close public schools, announced on Tuesday evening and reversed yesterday morning, was “not premature but prudent, based on the information we had at the time and out of concern for the safety of the most vulnerable in our community, our children”.

The Deputy Premier told the media yesterday the first decision was taken when the forecast indicated Gabrielle was likely to bring hurricane force gusts across the Island, potentially causing major disruption on the roads.

“Once it was clear that our children could safely get to school, we made the decision to open the schools so that we could turn a potential lost day into a day of learning,” he added.

“I apologise for any confusion this caused but please know that our sole motivation is the safety of our people. Better safe than sorry.”

Shadow Education Minister Walton Brown said standard practice regarding storms and hurricanes was to “make a decision regarding school closures at the optimal time and stick with that decision”.

He laid the blame on Education Minister Nalton Brangman, claiming: [His] decisions regarding school closures yesterday and this morning made for a confusing day for parents and students. This cannot be repeated.

“For parents and students to go to bed at night knowing that there would be no school in the morning only to find out at 7am the Minister had reversed his decisions no doubt made for a stressful start.”

The Opposition MP added: “One of the unfortunate aspects of the Minister's reversal of his decision is that it was not conveyed to all media outlets, further compounding the problem for parents. Wherever this breakdown occurred, this too must be addressed so that it is not repeated.”

The initial decision to close public schools was announced at 7.09pm on Tuesday by the Government's Emergency Measures Organisation (EMO), which Mr Dunkley chairs. At least two private schools followed suit, e-mailing parents to say they were shutting their doors for the day in line with the EMO.

At 6.59am yesterday, the EMO issued an update to say that “after very careful assessment and review this morning” it had been decided to keep public schools open and that educators should report to work as normal.

The reversal has led some private school principals to agree to work together “urgently to create a new policy” for their own weather-related closures.

Peter Harding, principal of Somersfield Academy, told parents in an e-mail yesterday that the school closed because its current policy is to always follow the Government's recommendation on school closures “based on its assessment of the public safety and health considerations”.

He added: “Imagine our complete surprise to wake up this morning to hear the government schools would, in fact, be open. Having sent a clear message yesterday that Somersfield would be closed, we did not feel that it was fair to families, particularly those with younger children, to reverse that decision at 7am in the morning.

“We, of course, are very aware of, and recognise the difficulties this causes for families, but had to balance that with the fact that many had already made alternative arrangements. We posted and communicated the decision to stay closed at 7am and informed the radio stations.

“As a result of this unsatisfactory and disruptive chain of events, I have spoken today with my colleagues in the other leading private schools, and we will be working together urgently to create a new policy for closures that enables us to be on the same page, while taking into account EMO recommendations and Government announcements.”

Mr Harding continued: “I am indeed sorry for the difficulties caused and the loss of a school day, but trust that with a new policy, which is not wholly dependent on the EMO, we will be in a position to avoid this kind of dilemma and be more independent in our decision-making.”

Warwick Academy also closed yesterday. Principal Maggie McCorkell told The Royal Gazette that in the five years she had led the school there had never been a situation where Government's decision to close schools was reversed the next day.

She said Warwick parents received an e-mail on Tuesday evening, following the EMO announcement, and the decision to close was sent to the media and posted on Facebook and Twitter.

After seeing the EMO's reversal yesterday, she said she stuck with the initial plan because it would have been too difficult to get enough staff on site in time. “The majority would have made plans for the day,” she said. “Parents would have made plans to accommodate their children. I hate to lose a day ... but I think whenever you make a decision like this, you need to stick with it for the interests of the children and the safety of the children.”

Susan Moench, principal of Mount Saint Agnes Academy, told this newspaper she made the decision to stay open, despite the EMO's initial announcement, after checking whether government offices or businesses were planning to shut.

“There was no indication from the EMO that government offices were going to be closed or that businesses were going to be closed,” she said. “That's where our parents go to work and their children are going to need to be somewhere for the day.

“That's our policy. We need to make sure our children are being cared for and that families have a place to have their children and know they are safe. Government will make a decision based on the needs of their schools. They have an awful lot more schools to worry about and an awful lot more students to worry about.

“I don't necessarily want to tie us into the same decision.”

Ms Moench said she wasn't aware of the discussions about the need for a new policy among other private schools.

Bermuda High School for Girls initially planned to shut for the day. However, following a safety assessment yesterday morning, it decided to open — but at the later time of 11am.

School Head Linda Parker said BHS did follow the EMO's decision to close the school for safety reasons, but two factors brought about a rethink — EMO guidelines on travel safety and a daylight assessment of the school's safety.

“After assessing the safety and readiness of the school being accessible this morning, a decision was made to reopen the school for students at 11am,” she said.

“The private school principals meet on a regular basis and this will be an item for urgent discussion. We will hopefully move towards having a common private school policy.”

Mr Brown said: “Any decision regarding closing schools is based on the need to ensure a high level of safety for our young people. This should apply irrespective of whether or not the student is in private or public school.

“In light of this, I implore the Minister to set out a framework whereby a decision to close public schools — for national safety reasons — is equally and simultaneously embraced by the private schools.”

An Education Ministry spokeswoman said Mr Brangman had no comment. “The statement today from the chair of EMO and Minister of Public Safety is the response,” she added.

* What do you think about the decisions on school closures? E-mail your views to news@royalgazette.com.

Public Safety Minister Michael Dunkley (photo by Glenn Tucker)

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Published September 12, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 12, 2013 at 1:02 am)

Govt says schools decision was ‘prudent’

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