Parents of students at several prep schools in Kingston and St Andrew are on the verge of mutiny as they are being asked to pay full or barely reduced fees for the upcoming summer term which will be executed via distance learning/homeschool in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)pandemic.
Some schools have issued letters advising of discounts ranging from five to 20 per cent, but the parents, some of whom have had their wages slashed or have been out of work for the past month either from layoffs or closures of self-owned businesses, argue that those figures are unreasonable in light of the economic downturn.
They argue, too, that the hairline discounts don’t adequately take into account the physical closure of the school plant, or the reduced involvement of teachers in the distance learning model.
At Hillel Academy, for example, where the usual fees range from $224,000 to $448,000 per term, a group of parents is publicly petitioning the administration to reconsider the proposed five per cent discount arguing, among other things, that if the experience of the past few weeks is anything to go by, it is parents themselves who will have to deliver much of the educational instruction for the summer term.
They outlined the concerns in a letter posted on change.org and dated April 15.
“For obvious reasons, several parents have had to make alternative arrangements to supplement their children’s instruction time to ensure that the children do not suffer what the academic educational scholarship refers to as an “achievement gap” during their extended period away from in-school teaching. Suffice it to say that a significant degree of the responsibility of teaching that would normally be borne by Hillel has been shifted to the parents,” the letter said in part.
“We have had no communication from the school as to their long-term plan to make up these lost teaching days, as is surely the best practice in any educational institution, particularly one that provides primary education to young children,” it continued.
The Hillel parents said they were requesting a meeting with the board.
“The difficulty with the letter that the director has sent to the parents is that it does not reflect that principle [burden sharing]. The school is essentially asking parents to incur precisely the same cost for significantly reduced services. There is no reference to burden sharing on the part of any other stakeholders. Forgive our candour, but we find this extraordinary, particularly given that Hillel is a non-profit institution,” the letter also said.
As at mid-afternoon Sunday, the letter had 448 of the required 500 signatures.
Hillel said, “Parents who pay the entire fee by April 30, 2020 will receive the discount. Others may pay in three equal monthly payments in April, May, and a last payment by June 15.”
Other schools offering discounts for the summer term include St Hugh’s Preparatory School, five per cent; Immaculate Conception Preparatory School, 15 per cent if paid in full by May 1, or 10 per cent if paid by May 29; and St Andrew Preparatory School, 20 per cent. In St James, Eagles Wings Elementary & Early Learners School advised parents of a 25 per cent cut.
But some parents contend that the cuts aren’t deep enough, as they do not reflect value for money. Among their arguments is the point that several schools have been doing a poor job — if at all — of engaging students virtually.
At Mona Prep, for example, the grade two classes have had no sessions since schools were ordered closed.
On Twitter, users wrote about the lack of structure to the classes at their children’s schools in the last few weeks, poor or no communication from school administrations, poor technological capability of teachers, and limited contact time.
“They are claiming that most of the fees go into paying teachers, but what about what they’re saving with school not officially being in session?” asked a parent from Obistan Kinder Preparatory School.
“It’s unjust, unconscionable, unreasonable, and just unwise… In the end they are going to create bad blood and lose students when things pick back up,” said another parent who asked that the name of her school not be disclosed.
That fallout is apparently already in train, with a number of parents revealing decisions to withdraw their children from school for the third term.
One Facebook user, who said she owns a party rental company, is among them.
“My business has been put on pause… so I’m here working on one salary, my husband’s salary. Bills have doubled — food, light, water, you name it — because everyone is at home consuming more. I’m teaching the lessons, using my resources, I’m doing 90 per cent of the work.
“Now, with all that said, who would really tell me to go look $96,000 and pay the school? My child will not miss out on being a Rhodes Scholar if she misses 2.5 months of that kind of schooling. I’ll keep her home and gather learning materials online myself. Everybody tek a blow, teachers can too,” she said.
Another Facebook user, who said she was a conference producer, was of a similar view.
“As much as I would love to take on the offer of a term of distance learning, I can neither justify the level of fee being charged, or afford to pay it right now. I have elected to take my grade three son and pre-K daughter out of their school for the final term and I will homeschool both with a view to starting them back in school in September,” she said.
The summer term formally begins today — April 22. Schools are expected to continue delivery of classes virtually in line with government-mandated measures to slow the spread of the virus.
Speaking with the Jamaica Observer on Friday, Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) President Owen Speid declined to comment on whether private schools should reduce their fees in light of the current situation. He said, however, that the Government should step in and make provisions for those teachers.
“It’s all good what the Government is doing. I commend them on their efforts in trying to provide that kind of care package for several sectors of people in society, however small it is. But when you look at teachers who are in the private schools, something has to be done for them to get some sort of remuneration right now, because they’re in a stressful situation already with COVID-19 and they would want to be in a position where they’re able to live in a dignified way and to be able to take care of themselves and their family,” Speid said.
“I’m really concerned for them, because they’re human beings who have dedicated themselves to the service of teaching children and moulding minds and we would like now for the Government to use some of the funds that they’re giving out to ensure that the teachers in the independent schools are well taken care of at this time” he added.
He said the crunch will start to be felt this month end as “parents will not be able, in many instances, to pay the school fees that they were accustomed to paying and it is going to cause a strain on the schools’ budget”.
“It’s a real problem. Some principals from some of those schools have spoken with me and they’ve raised that as a serious concern. They don’t know how they are going to pay their teachers. And the teachers are anxious too, because they know that the school fees haven’t been forthcoming,” Speid argued.
The JTA’s membership includes educators from State-owned as well as independent schools.
Schools were first ordered closed as of March 13, days after the country recorded its first case of COVID-19. The period of 14 days was later extended to the end of the Easter term, to include the intervening Easter holidays.
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