Following the 6.9 earthquake …”ARE OUR SCHOOLS SAFE?”

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THE EDITORTuesday’s earthquake which registered 6.9 on the Richter Scale, and which has caused notable infrastructural damage throughout the country, as well as widespread emotional and mental trauma among citizens, is a sobering reminder of our vulnerability as a nation to the destructive consequences of natural disasters on a whole, and especially earthquakes, which are unpredictable and often have the potential to wreak complete havoc on a nation.

Given that our country has never experienced an earthquake of such magnitude in this century, according to reports, we must be very mindful of the measures we take to ensure that, in the wake of another such occurrence, we are as prepared as we can be in every possible manner.

Now is not the time for politicking and the country and its leaders of every sector must come together to ensure we work in the best possible way to safeguard the welfare of our citizens in the very real event of a recurrence of this particular natural disaster.

It is in this vein that I wish to issue a public call to Education Minister Anthony Garcia to make a public statement aimed at reassuring the population, but especially parents and students, on how he intends to secure their safety when the new school term opens in a week’s time (September 3, 2018).

Given that citizens remain traumatised and in the wake of the reported 32 aftershocks and the predictions of many more to come in the coming days, months and even years, according to the experts, it is necessary that all State institutions take all possible measures to reassure and comfort our population in the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake.

I note that there has been no public statement thus far from the Ministry of Education about the state of all our nation’s schools, specifically regarding:

·         how many school buildings, if any at all, have sustained any infrastructural damage;

·         the scale of such damage and the timeframe of repair works to be undertaken;

·         the Ministry of Education’s commencement of inspection of all school buildings, in particular older ones, to determine their infrastructural integrity and fitness to safely house the nation’s approximately 250,000 students and 16,000 teachers, as well as other members of staff.

I wish to urge Mr Garcia to make it his priority to ensure that all Government and Government-assisted primary schools (422), secondary schools (125) and Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Centres are safe for our children, teachers and anyone who inhabits them.

This is especially important, not only because the schools are where our children and teachers in the majority spend most of their daily lives, but also since many schools are used as relief centres and shelters for large portions of the population when other natural disasters that frequently affect Trinidad and Tobago, such as flooding and storms, occur.

I note that many of the nation’s schools are over 100-years old and attention must be paid to the inspection of HVAC and mechanical/electrical systems, elevators, stairs and plumbing/sewer systems.

These institutions have no Facility Managers or qualified engineers to make determinations or recommendations, thus it falls under Minister Garcia’s remit to ensure these buildings are structurally and otherwise safe before students and teachers return to school.

I urge that Mr Garcia and all heads of Departments at the Ministry of Education therefore make it a priority to do so and also make the relevant public announcements regarding this crucial matter, so as to ease the current mental trauma our citizens are undergoing and possible future physical distress and harm that may ensue in the unhappy event of another natural disaster of this terrible magnitude.

Dr Tim Gopeesingh

Former Minister of Education
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