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PSS officials inform lawmakers about school reopening plan

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LED by Education Commissioner Alfred B. Ada, Public School System officials on Tuesday met with the members of the House Committee on Education to discuss the plan to reopen the schools while ensuring that students and everyone else in the community are protected from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The meeting was presided by the education committee chairman, Rep. Roman C. Benavente. Also in attendance were Vice Speaker Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero, Reps. Joel Camacho, Luis John Castro, Ralph Yumul, Edmund Villagomez, Jose Itibus, Joseph Flores, Sheila Babauta and Richard Lizama.

Ada told the committee that “technology has really taken its place in the education arena and we are still grappling and trying to figure out.” But he assured the lawmakers that his team is focused on “making sure that technology has a place for all our students.”

He said everybody was “caught off-guard” by the emergency directives in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, he said, one of the PSS priorities is to keep the schools safe and to assure families, parents and the rest of the community “that when their children are in our hands, these students will be well taken care of.”

Ada told the lawmakers that in reopening the schools, PSS will make sure that there are iPads for every student. “That is among our priorities, and we are almost halfway there,” he added.

Associate Commissioner for Student Support Bonnie Pangelinan said PSS knows that it has to account for the changing environment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. She said they were preparing to conduct online classes if the CNMI community vulnerability level stayed at Yellow.

On Monday, however, Gov. Ralph DLG Torres announced a transition to Level Blue.

Pangelinan said this means that PSS may have a “hybrid” school reopening, meaning half of the student body will be attending classes online, and the other half will be attending classes on campus with safety measures in place.

She said PSS will comply with the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Governor’s Covid-19 Task Force.

PSS is also communicating with Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. Chief Executive Officer Esther Muna, Pangelinan added.

She said PSS officials will again meet with Muna and the Covid-19 Task Force to discuss different protocols for entering the campus, the classroom composition, the number of students in each classroom, and other related issues, including sanitization and isolation rooms.

PSS is now in the process of hiring personnel that will serve as liaison between CHCC and the schools, she added.

PSS will make sure that “safety is paramount on the campuses not just for students, faculty and staff, but also for the entire community,” she said.

PSS federal programs officer Tim Thornburgh, for his part, said the federal Education Stabilization Fund “was a godsend.” It came at a time when the local budget for PSS was reduced by 55% — from $37 million to $17 million, he added.

House Education Committee Chairman Roman C. Benavente, a former BOE chairman, said he called for the meeting because he wanted to hear from PSS officials how exactly they are going to reopen the schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said he and the other committee members listened to the education officials about “going online,” but his concerns regarding early childhood, kindergarten to first grade remain unaddressed.

“Yes, the online class will help a lot with those in the upper grades, but with the small kids, those in kinder and first grade, online class is still a challenge,” he said.

He added that the attention span of young children is not the same as those in the upper grades.

“It still makes a difference when these young children are in an actual classroom with their teacher,” Benavente said.

“I want to make sure that PSS will make the right decision for those in early childhood, kinder to first grade — some of them don’t even have internet access,” he added.

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