There seems to be no end in sight, as the impasse between the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the St. Kitts Teachers Union (SKTU) reached a higher level of tension. At the center of the controversy are the illnesses of students and teachers, who have attributed the source of infections to the environs of the Basseterre High School, one of the largest secondary schools in the Federation. No conclusive cause of the illnesses has yet been found by studies carried out by the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) and the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), and after three years of complaints, studies, recommendations, repairs and renovations, the illnesses persist. Today, the school building stands unoccupied, void of the voices of learning and teaching, of perseverance and success, and of fulfilled potential and achievement. These, as over 800 BHS students and teachers were transferred on shift system to the nearby Washington Archibald High School. Coming about as an emergency fix to the re-emergence of illnesses and other health related issues at the BHS, some teachers have expressed the view of a negative psychological impact on students, citing lowered academic performances. But what should have been a straight forward path to finding a solution to the problems now has become a war of stances, where MOE may have taken the view that the reports are inconclusive, even while carrying out recommendations listed in the reports and making decisions on the future functioning of the school. SKTU officials have cited the “lack of meaningful dialogue”with the Ministry, which they also accuse of a “lack of empathy”with the plight of students and teachers, along with accusations of deception. “Ministry officials have shown a lack of empathy and have demonstrated that they are unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and the needs of our teachers and students. This lack if empathy is foreign to us as a nation, but has become much of the norm at the Ministry of Education,’said SKTU President Ron Collins. The non-attendance of the BHS Principal to a Ministry called meeting, because of a stance taken in support of her Union, may have triggered what is perceive to be punitive actions against her and other teachers who have been vocal on the BHS health issues. These actions have become key conversational pieces within communities, as the SKTU made assertive responses to the actions of the Ministry of Education. In a press conference held last Friday (July 18) the SKTU President Collins said, “The actions of the Ministry of Education clearly support our view that the Ministry of Education is not serious about dialogue and discussion, and they were deliberately deceptive, not once, but repeatedly over a period of months. “We are of the view that we were deceived by the continuous stalling discussions and (they) refused to be upfront with the Union and the BHS teachers about issues with reference to health problems at the school.”The Teachers Union has accused the Ministry of taking “unilateral actions, taken without consulting parents and teachers and the Union,”which Collins said demonstrated “a lack of respect, both for parents who entrust their children to the school and for teachers who have educated generations of students.”He stated that the “Ministry has rebuffed and ignored the Union requests continually to sit together in meaningful, genuine, face-to-face discussion about issues that have arisen at the school during the past few turbulent years. “Instead of communicating with parents, teachers and the Union, the Ministry of Education has implemented measures to punish our teachers. The teachers have offered an olive branch. The Union continues to offer an olive branch, only urging the Ministry to dialogue with teachers and their chosen representatives. Throughout the ordeal, we have been alarmed and highly disgusted by the lack of empathy from the Education and Health officials about our troubling ailments.”Collins described the Basseterre High School situation as a two-fold problem, that it is, first and foremost, a public health issue and secondly, an occupational health and safety issue, and stressed that issues were not political. Speaking to the Unions response to the CARPHA and CARIRI reports, Collins indicated that a panel of experts, science and medical practitioners, would analyze the reports, make recommendation to the Union and monitor implementation of CARIRI/CARPHA recommendations by the Ministry of Education. These actions have become necessary because of “lack of trust in the Ministry”. Collins said, “We are operating in an environment of great mistrust. How can the same players who have been there before, who have put their own spin on reports, how could these same players who have fought us about the genuineness of our illness, who have lied to us now come and implement these recommendations without monitoring and supervision. There has been no meaningful action to rebuild trust on their part. We have not been allowed any audience with the Minister since the CARIRI and CARPHA preliminary reports some months ago.”He did indicate that the Union recently received from the Ministry, late Tuesday (July 15) afternoon, the CARIRI and CARPHA reports. On Monday, July 21, the St. Kitts Teachers Union launched ‘Operation Duster,’ their set of responses to the issues and the Ministry of Education. “Operation Duster is a series of actions and events that we will take in an effort to ensure that the rights of teachers and students are indeed protected and that Ministry actions are not oppressive and punitive on their path,”Collins explained. He called for support from all stakeholders, NGOs, the Church community, government, political parties and regional and international agencies. Dr. Lincoln Carty, a member of the panel of experts, raised several issues related to renovations carried out on the school to address the health issues, suggesting that best practices were not always followed that would eliminate molds found in the school. He also pointed to statements being made of the reports reference to ‘no conclusive causes,’ but he said the same report also indicates, ‘that fungi and molds may cause symptoms that were presented”. Collins made reference to 71 recommendations that the Ministry of Education has drawn from the reports. While the Ministry has also indicated things that were done in addressing the problems, Collins said the Teachers Union wants greater transparency and wants the problems fixed. “We want our children’s education to recommence at a site that is convenient and conducive for learning but must not endanger their health,’said Collins. Several parents recounted the health problems experienced by their children of the school and supported the call for a permanent resolution to the Basseterre High School issues. Other speakers raised the idea of building a new school and abandoning the present BHS site. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education extended an invitation to “all teachers, parents and guardians of the Basseterre High School to an information-sharing session,”on Wednesday, July 23, 2014, at the Washington Archibald High School. A statement issued by the Ministry of Education on July 18 addressed arrangements that were being made for meetings between stakeholders. “Requested since Tuesday that a meeting be held today (Friday 18 July) to discuss the report and the findings and recommendations made by the independent, expert investigators. The School management indicated that they required more time to read the reports. The Ministry agreed to the request to defer the meeting, and meetings are now planned with the leadership of the school, the PTA and the Teachers’ Union for Monday July 21 at 2:00 p.m. “A further meeting has been planned with parents and teachers for Wednesday, July 23, at 5:00 p.m. at the Washington Archibald High School (WAHS). “However, it is now clear that in place of meeting with the Ministry, as we originally proposed, the Teachers’ Union has used the time to organize a media appearance on WINN-FM on Friday, July 18 and its own meeting on Monday
, July 21. These have come as a surprise to the Ministry, as we were hoping to meet before these kinds of actions could have even been contemplated. “This course of action is very troubling, even at a time when the Union appears to be making public calls for dialogue and for action to be taken in the best interest of all concerned – teachers, students and the wider community. “The Ministry calls for sobriety, transparency and a genuine expression of goodwill on all sides, and awaits an opportunity to meet with all stakeholders.”The main business of the meeting, the statement explained, was the reports from CARIRI and CARPHA pertaining to the Basseterre High School.