Strike action by Guyanese teachers intensified yesterday, when it is estimated that more than 3,000 of them stayed away from the classroom on the first teaching day of the new school year.
In all the education districts of the 10 Administrative Regions, the teachers stayed home or took to the streets to continue to protest government’s failure to honour joint proposals for wages and other benefits. The strike began during the pre-term last week.
And while some teachers chose to go to work and the Education Ministry deployed its contingency plan, many frustrated parents were forced to take their children back home as schools in Georgetown, Berbice, Linden, Lethem and Moruca remained closed or didn’t have the requisite staff to attend to the students. Hundreds of teachers also participated in protests outside of Regional Education Offices in regions One, Two, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Ten and in Georgetown.
According to the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU), the number of teachers engaged in strike action as of the end of the first school session were more than 1,000 in Linden, 700 in Georgetown, 500 in Region Six, 300 on the East Coast of Demerara, 400 in Region Three, 250 in Region Five, 150 in Region Two, 60 in Port Kaituma and 25 in Moruca, Region One, 70 in Bartica, and 70 in Kwakwani,.
‘No to conciliation and yes to arbitration’
The more than 500 teachers missing from the classroom in Region Six had braved the heavy rain and protested along the streets of New Amsterdam, while GTU President Mark Lyte announced that the union would only be saying “Yes to arbitration.”
The picketing exercise, which saw the support from teachers in New Amsterdam, Canje and the Corentyne, began in front of the region’s Department of Education, after which the teachers marched along the streets throughout the town and concluded in front of the Regional Administration’s Office.
Lyte stressed that with conciliation, teachers will not benefit but will only end up “at square one,” without any increases. He urged them to chant, “No to conciliation and yes to arbitration.”
He also criticized statements made by Minister within the Ministry of Social Protection Keith Scott in which he accused striking teachers of being selfish and uncaring. These comments, Lyte charged, were “utter nonsense coming from the very minister who has responsibility for labour [and] who wants to lead the conciliation team.”
Additionally, Lyte stressed that the strike shows that teachers are behind the union, and he commended head teachers who took a stand with the union. “Head teachers we must lead our teachers,” he said.
He further stated that some teachers claimed that they had no choice but to report to work yesterday morning.
However, he related, “The union on the 10th of August wrote the minister with responsibility for labour and brought it to the attention to the Minister of Education that we will be proceeding on strike from the 27th of August until this matter has been resolved, so there was no need to report to school. We gave them due notice.”
He encouraged the teachers to continue to stand by their union and “fight the fight,” while he also noted that the union will be paying strike relief if persons’ salaries are cut.
‘We feeling the pressure’
Stabroek News visited several schools yesterday, where parents were grappling with the fallout of the strike.
At St Pius Primary, parents stood dejected on the corridors. One mother told this newspaper that she was weighing her options. The single-parent noted that she had to go to work but was uncomfortable leaving her child in an unsupervised classroom. Another visibly-upset parent said that she was at a loss as to what to do.
“I can’t leave my son here just like that. It’s only like five teachers here and they can’t handle all these children alone,” she explained, while yet another parent implored the government to pay the teachers.
“They need to get this thing together cause we feeling the pressure. Pay the teachers deh money,” she advised.
All the parents who spoke with Stabroek News expressed support for the strike action but they were also concerned about the supervision of their children.
“I believe that teachers deserve more than what they get now. Some of these teachers go above and beyond as if the students are their own children. I’m happy that they are taking a stand but I wish they would’ve sorted this out before school open,” a parent of a North Georgetown Primary student lamented as she removed her son from the visibly-empty compound.
Over at St Joseph High School, several teachers showed up but only to supervise. One of these teachers noted that she stands in solidarity with her colleagues on the picket line and wished government would give the teachers what they deserve and bring the strike to an end so that classes for students can begin normally.
“It’s not that we don’t want to teach the students that are here today but after I teach this class for the first period, what is going to happen at the next period, knowing that all of the teachers aren’t here. We’re just here because we don’t want to leave an entire school of students unattended,” she explained.
The concern proved well-founded as the newspaper observed several students of Christ Church Secondary and St John’s College heading home after no one turned up to teach them.
Meanwhile, the situation was different for the teachers and students of schools such as St Rose’s High, where schooling continued as normal. A similar situation prevailed on the East Coast as schools such as Graham’s Hall Primary, St Paul’s Primary, Annandale Secondary and Bladen Hall Multilateral appeared to have an almost full complement of teachers, with classes proceeding normally.
However, Company Road Primary in Buxton was operating with about 30% attendance, even with support staff from the Ministry.
When Stabroek News visited, several students in the upper school section were observed unsupervised while the small complement of staff attempted to take attendance.
At Friendship Primary, a mere five teachers showed up for school and according to parents they indicated that they would not be teaching. When this newspaper visited, several parents were in the process of removing their children from the compound after a first day assembly led by the Headmistress, while New Friendship Nursery was being completely managed by Temporary Qualified Teachers (TQMs) who had been reassigned from other schools. TQMs are untrained, non-graduate teachers in possession of Caribbean Examination Certificate (CXC) qualifications.
The substantive Headmistress of New Friendship along with all her staff members were engaged in strike action.
At Annandale Primary, a large number of teachers had not shown up to work and Grade One parents were assisting in the supervision of students but the situation was akin to bedlam.
One teacher who showed up to work told Stabroek News that she believed psychosocial counselling would be needed for each teacher after this situation is resolved. “The things being said in public are akin to abuse—verbal and emotional abuse. And even those of us who are not striking are feeling its effects. We are supposed to be doing diagnostic testing today but we can’t do that or anything. Even if it were only one person striking, we would feel its impact but the verbal and emotional abuse is making it worse,” she lamented.
‘A lot to manage’
On the East Bank, more creative ways were being used to ensure supervision as classes were combined.
At Providence Primary School, classes were in session despite poor attendance from both teachers and students. Some parents were seen registering their child at the school yesterday, while the head teacher was absent and most classrooms were empty.
One teacher explained that she did not participate in the strike because she wanted to offer her students the same service she wished for her own children in school.
Shoma Ramnauth, a parent, explained that upon dropping off her children at the Providence Primary School, she saw several student teachers, two teachers from the school and a parent from the area.
She noted that if the strike continues, she would not be sending her children to school as she believes they would not be properly supervised.
Just after 10 am, this newspaper visited Friendship Nursery and Friendship Secondary schools, where classes were in session. At the nursery school, those in charge were tightlipped on the impact of the strike on the school but noted the head teacher was not present.
Over at the secondary school, which is located in the same compound, Stabroek News learnt that 20 teachers took part in the industrial action but no substitute teacher was provided to the school to cushion the shortage of teachers.
One teacher told this newspaper that she could not allow the strike to affect her students. She noted that her subject area is under threat as they are looking to remove it from the curriculum. “I have to come and see what was happening. I have students who I am concerned about and staying away would only make it worse…,” she said.
At Craig Primary, two retired head teachers were filling in for teachers who were absent. When this newspaper went to the school, they were seen teaching combined grades Four and Five classes.
Not all the teachers were absent and some of those present indicated that despite them showing up they still supported the strike.
Over at Grove Primary, some 22 teachers were present but many students were absent. In the classes, this newspaper observed teachers at work. One teacher said they were supporting the strike action as their working conditions need to be improved. She noted that they only turned out to school yesterday because it was the first day and they wanted a smooth transition for their new students. “We need to support the strike and we will. It is not easy that we have to manage large classrooms of students…,” said the teacher, while hinting that they are likely to stay away from school today.
Just before lunch, this newspaper visited the Diamond Secondary School, where student attendance was said to be a 100 percent, while 18 of 42 teachers were in attendance. Among the teachers absent was the head teacher. The school had, however, received support from 10 substitute teachers.
A senior teacher indicated that not only was the strike necessary but the timing could not be better. “It is necessary to be done at this current time which is the reopening of school because it would push the government to do something and address our concerns,” she said.
At the New Diamond/Grove Primary School, this newspaper learnt that some 13 teachers, including the head teacher, took part in the strike.
According to the teachers at the school, five substitute teachers were deployed by the Ministry of Education to offer assistance.
But the substitute teachers were not finding it easy to cope with their working conditions.
Romario St. John, who is teaching at the New Diamond Grove Primary School, explained that he was monitoring two classes with 100 students.
“I was teaching English here, running over to the other class teaching English there. Then, I started to teach Math and it was the same thing. Then you had students making complaints and calling for ‘sir’… it is a lot to manage… but I will return and volunteer,” St. John disclosed.
The teachers at the school explained that only 33.1% of the students turned out to school yesterday. They noted that some parents took their children home after realising that they were not being placed in their respective classroom.
At Covent Garden Primary, students were leaving for home with their parents during the lunch break. A teacher explained that only seven teachers showed up for duty, while indicating that some left to protest in Georgetown.
At the Mocha/ Arcadia Primary School, few teachers were present and no assistance or substitute teacher was sent to the school.
“As a teacher, I think if I were a part of the body I would make the way for arbitration because the nation’s exams are in a couple of months and they would want us to produce results but the teachers need to be looked after,” a teacher from the Mocha/ Arcadia Primary School said, while sharing her views on the strike.
“When the officials look at the classrooms, they want it to be rich but what they are giving us is not adequate. We, as teachers, have to put our hands in our pockets and buy items to make our classes look entertaining,” the teacher lamented.
At the Covent Garden Secondary and Nursery and Houston Secondary all the teachers showed up for classes. At the time of this publication’s visit, the schools had sessions ongoing and while not all students were being taught, they were closely being monitored by teachers present.
‘You will learn’
Meanwhile, Minister of Education Nicolette Henry chose to spend the first day of school in Region Six, where she was greeted by empty staffrooms and protesting teachers.
Henry visited schools throughout the region attempting to assure students that their education would not be affected by strike action. She told the students at the Berbice High School that Regional Education Officers were carrying out ground work and providing instructions as to what will be done.
“The decision is that we will have the students here, the teachers that are present, each and every child here would have left knowing that they would have done something,” she said, before adding, “You are here to learn and you will learn something each and every day
She further assured the students and parents that the ministry is monitoring the situation in order to ensure that the students and their education are not in danger.
Henry also stated that the problem at hand has to be discussed and negotiated so as for it to be resolved in an amicable and respectable way. However, until that time she said that students must continue to benefit from their education. She noted, “We have a responsibility to you and we also have responsibilities to the teachers.”
While the Minister gave this assurance, the situation in some schools was chaotic. At the Berbice High School, parents told Stabroek News that they were worried for their children, since they were being left unsupervised.
One parent said, “I support the teachers. It is high time for the teachers to get an increase in salary. I mean, is not what the teachers call for you can give them but you can give them something.”
He also stated that he supports the minister’s plan to have substitute teachers, since “you can’t keep them children away from school. Whatever they learn from the trainee teachers is better than nothing until the teachers turn out back to school.”
However, the man also called on the Minister of Education to stop playing “hardball” with the teachers, while noting that the children’s futures “are on the line” here.
Another parent said the school yesterday morning was in a state of confusion. “This is first year for my son, I want to know who is going to attend to them, what is their position, who is going to take care of them—you can’t just leave them like that,” the parent said.
Altab Khan, another parent from the West Coast of Berbice whose child started the Berbice High School yesterday, said, “It is not safe for them to be at school and I think this is something the ministry should have looked at. This is a high school, students are coming to from all over the county. I am taking my child back home.”
Another parent, Priscilla Lakeram, whose daughters started Berbice High School yesterday as well, also took her children back home, since there were not enough teachers present at the school. “The ministry said they would have sent retired teachers. There’s is nobody here; the four teachers that belong to the school said they can’t look at all the class at once, so the children would be left by themselves,” she said.
Meanwhile, parents also took their young children back home from the New Amsterdam Multilateral High School, while older students were seen roaming the streets of New Amsterdam between 9 am to 11 am. Students of the Vryman’s Erven Secondary School in New Amsterdam were also spotted roaming the town throughout the morning yesterday, as the schools were left unsupervised. Also at the Canje Secondary School students were forced to return home as well.
Retired teachers were deployed to various schools in New Amsterdam yesterday.
(With additional reporting by Bebi Oosman, Shamar Meusa and David Papannah.)