***Updated Friday 9am with additional information from Thursday’s press conference.***
Starting Friday, 24 Sept., all students over the age of 5, and all staff, must wear masks inside all public and private schools.
Lawmakers did not mention the mask mandates during a press conference held Thursday afternoon, but late Thursday night GIS issued a press release stating that Cabinet had approved a bevy of regulations, including the wearing of masks in schools.
According to the regulations, “Any person over the age of five years old who is indoors [in] a public place, including an educational institution, and is unable to, or does not maintain a distance of six feet from every other person, shall cover that person’s mouth and nose with a mask or cloth face covering”.
The regulations contain exemptions for people who are unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition, and for people while they are sitting at their desks.
The new regulations effectively extend to private schools the government’s earlier requirement that all public school students over the age of 5 wear masks.
Government’s response to COVID-19 was spurred by the recent outbreak in the community that as of Saturday, 19 September, had affected 18 students at George Town Primary School.
That primary school has been closed since Tuesday, 14 Sept. and will remain closed until at least 29 Sept.
Department of Education Services Director Mark Ray said in an email Thursday night, “The staff, students and families that were tested are still required to isolate. Public Health has indicated the 14 day isolation period ends Sept 29, and at that point we will be guided by their advice.”
During Thursday’s press conference, Premier Wayne Panton noted that none of the 18 students had experienced severe COVID symptoms, and that all were either now asymptomatic or were feeling mild effects from the virus.
During the press conference, Cayman Current journalist Kayla Young posed a number of questions related to education, including what government’s strategy will be going forward in terms of closing schools in response to future COVID outbreaks.
Premier Panton said the government wouldn’t automatically shut a school down in case of a single positive COVID result, as happened at George Town and last year at Red Bay Primary School.
Going forward, he said the government’s response would depend on the severity of the outbreak, and that the focus will be on increased monitoring of students and quick isolation before COVID has the chance to spread.
“I think down the road we are looking at scenarios where if a child is positive, they would end up going home and not participating in school. Depending on the numbers of people that are found to be positive, we might have a different conclusion in terms of what happens to a school,” Panton said.
“It might happen that if there are a suspected significant number of positives — so a lot of spread — you might have a school being shut down temporarily,” he said. “But where we want to get to, effectively, is a situation where we’re doing a lot of surveillance. We have strong policies in place that we can identify if there are children who have come up positive for whatever reason, however they’re exposed.”
Then those children would be isolated from the rest of the school population, and in the meantime would have access to virtual learning from home.
Toward the goal of more testing, Panton said the government is investing in rapid lateral flow tests that are less accurate than the gold standard PCR tests, but can produce results in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
Deputy Premier Chris Saunders gave his vote of confidence in Minister of Education Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, saying she has been preparing for COVID’s resurgence throughout the past year, for example by requesting funds to provide masks to public school students who ride the bus, and personally has even continued to wear a mask in public even while there was no documented community transmission in Cayman.
“She is one of the most cautious persons you’ll ever meet in your life, and I can [tell] you this as a parent: I actually sleep better knowing where she stands where it comes down to protecting our kids,” Saunders said. “Because I can tell you one thing; she has a passion when it comes down to those children, and she does not hesitate.”