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Schools –– just dusty places

Todays WomanThe discussion about the “fat tax” in Barbados has only solidified in my mind that we bring no seriousness to national discussions. While food is a contributing factor to the generally unhealthy state of many Barbadians, there are two other much more crucial factors, in my opinion.

Barbadians need to be sold a widespread and affordable programme for movement and exercise. Still too many Barbadians are not engaging in any type of movement, and the phenomenon is starting from very early ages.

Movement is seen as a peripheral curriculum activity, and while secondary schools have been regularized, the primary school still does not have a designated post of physical education teacher. Floating teachers usually carry physical education, with the result that teacher absence seriously affects what the children do.

There is no national scholarship available for individuals who do well in sporting endeavours, and the premium on being active for lifelong health is still very underdeveloped.

With research showing that diet alone is not the key component in staying healthy, a rebate on gym membership and sporting equipment could perhaps save more money in the national purse over time than a “fat tax” could ever generate.

The other crucial factor in the wellness of the nation which we are significantly overlooking is the unhealthy plants in which we educate our children. It is my belief that some of the non-communicable diseases they eventually develop in their adult years begin right there in the classrooms they occupy as their bodies change and develop between three and 16.

The most recent case happens to be the Lawrence T. Gay Memorial Primary School; but this issue of environmental upkeep and management is a perennial problem in our island. Schools are dusty places.

There are books stored in what are largely still wooden cupboards. These cupboards become worm-eaten and infested, and there is never money to replace them in a timely fashion.   

Although much of the world has left chalk and board behind, we continue to use this mechanism as the main method of teaching. The dust from the chalk settles over various crevices and crannies in the classroom and in the corners. Where schools have decorative blocks to assist wind flow, the chalk dust particles also settle between the block slats.

Teachers are some of the biggest “pack rats” ever. We are always begging for resources and we never want to throw anything away because it could always be handy for another purpose. If we can get an old filing cabinet from a family member in the private sector, we take it.

We are always begging for paper ends from printeries, and there are at least a million charts the average teacher will make and seek to recycle in the span of a decade of teaching.

Schools do not have storerooms or offices for teachers (at the primary level), and when our cars and houses become full, the rest is placed in garbage bags at strategic points around the classroom. All this contributes to the clutter and dust in the classroom.

There does not seem to be a regular routine for cleaning staff across Government schools that is geared specifically at dust control and general maintenance. When ancillary staff sweep at the end of the day, it is more with a view to “straightening the classroom” for the next day.

In many cases, chairs and tables, cupboards and other items of furniture are not shifted.  The wiping down of tabletops and cupboard tops are is not a regular practice, and when teachers do their own cleaning in preparation for handing over a class at the end of the year, one would be spellbound at the amount of debris removed from the classroom.

It is not surprising then that many of our schoolchildren fall ill with symptoms that could be suggestive of fungus and mould build-up.

One after one, we close schools and open them again, but there is still no overarching policy instituted to ensure they are cleaned in an effective manner.
It is absolutely farcical that we could treat the health of our children with such scant disrespect.

How hard can it be to institute a cleaning programme that is carried out by ancillary staff and supported as necessary by industrial cleaning? Would this not cost less than having to relocate an entire school roll during the term?

Apart from that, there are some schools in Barbados which have simply been built in areas that are unacceptable for such plants. We need to pay attention to several of the school plants we have on the island; but these to me are the most urgent ones:

St Ambrose School is located downwind of the smoke stack that funnels the smoke of the medical waste burnt at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. We have a full complement of children between three and 11 who go to that institution daily to learn.   

There are teachers whose mouths and nasal passages are always open as they raise their voices to ensure their wards can hear them.

Parkinson Memorial Secondary School is located downwind of a major highway. With no measure of gas and car emissions in the country, we have no idea how much poisonous exhaust those students and teachers are inhaling at the school.

Combermere School is also located between two busily trafficked town roads and the issue of traffic emissions is also relevant in relation to this plant.

Luther Thorne Primary School is located downwind of a car garage that uses chemicals and sprays in its daily routine. There seems to be an unusually high presence of asthma in the school population, and we should be doing studies to ensure the air quality of the plant is constantly monitored and that there is no danger
to these teachers and children as they go about their daily business.

The Ministry of Health does not keep databases or tracers of children who go to these high-risk schools to ensure there are no trends that should worry us. Therefore, when the island wants a bit of comic relief, we seek to jump on the bandwagon of the “fat tax” instead of realizing we are making a complete and utter mockery of our environmental health management in this country.

How much more of this do we want to do? Aren’t you tired of living in a country where governance is a complete farce? We are not talking Bee or Dee now; we are talking about all of us and the unravelling of a society. 

(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.

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