CSSI Pre-Ministerial Forum: a regional review on school safety in the context of systemic risk


The Caribbean Safe School Initiative (CSSI) Virtual Pre-Ministerial Forum opened on March 15, 2021 under the theme Regional Review on School Safety in the context of Systemic Risk. More than 20 countries and territories as well as multilateral agencies and other partners attended the event that addresses the Caribbean’s response to economic, human, natural and health crisis in the education sector.

The organizers of the 10 day event include the Ministries of Education of St. Maarten and St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), UNESCO, ISRAAID, and UNICEF.

Keynote speaker Raúl Salazar, Chief of UNDRRRegional Office for the Americas and Caribbean highlighted that the COVID 19 pandemic has demonstrated the systemic nature of risk generated by the extreme high levels of interconnectivity in our world today. Mr. Salazar pointed out that the education system is susceptible due to the physical condition of their infrastructure and to the social, economic and environmental factors that affect the region. A local crisis can quickly cascade across sectors and countries, leaving devastating impacts. Prolonged interruption of education brings greater risk. He therefore championed the call for a systemic approach to better understand the complexity of challenges that the education sector faces.

Some of the drivers of risk include limited budgets on school safety actions, gender inequality, deficiencies in school infrastructure, poor access to water and sanitation, limited access to internet connectivity, multi hazard vulnerability, inadequate use of preventative health services, slow economic growth, high debt, and lack of economic diversification. All of this is further compounded by the fact that the Caribbean is located in a basin prone to natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

This multi stakeholder Virtual Forum will therefore promote the sharing of lessons learnt from COVID-19, register improvements for existing policies and tools and lobby for the support of more countries in signing the Antigua & Barbuda Declaration on the Caribbean School Safety Framework at the third Ministerial Forum. It also sets the agenda for the Third CSSI Ministerial Forum to be held in St. Maarten in 2022. The CSSI is directly linked to the international agreements of the Agenda 2030, notably the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.

While education systems in the Region continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, executive director (ag.) of CDEMA, Elizabeth Riley charged the High-level delegations to recalibrate based on lessons learnt. She implored, “we are more successful when we work together….sign the Declaration, stake your claim in the CSSI, in many ways our future depends on it. She added that the CSSI had only come this far because of strong political leadership and support and a clear pathway for achieving an agreed vision. “While in the midst of a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic, the existential threat of climate change persists, there is an ongoing effusive disruption of Mt Soufriere in St. Vincent & the Grenadines and early forecasts reveal that we might be in for another active Atlantic Hurricane Season. If ever there was a moment in time which reinforces that we live with systemic risk, it is now.”

Since 2017 CDEMA has mobilized approximately US $2.5 million through the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), the Government of Norway, UNICEF and USAID. Its Model Safe School Programme (MSSP) has also delivered standardized school safety assessment tools including a mobile application. Among Riley’s key recommendations are for ministers to anchor schools’ resilience policies through a fully integrated school safety program in Education Ministries, budgeting for this and leveraging external funding such as the Green Climate Fund and the explicit inclusion of digital solutions in school safety programs.

Dr. Aloys Kamuragiye-UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean noted that a preexisting learning crisis has been exacerbated by COVID 19 in the Region. He further stated that there is significant evidence globally that schools are not among the main drivers of the pandemic. “Governments must prioritize reopening of schools in a safe manner. Schools should be the last institution to close and the first to open. Investments in strengthening capacity and distance education is needed,” he added.

In her opening remarks, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction Mami Mizutori said that the Caribbean is exposed to the entire spectrum of natural hazards. “This has been a tremendous test for the Caribbean…nevertheless more than half of Caribbean countries now have their schools open…it is testament to the value of crosscultural collaboration to mitigate systemic risk”, Ms. Mizutori affirmed.

Drawing from his own country’s experiences the Hon. Curtis King, Minister of Education and National Reconciliation in St. Vincent & the Grenadines and co-host of the virtual forum called for countries to build resilience in the education sector. Hon Minister King stated that Dengue Fever outbreak, La Souffiere volcano eruption, COVID-19 and the hurricane season highlighted the nature of systemic risk. He stated that COVID-19 has impacted every sector of our region in ways we did not imagine. He further stated that St. Vincent & the Grenadines were far from ready for online teaching, but despite the odds, the Ministry of Education developed plans and put measures in place for continuity of education. “We must integrate comprehensive disaster management policies,” the current chair of the CSSI said. He made an appeal to stakeholders, development partners and governments to work together to create safe spaces at schools and make school safety a top priority in the region.

Incoming chair and co-host of the Virtual Forum, St. Maarten, has also seen its share of disasters. The Hon. Minister of Education, Culture, Youth & Sport drs. Rudolph E. Samuel highlighted that immediately following the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, St. Maarten St. Maarten installed the Safety & Emergency Management Committee (SEMC). The SEMC is commissioned to adapt the Comprehensive School Safety Framework at the national level; set up plans and strategies for safety and emergency management; continuous disaster preparedness and maintenance; and crisis management. That same year, St. Maarten began the consultative process on the school safety Roadmap; trained stakeholders on assessing hazards in schools; safety & Emergency Response guidelines were approved and schools began to work on their school safety & emergency plans. In 2019, safety & Emergency teams were installed in each school; school safety material was distributed to schools, school evacuation procedures were drafted and work began on the Safety Ambassadors Program for elementary schools.

In giving brief remarks on school safety, the hon. Minister of Education, Science, Culture & Sport of Curacao, Mr. Steven Croes stated that COVID-19 impacted financial, education and social sectors. Curacao has no experience in handling systemic risk, he stated. Policies on Safe School Infrastructure and Operations were developed; National Ordinance on School Safety was drafted and the inspectorate is guided by a Ministerial Decree on School Safety.

The Hon Vice Minister of Education for Technical and Pedagogical Affairs of the Dominican Republic Ligia Jeannette PerezPena informed that her country utilized multi media platforms to continue education, as well as booklets to reach every student. She further elaborated that a technical working group was created with various stakeholders and the general directorate of risk management in the Education Ministry. They are engaged in discussing the return of schools. April 6, students will return to school via a public health protocol in a gradual manner in various municipalities. Primary school students will return first as a pilot because social distancing has had a real impact on younger children. Creating resilient schools is a priority for us. Speaking on behalf of the Minister of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports of Montserrat, Permanent Secretary (ag.) Lyston E. Skerritt stated that it is important to look back to what are the needed items and although policy, protocol and law are important, COVID-19 taught us that there are some minimum needs when it comes to access to education that we need to focus on. Simple things like transport, food, shelter, academic resources & support for psychosocial development. He further added that the added value of trained teachers was seen and that we must continue to recognize their innovation despite the many challenges.

Later in the day, Permanent Secretaries of the Region provided updates on their preparation and response to COVID-19 and the hurricane season. They all related that while disasters exposed the severity of weaknesses in education management, opportunities have emerged to build back better and this must follow a systemic and inter-sectoral approach.

The Virtual Caribbean Safe School Initiative PreMinisterial Forum runs from March 15-March 26, 2021. Apart from the opening session, technical sessions have been planned surrounding School Safety Focal Points, National Disaster Management Directors, Inter Sectoral Partners, Youth, Education Practitioners and Finance Ministries.

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