An open letter to the Minister of Education

As a student currently sitting for her A-levels and Intermediates in the September 2020 Special Session, I am not happy with the situation at hand. It is a hard situation for everyone, but matters can be handled differently when it comes to exams that determine the future of students and their prospective courses in several institutions and careers.

A few days ago, I came up with the initiative to create an event for students, where we planned to send a bulk of emails to several ministers, including Hon. Dr. Bonnici, Hon. Mr. Fearne, the Superintendent of Public Health and the MATSEC board together with its director, Mr. Pirotta. The idea grew and we managed to send over 100+ scheduled emails in this manner: Students sitting for their exams this year sent an email at 8 am, parents of these concerned students sent one at 9 am and students who just wished to lend a hand sent another bulk at 10 am; to create an hourly “reminder” so to speak.

Unfortunately, the replies where auto-generated ones from Dr. Bonnici and the MATSEC Board where they briefly said that the sessions will proceed as mentioned with the necessary protocol suggested by Health authorities a few days ago. The fact that these emails were not even read can be seen from the fact that even parents were wished luck for their exams, since their reply was generated as well. This was expected but needless to say, it was still a huge disappointment for each and every anxious student attempting to study at this time.

Furthermore, I would like to point out where our problems lie. With regards to the guidelines published from Health authorities in terms of how the exams will be handled, there are several problems which are being ignored.

  • The exam candidates will have their temperature checked prior entrance for their exams. Some students, including myself, know that the temperature will be high – as 5 minutes in the sun alone, increases it; and the students are required to wait outside for their exams in the heat.
  • The temperature may not show on asymptomatic students or staff, which then suggests that there will be a virus carrier among us. How do we know if the staff themselves are not carriers and asymptomatic, while checking our temperatures themselves?
  • Social distancing. This can be kept in the classroom, well and good, but what about the students waiting outside? Will there be staff seeing that social distancing rules are followed? What if some students can only go to the exam by bus? I do not assume there would be any social distancing there, adding risks to themselves and others around them.
  • If someone is found to be positive, what guarantee is there that vulnerable students are safe or that relatives of the students themselves are? Was there a plan thought out about such students or situations where students are found to be sick? I can go for my English A-level on the 29th August, get Covid-19 from the examination centre and then will not be able to attend my Pure Maths Intermediate exam, 11 days later. I am no medical expert, but I am sure that stress and anxiety levels lower the students’ immunity, making them more susceptible to disease. This could make them look sick and it could be thought of as Covid-19. What will happen in this case? Would the student be stopped from doing his/her exam?
  • The problem related to masks. How are they required to be worn in several places in Malta, including buses (where they are highly encouraged to be worn) and students can sit for their exams without them? I do not agree with sitting for an exam for 3 hours with a mask on but neither do I agree with someone being sick, with no mask on, possibly spreading disease – especially in classrooms/halls where fans could be present, spreading bacteria more and more.

If exams were to proceed being done under these rules, may I ask for an answer to the questions mentioned above as well as providing us with information regarding ventilation, air conditioners or fans (since it will still be summer weather and fainting or panic/anxiety attacks can easily occur) as well as more details about how the system will take place? We do not even have details on where our exams will be held, till this point. I did not expect that the student’s mental health, would be as overlooked as it is, when the government promotes advertisements for people to reach out for help in stressful times.

It is important to note that I DO want to do the exams as soon as possible; but personally, I believe this is not the best system to have at hand. I have not worked more than 13 years, to be faced by such a risky system which may falter my chance to study at university, and I am sure I am not the only student with this mentality.

On another note, some students, due to schools closing in March, did not manage to finish their syllabus in time and also had no help from their institutions to learn it. This automatically made them resort to private lessons, to which not everyone has the luxury of attending; especially since Covid-19 also brought up unemployment. This is another point which seems to be disregarded, yet a lot of people are calling us students “unfair” when suggesting systems that may seem to oppose other previous years’.

My main aim for this article is to ask for a back-up system that the students and general public are made aware of so as to know that if cases proceed to increase, and there would be no other choice but to cancel exams being done as they are planned to, students are not studying for nothing.

Other systems could be adopted including an online one, which I do not fully agree with due to having a high risk of cheating, but this system was adopted in other institutions; I did not hear as much backlash on it. I understand that not everyone is privileged to have the right equipment and Internet connection for such a system, so I propose that such students would have another system specifically for them. If so, another system could include students doing their exams on paper by a certain date and mailing them to MATSEC – this would probably have to be an open-book kind of examination. There could also be a system where students enter university on a probatory system where they have to do extra tests to pass their year (similar to the tests done for students who did not get a particular mark in English).

Having mentioned these points, I am aware that they are not as good as anyone would wish them to be, and that there would be multiple disagreements with them, but I am only a student suggesting a system to a group of intellectual adults; they are only points which can be built-on or disused, but a back-up plan is highly needed at this point in time.  I wish students are actually heard and understood; we are not creating excuses. We seem to be forgotten, yet coincidently, we are a huge part of our society’s future, even though it is bleak, with the examination system at hand.

Written by: Marelaine Formosa