Turning back now to national issues coming out of today's prime ministerial press conference, the subjects is education, and that burning question: "when will school re-open?

Schools have been closed since March 20th - that's over two months! And, even at 46 days and counting without a COVID case. There's still no plan to re-open them. And, truth be told, it doesn't even appear to be a priority - not like tourism, not even close. Matter of fact, the Prime Minister didn't even mention it in his two thousand word press conference opening remarks today. We had to ask him about it - and here's that exchange:

Education Minister Discusses Options for Continuing School

After the PM was finished, Education Minister Patrick Faber agreed to a teleconference interview to discuss what is - or what is not - going to happen with the rest of the school year, which is rapidly winding down.

The Government and the Ministry of Education are not yet prepared to reopen classes, and we'll tell you why shortly. But, the Ministry is making exceptions for those schools in which classroom contact time is mandatory.

Here's what the Education Minister had to say about those types of schools, and how social distancing protocols will be strictly followed:

Hon. Patrick Faber - Minister of Education
"We strongly believe that because of the practicality of things, it will be difficult for us to re-open schools, although I've not made that formal announcement, nor will I make it at this point. We're still looking at the right time to do that. It is for obvious reasons. There is still a great deal of productivity that we are hoping can come from this school year, and that, again I repeat, has to be through home-based learning. I listened to the press conference where your media house, via Jules Vasquez, asked the Prime Minister particularly about why is it that we're not even piloting - trying to toy with the idea of allowing certain schools to re-open. And I'll say that in some respects, we are doing that. I think the Prime Minister alluded to that this morning. There was a particular request from UB Toledo, for instance, for them to have students at least go back on the compound because of connectivity issues and internet issues. These students come from very remote areas, and for them to log on to the classes, they need internet access. So, we said to UB, it's okay for you to go ahead and to allow students back onto the compound, providing you follow social distancing protocols, which I believe, they had ready on hand."

But, for the vast majority of schools, classes remain closed because there are no finalized protocols on how students will be able to attend and comply with the State of Emergency regulations on social distancing and social groupings. Today, the Education Minister told us that he has heard the critics loud and clear about Belize being COVID-free for over a month now. Here's how he explained why it's not so simple as deciding that classes should resume next week Monday:

Hon. Patrick Faber - Minister of Education
"There are those who say well, everything is on the low now, no new COVID cases for in excess of 45 days, why don't you open back schools now? You see, it is not that simple. We have to be ready. We have to ensure that we have the proper protocols in place. We have to make sure that we are still abiding by the regulations that the Ministry of Health and other health authorities insist on in this country. Let's say we open a school, and there is a 3-feet regulation, we have to know that when a class size comes of 30 children - right now, there are classes in primary schools and probably even in secondary schools where you have 30 or more kids in a classroom. So, if the social distancing, the physical distancing protocols require that you spread out those kids in that classroom, and you cannot expand the classroom to accommodate all 30 of them with that social distancing - physical distancing regulation - then what are we going to do? Are we going to put some in the morning, put some in the evening? All of this requires proper planning, and if we allow our people to just do whatever it is they want to do, it will create havoc. So, we're trying to proceed in an organized way. We're trying to proceed in a very safe manner in which we believe all will be able to benefit from."

"Let's come up with protocols - and that is what our ministry is actively pursuing now - protocols as to how we are going to approach this situation, and then share it with our schools, so that they can be ready for a prescribed time."

"What is determined to be the end of the current school year? When does it end?"

Hon. Patrick Faber - Minister of Education
"It varies depending on the level. Primary school, in our normal schedule, would be completed at the end of June. And so, as you can imagine, we're at the end of May. That gives us an entire month more of primary school engagement, a month more if we're following the ministry's recommendation of home-based learning activities. For high schools, it's a bit different. The high schools in the upper form of 4th form, those who are graduating, graduations normally happen in the last of May, the first week of June, and then, the rest of the high schoolers normally continue into the second or third week in June. So, even that. This is why we're so hesitant to say, you know what, the school year is over. There is still a lot that can be salvaged. And again, my appeal can only be to all the players, the parents, the students themselves, the management of the school, the teachers who should be engaged with their students, to say listen, let us try as best as we can. The situation is not ideal, but let us try as best as we can to get the best bang for our buck out of this situation."

Another consideration that the Education Ministry has to tackle is how the government will address all those students from Guatemala who cross the border to attend school in Belize. The borders are still closed, and Guatemala, like the other neighboring Central American countries, is still contending with increasing cases of COVID 19. The concern is that these Guatemalan students could emerge as carriers for COVID-19's second wave in Belize. Today, the Education Minister told us that the Government doesn't have an answer for this yet:

Hon. Patrick Faber - Minister of Education
"It is a serious concern for our ministry, although it is not a matter for our ministry alone. In fact, I'm told that over the course of this week, there was a meeting held with all the necessary ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, the Immigration folks, and our Ministry, to determine what would happen in cases like these."

"It is particularly Guatemala, and students - we have a good number of students who come across the border and are enrolled in our high schools. We have allowed for this to happen - well, it is probably has happened for many many years. But, of recent times, especially whenever things flare up with the Belize/Guatemala issue, this concern is raised, and there are those who believe that we should not allow Guatemalan students to engage in our schools at all. However, as a matter of confidence-building measures, this has been touted as something good, and so, we have allowed some of this to happen."

"The question of what will happen when CXC - CSEC - starts on July 13th? There are some 4th form students who live in Guatemala who have to take that exam. And if our borders remain closed at that time, how is it that they are expected to come across to take these exams and engaged, if a new school year starts. These are questions that, if left strictly up to the Ministry of Education, we would have our position, and our position would be clear. But, there is a greater issue with all of this, those very same relationships that we have bilaterally - Belize and Guatemala, trying to build confidence and all of that. So, I wouldn't want to pronounce on it just yet. All I'll say is that these matters are in discussion. The relevant ministries and players are discussing it to come up with a conclusion as where we're going to go with such students."

Channel 7