Reopening school education sector still in recess

  • Lack of funds and direction adds to delay

After weeks of discussions, the Ministry of Education has come to the realisation that they are short of funds to implement the necessary amenities to enable schoolchildren, school administrations, and the staff to wash their hands.

While hand washing is the first step towards Covid-19 prevention, there seems to be many other facilities and procedures that need to be implemented prior to schools reopening. For now, the date to reopen schools seems to be undecided with the Ministry indicating each week that they would take a decision the following week.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Ministry of Education Secretary N.H.M. Chithrananda said: “The school system of Sri Lanka involves a lot of stakeholders and we have to look at all aspects before schools reopen. We had several discussions with the Ministry of Health to draft the guidelines for schools and next week, we will be meeting the Ministry of Transport officials to discuss the Sisu Seriya bus service, as well as the facilitation of commuting by train for the schoolchildren and teachers.”

In addition, the Ministry will also call the Private Bus Owners’ Association, the School Van Owners’ Association, and the All Island Inter District School Children Transportation Association to discuss the transportation guidelines on Monday, 8 June, Chithrananda noted.

Ensuring the safety of the children from the time they leave the house until they reach the school premises will be at the hands of the parents, and the Ministry of Education requests that the  parents take the initiative to ensure that their children’s safety can be assured. Upon reaching the school premises, the school administrations are to take the responsibility for the children and provide the necessary facilities, from washing hands regularly and maintaining respiratory etiquette when needed to maintaining physical distancing and monitoring mask-wearing.

“We need everyone to co-ordinate according to these guidelines and adhere to them. Principals, teachers, schoolchildren, school transport providers/drivers, and the general public will have to equally play a part to ensure the safety of the schoolchildren,” Chithrananda reiterated.

During the first phase of the reopening of schools, children as well as the school staff are to bring their meals from home as school canteens will not be allowed to commence operations to ensure hygiene practices are adhered to. The schools will also have to temporarily suspend the school lunch programmes as the schools will not be able to prepare the meals at the school premises due to health guidelines.

Schools will also be disinfected prior to the date the Government assigns for the schools to reopen and the support of military officials, health staff, and parents will be sought by the respective schools to carry out disinfection programmes.

Teachers not consulted

We spoke to Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin to inquire whether the school teachers or the trade unions representing teachers were involved in the many discussions that were held over the past weeks to reopen schools.

“It is with great disappointment that we observed the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health giving priority to discussions with private tuition class tutors, without even wanting to listen to what the school teachers had to say. The children attend schools and interact with the teachers for at least seven hours of their day, whereas private tutors will only interact with the children for less than two hours; we (school teachers) understand the requirements of children better than them (private tutors),” he said.

Stalin also noted that even before the schools closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the requirements of the school teachers had not been properly fulfilled by the Government. He went on to say that although the Ministry boasts that children are now learning online using smartphones and tabs, it is only a fraction of the schoolchildren and school teachers who have access to such facilities.

Moreover, some schools do not even have a teachers’ break room, for them to rest in between periods or even have their meals during the interval.

Next steps unclear

Stalin also questioned how the Ministry is planning to provide the necessary facilities to all schools, students, and teachers as it lacks funds.

“There are about 4.5 million children that attend school in Sri Lanka; if wearing a mask is compulsory for everyone, even these children will have to wear face masks in schools. The Ministry promises that they would provide the teachers and principals with face masks as well. However, we are yet to see a workable plan and the execution of all these suggestions,” Stalin added.

Stalin also stated that officially, the amount that is allocated to build the hand-washing facilities at schools is Rs. 80 million and although the Minister stated that a sum of Rs. 680 million is to be allocated to build the necessary facilities, there seems to be a lack of funds even within the Government itself.

Once the date to reopen the schools is decided, the teachers are ready to go to the schools a week prior to the starting date and prepare for the schools to reopen. Stalin also revealed that these days, school teachers are summoned for meetings by the zonal education directors, and meetings that span for nearly three hours are regularly held.

“Not only teachers but parents too are asked to attend these meetings. If the date to start schools is not yet decided, we do not see a purpose for these meetings. First of all, the Ministry needs to look at supplying the necessary funds/ equipment for the schools to build the required facilities and to purchase the cleaning/disinfecting fluids. Schools can be disinfected just a week ahead from its starting date,” Stalin reiterated.

The Union also stated that it is not happy with the way the Ministry is going about with the guideline preparation to reopen schools, and that it is not clear on how the Rs. 680 million stated by the Minister will be effectively used to build the necessary amenities, when in reality, only Rs. 80 million is officially passed.

Printed learning material for Grade 1 and 2 students

A learning package for Grade 1 and 2 students that can be used at home, even without television or internet facilities, was introduced by the Government of Australia, UNICEF Sri Lanka, Save the Children, Room to Read, and ChildFund Sri Lanka, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Education (NIE).

These learning materials have been prepared targeting the nearly 6,500,000 students in Grades 1 and 2 of the primary education stage out of the total student population in Sri Lanka and by now, these learning materials have been dispatched to provincial education departments.

The learning package would help students in Grades 1 and 2 do the activities related to the subjects of their mother language, mathematics, and environment in Sinhala or Tamil medium. The Ministry of Education emphasised that it is important and essential that the parents direct and assist their children who are confined to their homes to use these learning materials.

Initiatives have been taken to prepare these learning materials and provide them to the students of primary grades as one step of the financial aid of AUD 1.5 million announced by the Australian Government recently, in order to provide opportunities for the children in this country to face the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic and to work positively.

UN Resident Co-ordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer, UNICEF Representative for Sri Lanka Tim Sutton, UNICEF Sri Lanka Education Head Takaho Fukami, Room to Read Country Director Shevanthi Jayasuriya, and Save the Children National Director Julian Chellappa participated in this event. Several officers including Secretary to the Ministry of Education N.H.M. Chithrananda, Senior Advisor to the Education Ministry Dr. M. Upali Sedara, Secretary to the State Ministry of Education Ranjith Chandrasekara, and National Institute of Education Director General Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratna also participated.

Stages of a school reopening

  • Prior to bringing in the staff or students of the school, the entire premises will be disinfected and be left for about four days for the chemical fumes to clear off from the buildings
  • Necessary facilities will be established for staff and students to wash their hands at the entrance of the school and hand sanitisers can be placed at the entrance of the classrooms
  • Principals, headmasters, and teachers will be required to report to work in the first week and they will have to discuss how the timetables will be managed along with the seating arrangements for the students
  • If necessary, a meeting should be held for parents and school van/bus operators on the safety measures they need to take from the time the child leaves the house until they arrive at school or while they are being transported to school
  • The school can bring in students from Grade 10 upwards. Once the senior students are in, they can be instructed as to how they should disinfect their classroom furniture and school instruments
    after use on a daily basis
  • The rest of the students can be brought in later on and the senior students could guide them on how to follow good hygiene habits and keep the classrooms clean