Preschool children far more disciplined than older students
State Minister says education must continue as preschools open in WP today
The number of Covid-19-positive cases reported keeps increasing by the day, both in the Western Province and the rest of Sri Lanka. In fact, the island reported its highest daily tally of Covid-19-positive cases of 975 on 9 February, demonstrating the scale of this growing problem.
It is against this backdrop that preschools in the Western Province, except those in high-risk areas, will reopen today (15). The Morning spoke to State Minister of Women and Child Development, Preschools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Education Services Piyal Nishantha De Silva yesterday (14) to inquire into the preparations for reopening preschools and the risks associated with this decision.
Following are excerpts of the interview.
Covid-19 transmission can occur within school settings and cases have been reported in schools. What is the level of preparation for reopening preschools in the Western Province today?
Preschools outside of the Western Province reopened a few days ago, as per the instructions given by the health authorities, I believe in the safety of the child and the need for timely education. We are also concerned about the difficult financial circumstances of preschool teachers. We held several discussions with Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris, union leaders, and officers regarding this issue and finally decided to reopen preschools on 15 February under strict guidelines, with preschools in high-risk areas remaining closed.
The respective regional co-ordinating committees were advised to identify low-risk areas in the Western Province. Based on the recommendation of these committees, we made the final decision. We have decided to provide paddle sinks and temperature assessment devices to 19,668 preschools covering 13 districts including the Western Province.
Many students are unlikely to be sent to school due to their parents’ fear of Covid-19 infection. How do you take up this challenge?
We strongly rely on committee recommendations or we would have not permitted to reopen preschools. Education disruptions caused by the pandemic were huge and one year has gone without any education for preschool children. Early childhood education is the first stage of a holistic model that creates supportive and constructive learning for children of all ages. Young children, especially those under the age of five, need exposure to early stimulation and need to learn life skills that will prepare them for school and day-to-day life.
How do you plan to maintain distance among preschool children?
We have already instructed parents and teachers through awareness programmes. One teacher will handle only 20 kids and not more than that. At schools with large classrooms with necessary space, teachers can partition the classrooms to ensure distancing. In schools without such space, the teachers can bring students to class in batches, so that the available space will be utilised in a safe manner. If there is considerable space in the school, then they can start without a problem. We can’t allow kids to be packed into small classrooms. That’s why I said preschools should be reopened according to health guidelines.
How can you make sure distancing is maintained when these children are playing?
What I have seen, based on my experience as a teacher, is that preschool children are far more disciplined than primary or secondary schoolchildren. They lose that discipline when they go to schools sometimes. But in the preschool, they are disciplined. When they are having lunch or engaging in activities, there is a lot of discipline. Preschool teachers ensure that this discipline is maintained. So I don’t foresee a problem in restarting preschools because of this factor.
Even in practical group activities, distancing will have to be maintained. How would this be possible?
Normally group activities are carried out with a certain distance maintained between the students. This can be seen even when they are engaging in a sport.
You said there are 19,600 preschools around the island. Will all of these open today?
To open we need the approval of the regional committees and the divisional secretariat.
How many in the Western Province will open?
That I can’t tell you right now. I will have to check tomorrow (15).
Will rapid antigen tests be conducted on students before permitting them to enter the school?
No, we can’t do rapid antigen tests for every student. We have given instructions to parents to inform us if the child has a high temperature. In addition to that, the students are trained and educated on following the health guidelines and only then are they allowed to enter the classroom.
You are also the State Minister of Women Development. In your opinion, do women belong in the workplace or at home?
It’s not about whether a woman “belongs” at home or the workplace – it’s about ensuring that women have the respect they deserve and that they are financially secure while maintaining the family unit. We must work towards ensuring that women contribute to the growth of the nation. This is what we are working towards with the programmes we have planned.
We see that a lot of the programmes conducted for women target urban or semi-urban women. What about the rural woman. Isn’t she neglected?
Successive governments have tried to empower and uplift the rural woman. But while these initiatives sound good conceptually and are given a lot of media coverage and awareness, we must admit that the real impact these programmes have had at the grassroot level is not great. We plan to conduct an impactful and effective series of programmes aimed at rural women, which will fill this gap.
For example, we have a programme called “Diyaniya”, which is a new concept of my ministry. Through this programme, I have travelled to 13 districts to ascertain the issues faced by women and girls on the school and personal levels. What I learnt is that in certain rural areas, girls don’t attend school three to four days each month due to menstruation and the lack of feminine hygiene products. Different political leaders have spoken about this over time, but none has provided a solution. That is why we have decided to provide free sanitary napkins to 250 schools around the island in the first phase for a year.
What action do you plan to take to minimise incidences of rape?
I believe there should be punishments for rapists. The legal situation at the moment is not the best. If somebody gets sexually abused or raped, the verdict in the court case takes 10 or 15 years to be delivered, when it should ideally be done in two or three years. So the victim who has faced physical and sexual abuse ends up facing prolonged psychological abuse through this lengthy and cumbersome legal process. we should create the environment for the victim to reintegrate into society. But what happens is her situation goes from bad to worse and her entire future is ruined.
We have set up a date to discuss this issue with the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Prison Reforms. We have also discussed with the relevant officials. Even the attention of the President and the Prime Minister has been drawn to this. One proposal is to build separate women and child courts, and the other is to conclude cases in a timely manner and deliver the verdict as soon as possible.
When is the meeting with the Justice Minister scheduled to be held?
We have planned to hold it on a day when Parliament convenes in a committee room in Parliament. We are having discussions to set a date for this meeting.
What plans do you have for the upcoming Women’s Day falling on 8 March?
We are planning to mark International Women’s Day for seven days across seven districts. This will be called a “Women’s Week”. The main programme will be titled “Ammawarune”. This will be held under the auspices of the President and the Prime Minister, and will also be telecast live nationally. My aim is to extend Women’s Day, which has always been celebrated on only one of 365 days, into a 365-day, year-round event. Even Children’s Day should be celebrated year-round.
For the first time, Women’s Day will be celebrated officially for seven days from 8-14 March and these seven days will be packed with events and programmes related to women. In addition, we will conduct programmes in every divisional secretariat.