Schools reopen – Contradictory guidelines burden teachers

By Sarah Hannan

Schools will face practical issues once students start the second term of the academic year from Monday (6) onwards as the lack of clear and concise messaging cascaded from the Ministry of Education to the provincial and zonal education offices, which then trickled down to the schools, has now presented a problem to teachers and school administrators alike.

The initial guidelines that were issued to schools have by now undergone several amendments.

However, the amendments have not been officially communicated by way of a ministry or department circular to schools.

Moreover, some schools still have to figure out how to supply water for children to follow handwashing etiquette, as 528 schools out of the 10,200 are not located near a water source, as said by the Minister of Education Dullas Alahapperuma himself.

The Sunday Morning inquired from Ministry of Education Secretary N.H.M. Chithrananda whether these issues have now been addressed.

“What the Minister said is true. Some schools do not have a water source in the vicinity, and we suggested that the schools look at building a water storage tank or purchasing water tanks that could be fitted in the school. The local government is to then supply water to these schools by way of water bowsers as required,” he said.

Responding to the question on the guidelines, Chithrananda noted that the initial guidelines that were issued through the Ministry of Health still stand. However, minor changes have been made considering the discomfort that students might face having to wear a face mask for six to eight hours, and that temperature checks are not to be carried out.

Not officially communicated

“The Ministry has on several occasions stated that a face mask is not required. And since the controversy over purchasing thermometers, they have now decided that temperature readings need not be taken from students and staff.

“Yet, these amendments have not been communicated officially through a circular,” Ceylon Teachers Services Union General Secretary Mahinda Jayasinghe noted.

Jayasinghe also noted that, to date, neither the Ministry nor education offices had thought it essential to have a discussion with teachers or unions in order to understand the practical issues they would face once the school term commences.

“They have asked school authorities to split the students of a class in two to maintain physical distancing. While this is a workable move, the practical issue with that is that the teacher will have to repeat the class. Say we find a way to work around it, there are yet some schools which do not have sufficient teachers to teach subjects,” Jayasinghe pointed out.

Practical issues

While schoolchildren are required to wear a face mask while travelling to school, they will have to remove it when they enter the school premises. But whether the children will be wearing disposable facemasks or reusable ones is another question. If the former, how is the school going to manage the disposable waste in the form of face masks that get collected on a daily basis? If the child is wearing a reusable mask, what guidelines should they follow? What happens if the child catches a fever while travelling to school and how is the administration going to manage that situation?

Teacher unions have expressed their displeasure at the way the Ministry officials and the education officers at the provincial and zonal levels have been handling the matter.

“There have been so many discussions among the administrators, but at no point have they asked how we are going to manage the students when they start school.

“It is disappointing to know that the Ministry of Education had given priority to discuss matters with private tutors who conduct group classes for students. Why are they neglecting the teachers at schools?” Ceylon Teachers’ Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin questioned.

Stalin also pointed out that school teachers spend more time with children than a private tutor, and would be faced with logistical issues when having to deliver the syllabus. Some schools are yet to arrive at a decision on how they are going to manage the student populations once the entire school reopens by 10 August.

A teacher at a semi-government school in the Central Province noted that the schools have not thought about how the children will commute. If school vans and buses are restricted in transporting children to school, they would either be dropped off at school by their parents using their own vehicle or a taxi, while some students will have to use public transport to get to school.

“The school has decided to bring in students on alternative days at the moment, when grades 11-13 and grade five commences on Monday. We haven’t thought about the traffic that is going to be created around the school. Also, the school only has one entrance to the junior school and one entrance for the rest of the school. How we will be placing sinks to wash hands is also going to be another interesting exercise,” the teacher said.

He noted that the entrance at the junior school has space to fit only four sinks and the other entrance used by the rest of the school has a walkway from the main gate, which again allows only a limited amount of sinks to be fitted.

Photo: Screen grab from a school health-guideline awareness video