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Covid education crisis

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Open letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

We write to draw your attention to the serious situation faced by the 4.3 million student population in this country since March 2020 when the pandemic first appeared. There has not been any education for them in the last 15 months except for a few weeks when schools opened briefly, and a façade of online education received by a few at other times.

We have listed below some of the grave consequences of long-term school closures:

Due to an undue reliance on online education, more than half the children are left out of contact with their schools.

Left without guidance, teachers have adopted social media such as WhatsApp to send out notes and assignments connecting with whoever they could, even though the Census Department reported in 2019 that only 29% of the population accessed the Internet. Further, a survey of teachers representing large and small schools across all 25 districts carried out by the Education Forum Sri Lanka in November 2020 revealed that on average teachers were able to give a real-time classroom experience using software such as Zoom to only 5% of their students and another 40% were contacted via social media, leaving 55% without any contact. Some schools used ad hoc methods to share printed material with their students.

Even those receiving an ‘online’ classroom experience are subjected to ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching made worse by the mediation of a digital screen.

With no instructions to manage a heavy curriculum under these extraordinary conditions, teachers are rushing to cover the syllabus in the accustomed chalk and talk style. Zoom fatigue is causing even the small percent of children who are online to switch off from any learning, making online education a mere facade.

All children face loss of learning, and mental, physical, and emotional issues after being isolated for 15 months and more.

Students who have been stuck at home for long without physical interaction with friends and the simplest of activities at school face emotional problems, mental health issues, and even depression. These anxieties are compounded by the fear of facing national examinations, which are competitive and highly stressful. Also, not all home environments are safe for children. For some children, school is often the place where they find a respite. Isolated due to Covid-19, children have no escape from family conflicts and even violence, and some cases they themselves suffer physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

We urge the authorities to reflect on the above with the seriousness it deserves, and to implement the following measures with urgency:

* Develop and execute a plan for opening schools at the earliest possible.

*Vaccinate all teachers identifying them as frontline workers; Order low-cost test kits focusing on testing high-risk areas first; Decentralize decision making to allow each school to open to the maximum extent possible as per each local situation.

*Support schools and teachers to reach out to ALL home-bound children.

*Instruct schools to prioritize the education of the most vulnerable children and conduct distance education using offline methods as the base. Offline modalities can be discussed as needed; Support the teachers with funds for devices and other tools they need to adapt to the individual situation of each child; Instruct Grama Niladari level committees to work with schools to follow-up on social, emotional, nutritional, and other needs of each child in their jurisdictions.

*Reduce curricular and examination burden on home-bound students.

*Direct the National Institute of Education to identify essential learning competencies for those in Grades 1-11, noting that collegiate level grades 12-13 require different solutions; Postpone all national examinations and other competitive assessments to the end of 2022, noting that Advanced Level examination requires special consideration; Develop benchmark diagnostic tests for teachers to assess student learning; Trust the teachers to do the right thing.

*Continue with reduced curricular and examination burden as students get back to schools.

*Do not overload children with academic content. Focus only on getting them up to speed on essential competencies; Do not wait till 2023 to introduce proposed education reforms. Proposed reforms aim to reduce the examination-based content of the curriculum to 30% and enable activity-based learning for the other 70%. This is the moment to pilot the reforms. Trust our provincial, zonal, and divisional education experts and principals and teachers to experiment with minimum guidelines from the center. Circumstances have forced them to experiment without guidance from the center, anyway.

It would be a very grave mistake to trivialize or ignore this situation. The education crisis would be the one that would remain even after the pandemic settles. It could turn into a catastrophe with many children leaving school permanently, setting back past gains on school attendance. We are yet to find the effects of hours spent on the Internet without adequate preparation or supervision, or the Covid learning losses. Future youth will be entering a harsher & poorer post Covid19 world ill-equipped.

Civic groups across the country have been convening dialogues on all aspects of distance education during the pandemic. Resources are available on offline distance education, social-emotional learning, emergency preparedness of schools and other topics related to proposed solutions. We urge the government to seek help from all quarters including the cross section of signatory educationists, civil society organizations and other porfessionals here to prevent the covid education crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

 

Dr. Tara de Mel and

Dr. Sujata Gamage

Cofounders, Education Forum Sri Lanka

With Co-signees:

Ms. Angela Wijesinghe, President, All Ceylon Union of Teachers

Ms Ramanie Jayaweera, All Ceylon Union of English Teachers

Mr. Wasantha Dharmasiri, Association of Education Professionals

Prof. Shyama Banneheka, President – Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA)

Mr Somabandu Kodikara, Principal, D.S.Senanayake College, Colombo (Former)

Ms. Hiranya Fernando, Principal, Methodist College

Rev. Marc Billimoria, Warden S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia

Mr. Andrew Fowler-Watt, Principal, Trinity College (former)

Ms. Shanthi Dias, Principal, Methodist College (former)

Ms Shanthi Wijesinghe, Director, Seekers Pre-School

Ms Kumudini Nanayakkara, Director, Training Centre for Montessori Teachers

Rev. S. Philip.Nesakumar, Headmaster, St Thomas’ College, Gurutalawa

Mr. Lakshman Nonis, Veteran Science Educator

Mr Murtaza Esufally, Co-founder, Learn for Life Lanka

Mr. Heminda Jayaweera, Cofounder, Venture Frontier Lanka

Mr. Murtaza Jafferjee, Chairman, Advocata Institute

Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Chairman, LIRNEasia

Ms. Samadanie Kiriwandeniya, Managing Director, Sanasa International

Mr. Amar Goonatileka, CEO, Marga Institute

Rev. Duleep de Chickera, Anglican Bishop, Colombo (former)

Ms Ruwanthie de Chickera, Playwright and Theatre Director

Mr Raga Alphonsus, Activist, Mannar, www.openesrilanka.org

Mr Anushka Wijesinghe, Economist

Dr. Januka Attanayake, Research Fellow, U of Melbourne

Ms. Kavindya Tennekoon, Social-Emotional Learning Researcher; Founder, Without Borders

Ms Evan Shanthini Ekanayake, Psychologist

Mr. H.D.Gunawardena, Retired Company Chairman & Eisenhower Fellow

Ms. Dilani Alagaratnam, Attorney-at-law

Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe, Consultant Paediatrician

Dr Susie Perera, DDG, Ministry of Health and Eisenhower Fellow

Dr Ruvaiz Haniffa, President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (former)

Dr. D. C. Ambalavanar, Faculty of Medicine, Jaffna

Dr. Mahim Mendis, Open University Sri Lanka

Prof. Saumya Liyanage, University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo

Prof. Priyan Dias, University of Moratuwa

Dr. Thaiyamuthu Thanaraj, Professor, OUSL (former)

 

Prof. Shamala Kumar, University

of Peradeniya

Ms. Sulakshana de Mel, Governing Council, Women’s Education and Research Centre



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Opinion

Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady

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I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.

NIHAL DE ALWIS

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Opinion

Independence celebrations for whose benefit?

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Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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Opinion

Aftermath Of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne’s Assassination

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It was on Saturday March 2, 1991 when that fateful LTTE bomb blast shattered the life out of Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne, Minister of Plantations and Deputy Minister of Defence, in front of the Havelock Road University Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha.

Mr. Wijeratne used to take the same route from home to office every day. The LTTE had monitored his movements and found that it would be easy to target him on his way to office from a strategic point after receiving the information of his departure from home.

The LTTE targeted his vehicle right in front of the University of Colombo Women’s Hostel opposite Keppetipola Mawatha. The suicide bomber crashed into the Deputy Minister’s vehicle and killed the Minister instantaneously.

I had dropped our elder son at Royal College for scouting and then went to the public library to return some books and borrow new ones. After having done that, I was returning home when I saw a large cloud of black smoke going up from somewhere on Havelock Road. As I neared Thummulla junction, a university vehicle (I was Registrar of the Colombo University) was going in the opposite direction.

I stopped it and asked the driver what had happened. He said the Shanthi Vihar restaurant at the Thummulla had been set on fire. The police did not allow vehicles into Havelock Road from Thummulla. I parked the car on Reid Avenue between Thummulla and Lauries Road and walked down the Havleock Road to see what exactly had happened.

As I got onto Havelock Road, a policeman accosted me and told me that I cannot be allowed to proceed. Fortunately, at that moment the OIC of the Bamabalapitiya Police station, Mr. Angunawela, came to that spot and recognizing me told the police constable to allow me to proceed.

As I walked down I saw the damage caused. But there were no signs of any vehicle or any dead bodies as the police had got everything removed. There was a large gaping hole on the road where the blast had occurred. But immediately this was filled up and that section of the road carpeted.

I do not know who had ordered it and why it was done in such a hurry. There were pieces of human flesh hanging from the overhead telephone wires. The blast had also affected the house in front where there was a P& S outlet and a lady who had come to buy something had got her eyes blinded by the shrapnel thrown by the blast.

The parapet wall and the Temple flower (araliya) trees that had been grown just behind the wall were all gone. As I went into the hostel, I saw that the front wall of the hostel building badly damaged. When I went in the girls in the hostel were looking terrified and shivering with fright.

Two of the undergraduates who had gone out of the hostel as they had to sit an examination in the university had got very badly injured and they been rushed to the national hospital. Later one girl who was from Kobeigane, a remote village in the Kurunegala area, succumbed to her injuries. The university paid for her funeral. The security guard who had been close to the gate was thrown up and landed back on the ground. Fortunately, he had no injuries other than feeling groggy.

The next job was to evacuate the hostelers from the building. I telephoned the university office and found the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of examinations was in office. I told her what had happened and to come to the hostel in a van. Thereafter both she and I packed all the hostelers in the van and sent them to the Bullers Lane Women’s hostel. This was done in three trips.

On inspecting the damage done to the hostel I thought the building would have to be demolished and a new building constructed to replace it. However, I contacted an Engineer, Mr. Upasena, at the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB,) who came, inspected the damage to the building and stated that he will get it repaired to be stronger than what it was.

He stated that it might cost around Rs, 20,000/- to get the repair done. I contacted NORAD and they agreed to give the funds required for the repair and renovation. Mr. Manickam from NORAD came and inspected the building and agreed to get much more done than what we wanted repaired and renovated. The repair and renovation were done very quickly and the hostelers were able to move in again.

The reopening ceremony was attended by the then Ambassador to Norway, Mr. Manickam and the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice- Chancellor thanked the Ambassador, Mr. Manickam and the CECB for getting the hostel repaired and renovated to be used again. He never mentioned what I had done to get this hostel repaired and habitable again. That is gratitude!

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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