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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

Talangama Wetlands in danger due to highway sanctioned by CEA

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I read with great interest the following articles published in the Sunday Island and Daily Island, “Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar” by Randima Attygala and “De-gazetting and Re-gazetting Gazettes” by Jomo Uduman. Then I came across another article in the Sunday Island, “Some politicians, businessmen don’t understand value of wetlands -Amaraweera “.  The Minister of Environment said this while addressing the media on World Wetlands Day and also stated, “The government had taken legal action against those who destroyed wetlands. Anyone who destroys wetlands will be brought to justice,” Minister Amaraweera also stressed that it was the responsibility of everyone to protect the wetlands.

The Talangama Wetlands is a gazetted EPA as per 1487/10 of 2007 where permitted uses are only fishing, bird watching and paddy cultivation. Shockingly, this very same Minister of Environment  has on 15th July 2021 signed an amendment to this gazette to also permit a four lane elevated highway to be built over these wetlands! This has been done while there are three Writ Applications pending in the Appeal Court pleading for the preservation of these wetlands as per this gazette. Is this possible? Can he and the CEA be in contempt of court? Why are they not considering the practical alternate route proposed by Prof Sarath Kotagoda? Are we seeing mega skulduggery in action here?

We also hear that a Chinese Company will build this elevated highway over a period of four years. The eating habits of many people in China are driving endangered animals there to extinction. Their favourites include monitor lizards, snakes, owls, eagles, exotic plants and small mammals all of which are trapped, killed, skinned and eaten.  According to the National Wetland Directory of Sri Lanka, 41 plant species, 90 bird species (13 are migrants), 12 species of reptiles, 10 species of mammals and 15 freshwater fish species have been recorded from the Talangama tank and its environs. How can we ensure that all of these fauna and flora will be preserved and not consumed during the four years of construction and the 15 years of operations thereafter? Will there be any left thereafter?Ministers and other public officials never answer queries from lesser mortals like yours truly.  So I do hope Mr. Editor that your newspaper will ask the Minister of Environment how and why he signed such a damning amendment to gazette 1487/10 of 2007.  Both gazettes are attached for your reference.

As the appointed custodian of the country’s environment, particularly the Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs) the Minister is accountable not only to the present generations of  the country, but also, to the unborn future generations, including the living animal and plant  species who are  without a voice, concerning the protection and preservation of their habitat and  environment. 

Denver David Hokandara

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Opinion

Disguises of belief and disbelief!

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A young father is bathing at the not so deep garden-well with his two kids and the bucket suddenly slips into the well. The little girls look distressed. Their dad thinks that it’s a good opportunity to have some fun at their expense. He pretends to be reflective for a few seconds and tells them that they had better let the bucket be in the well so that the fish could bathe with it! The kids seem scandalized and look at each other and at the father disbelievingly. The father enjoys his joke immensely- for a few seconds, though.

The elder kid picks up the bar of soap ingenuously and drops it into the well telling him “The fish need soap too, don’t they?” Now, it was the poor father’s turn to look dismayed- he had been too slow to have divined what she was up to. That’s hardly the climax, anyway. Down goes the towel next and the younger kid says, “Oh, don’t they need a towel too?” A visibly upset father whose sense of humour is no match for that of his progeny knows not where to put himself. True, the two scamps had looked confused at the beginning – but only for a moment. Next they pretended to believe that the fish actually needed soap and a towel, so that they could afford to have the last laugh by turning the tables on their father.

The episode narrated by a much wiser father to a sniggering audience of officemates the next day might provide comic relief to a layperson’s idle thoughts about belief and disbelief. Did the father succeed in wheedling the girls at least momentarily to visualize a weird shoal of fish bathing with a bucket? How did they, after recovering from the fleeting confusion, build on a blatant falsity to give it a preposterously logical end? Is there a neat fact/belief and fiction/disbelief pairing? Do we use trust and doubt at our own convenience to play the life’s game? Let the experts seek definitive answers. The rest of us may speculate.

Both belief and disbelief accompany us to the grave. They are not averse to sleeping in the same bed, and life is sure to be worrisome if you choose to hold on to one to the total exclusion of the other. And, each of them comes in handy every now and then. It seems as though scarcely anybody could live a normal life without judiciously shifting between these two states of mind- belief and disbelief, or, as some may call them – the twin gears for “cruising in life.” Perhaps, a person newly diagnosed with a terminal illness may find himself amidst the strongest currents of belief and disbelief; the others would navigate between the two consciously as well as unconsciously to the end.

Take children for example. They are natural skeptics and believers at once. Many parents find themselves out of their depth when their children start asking endless “why” questions about anything and everything they see, starting from things like the moon, fire, cow, puppy, shadow, wind, rain, sky or stars and moving towards “metaphysical” questions about birth, ageing, time and death. Even well-informed parents get stumped when they are called upon to explain why the moon and stars wouldn’t fall, why mommy and daddy too have to die one day or why dead people wouldn’t talk, much less wake up. Often the “explanations” need to be fashioned to suit their level of comprehension- so the parents think. The kids continue to believe in them with waning conviction as months and years roll by and sagaciously drop them in favour of more acceptable pieces for the jigsaw of their expanding “universe.”

Some kids “suspend disbelief” long before they hear of Coleridge. As children become smarter or “prematurely mature”- as some hardnosed adults may choose to describe them, they become more and more skeptical about their parents’ obviously guarded explanations on “delicate topics.” They discreetly “suspend disbelief” to avoid embarrassing their parents. Very few of them who may perhaps happen to google Coleridge later would remember that the latter’s counsel to his readers was a trick they had warily used as children to make their parents enjoy their own unimpressive “stories.” Thus, it is hardly likely that they would ever recall using the selfsame trick to optimize their harvest of goose bumps on their arms as they sat cuddled up on the lap of their grannies to listen to the adventures of the brave podi gamarala.

Feigning belief is not the exclusive preserve of children, although the two brats in the above anecdote made use of it to outsmart their father who subsequently became famous among his colleagues for his unlucky ingenuity. Clever grandparents play the same game when they readily believe that their grandchild, who suddenly gets a tummy ache on a Monday morning, is too sick to attend school. When the kid “recovers” too soon and asks for a piece of chocolate to go with the breakfast, she realizes that grandma’s credulity has a sting in the tail. The old lady wouldn’t hear of letting sick children eat sweets- she needs plenty of convincing that chocolates wouldn’t make a stomachache far worse!

Often there is little difference between feigning belief and believing- in the former you deceive the other; in the latter you deceive yourself, although you won’t often be aware of it. Take any instance where you are accustomed to taking something as a fact because you have believed in it for ages. For example, you believe that the two people whom you have called “parents” all your life are your biological parents – of course, no reason to verify unless something serious happens to make the identification necessary. So is the case with your siblings. It’s the unrivalled example of an intimate term of family relationships gradually acquiring the nuances of an established biological fact.

However, if you were to ask your “parents” to prove their parenthood, you would be considered weird or, worse still, insane. Such a doubt would surely be made to seem irrelevant and redundant by convention. However, in rare situations requiring scientific validation, such “irreverent” identification would be perfectly in order. As such, under ordinary conditions, our habitual belief as regards family relationships amounts to more or less culturally-sanctioned and convenient self-deceit. Here, what should be highlighted is that a perpetuated belief can often pass for fact leaving you to be ignorant of it all your life. Of course, many would hasten to point out that such ignorance is harmless, sure enough.

Generally, we are hardwired to believe. We believe what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Life would be practically impossible if we refuse to believe what our five senses communicate to us. For example, you suddenly spot a snake on your path but choose not to believe what your eyes report to you; you will immediately pay the price. In fact we have been relying so much on our physical perceptions that we hardly factor in “belief” in the transmission process. In other words, the vital role of “belief” in our sensory perceptions is taken for granted. Don’t we unconsciously provide proof of this when we say, “I could hardly believe my eyes.” As such, disbelief, with regard to physical living, is often the exception.

Faith in sensory perceptions is rarely challenged. When we look at the tree out there we ‘know’ that it is there and the question of “belief” scarcely arises. Yet, let’s take another example. Just as the tree in the garden, we “know” that there are stars in the sky, but we are told that perhaps some of them may not be there now, which immediately makes it clear to us that what we thought we knew was possibly an illusion. Only a scientific explanation of the phenomenon helps us to see our mistake.

So, we naturally take what we perceive through our senses to be a fact, and asking for proof is deemed redundant if not hilarious. However, we don’t necessarily have the same sense of complacency when it comes to responding to an explanation. For example, although we don’t ask for reasons to believe that stars are there, we ask for reasons if we were to believe astronomers when they claim that some of the stars visible now may have died out centuries ago. Thus, taking belief with a pinch of disbelief may perhaps make matters in life a little more wondrous and above all serendipitous.

Bernard Shaw is perhaps a bit too disparaging of belief when he says: “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

A tribute to Panadura hospital vaccination staff

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After many days of hesitations, reluctantly I joined the long queue of people to get the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccination for Covid-19 on Tuesday around 11.15 AM at the Panadura base hospital. It was not a very long queue comparatively as I had seen the queues on previous days.

The queue was along the pavement beside the parapet wall of the hospital. There was one security guard manning the queue. As we entered the hospital premises all were requested to fill a form each and those were collected and taken to another place by a staff member. Then we were asked to sit on the beds (no chairs) that were arranged inside a nicely built makeshift enclosure with a roof to protect all from the sun.

There a pleasant male staff member (may be a doctor) neatly clad in the official attire, briefed us about the process, the vaccine, it’s after-effects if any and other related facts. Although pressed for time, he addressed all aspects that we should know. It was truly informative and a pleasure to hear.

Within a few minutes, people in batches were asked to proceed to a close by building. While we were standing near the building a nurse brought cards which were filled by the hospital office staff accordingly with the data provided by us. Then we were asked to go inside the building where the vaccinations were given. I did not feel anything although the vaccine was given to me in a matter of a few seconds. I came out of the hospital around 12.20 pm.

The date of the next dose is also mentioned in the card given to me.

The entire hospital premises were very clean and the well-maintained garden was full of flowering trees.

On behalf of all I wish to thank the Medical Superintendent and the doctors of the planning department for a job well done giving enough convenience to the general public. Also. to all staff members that we came across as they added luster, honour, stature and dignity to their respective professions when treating all of us.

Lalith Fernando

Panadura

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