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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

When Susanthika did Lanka proud

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As in certain offices, in banks too there are restricted areas for outsiders and staff members who are not attached to the relevant divisions. The Treasury Department of any bank consists of three different sections; the front office, middle office and back office. The front office is commonly known as the Dealing (Trading) Room, with strict limitations to those present. It can also be used as a television viewing place, with the availability of all channels, both local and foreign.

The day, September 28, 2000, was an exceptional day as a few breathtaking moments were witnessed within our dealing room at HNB, as history was made by a courageous and determined, petite Lankan damsel in a faraway country. That was the day our Athletic Heroin, Susanthika Jayasinghe, competed in the Sydney Olympics in the 200 meters finals. Knowing the enthusiasm and fervour, that other staff members too share, to witness the event live, with the consent of my boss, Senior DGM Treasury, Gamini Karunaratne, I kept the doors of the Dealing Room wide open for others too to watch the event. As the ‘auspicious’ time approached the dealing room started getting packed. Finally, it was not only ‘house full’ but ‘overflowing’.

Maintaining the tradition, the ‘visitors’ were silent except for a slight murmur. Gradually, the murmuring diminished as the time approached. The track was quite visible to all of us. For the women’s 200 meters sprint event, there were eight competitors with Marion Jones of the USA as the hot favourite, and Cathy Freeman of Australia, the two athletes many of us knew.

As the much-anticipated event commenced, there was dead silence for about 20+ seconds and then the uproar of ecstasy erupted, along with tears of joy in all gathered, as our Golden Girl became the bronze medal winner, just a mere 0.01 seconds behind the second-placed Pauline Davis of Bahamas.

That was a monumental day for all sports loving Sri Lankans, after Duncan White’s 400 meters silver medal in the 1948 London Olympics, M. J. M. Lafir becoming the World Amateur Billiards Champion in 1973, and Arjuna’s golden boys bringing home the Cricket World Cup in 1996, beating the much-fancied Aussies.

As treasury dealers, while at work, we have witnessed all-important local and world events as and when they happened, thanks to the advanced media paraphernalia in dealing rooms of the banks.

Coming back to Olympics, for seven years everything was rosy for Marian Jones (MJ), but when she pleaded guilty to using steroids, she received international opprobrium and was stripped of all five Olympic medals she won in Sydney, Australia. After the belated disqualification of MJ, our heroine Susanthika was adjudged the Olympic silver medallist of the 200 meters event in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, with Pauline Davis as the gold medallist.

So it is after 52 years that Sri Lanka was lucky enough to have won another Olympic medal. Thanks to the sheer determination of our golden girl Susanthika and her numerous supporters, she was able to achieve this spectacular honour, amidst many obstacles. She was the first Asian to have won an Olympic or a world championship medal in a sprint event. The 21st anniversary of her tremendous feat falls on September 28.

Thank you, Madam Susie, for bringing honour to the country, and being an inspiration to the younger generations of budding athletes.

LALITH FERNANDO

Panadura

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Opinion

Give teachers and principals their due

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Why didn’t the Education Minister and the Secretary pay due attention to the fair voices of the most vulnerable and largest service sector of this country, at the initial stage, making the alliance of teacher-principal trade unions proceed to street protests, which started in the absence of any positive gesture from the Ministry of Education? That is how the present state of chaos originated.

The prolonged online teaching strike has kept the younger generation of all school-going children in darkness, and their right to learn has been deprived of. Blaming the teachers is not the solution. What is required is the right solution at the time of need. The unions are demanding the implementation of the Subodhini Committee report, plus the Cabinet subcommittee proposals, in a gazette notification. It is more sensible for the government to respond to this final flexible stance of the unions, rather than prolonging the issue with temporary solutions.

The strikers of the teacher-principal unions are not ready to give in to the temporary sugar candy sachet which is a pretty ridiculous joke, a consolation allowance to dodge the crux of the problem. Plastering or patching up the situation by offering an allowance of Rs. 5000 for three months is a shame to the teacher community. Such an allowance should be allocated for COVID-19 affected people of low-income or refugees in flood-affected regions.

What could have been broken with the nail was allowed to grow to the extent that it couldn’t be crushed even with an axe. Successive governments disregarded the demands of teachers and principals, treating them as nonentities; although the ungrateful present-day politicians rose to their present high positions because their bright lives were designed, brain powers sharpened and heads enlightened by teachers.

Although all teachers are not saints, the majority of our teachers are worthy of veneration. They are the architects of nation-building. They must have sufficient pay for a decent living, commensurate with the commitments and their toil. With an ungratified mentality, they may be unenthusiastic to discharge duties. Under such circumstances, the process of nation-building will collapse. So far, they have been doing yeoman’s service but they can’t continue to do so amidst the rising cost of living and unfavourable living conditions. When the salaries of all other employee categories have been brought to a satisfactory level, why does the government not heed to their demand?

In response to the mounting pressure from the teacher-principal trade union strike, the government appointed a cabinet subcommittee to produce another report to solve the problem; but it turned out to be a futile attempt, akin to changing the pillow as a treatment to the headache, wasting the valuable time of both parties. Such a committee should comprise experts from the education field, not from the lobby with the loquacious MPs who are in the habit of suspending and postponing everything until the next budget. On the other hand, what is the need for piling up further committee reports, when there is already a much-quoted and assumed fairly balanced Subodhini Committee report, which has been formulated by a panel of members comprising a former minister, four additional secretaries, and the accountant of the Ministry of Education.

True that the government is in dire straits with financial difficulties, but that is not a sound reason to postpone this issue. If so, why should the government introduce new megaprojects, such as 200 city beautification programmes, import of luxury vehicles for MPs and walking tracks, which are not critical requirements. The problem of teacher salary anomalies could be solved by holding such long term, not so urgent schemes.

The proposed four-phased payment of the salary increments is a nice way of circumventing serious demands of trade unions and yet another fairy tale. It is a way of escaping the main responsibility.

To illustrate this point, let us take the case of the state employees who retired between January 2016 and December 2020. All government employees including judges, ministry secretaries, directors, doctors, nurses, police and armed forces personnel, and mind you, a former director-general of the Pensions Department, was entitled to a revised salary increment system in five stages starting in 2016, and final amalgamation of all increments, due to be paid with effect from January 2020. The salary increment rates are clearly stated in the pension award letter issued by the Director-General of the Department of Pensions, which is a legal document to confirm the claim.

The present government unreasonably cancelled the (2016-2019) pensioners amalgamated salary increment of five stages, by the circular 35/2019(1) dated 20.01.2020 following a cabinet decision. More than 100,000 pensioners have been victimised and deprived of their fundamental right of the salary and sad to say, nearly 1819 pensioners have already died without getting their increments. But the government so adamantly refused to pay up and adopted a slippery policy with various cock and bull stories.

The basis for the development of a country is the education system, spearheaded by the formidable workforce of teachers hailing from Aristotle and Disapamok. All of the so-called thriving politicians; garrulous speakers who look down upon teacher communities; professionals, academics, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scholars, scientists, inventors, artists, all of these are the intellectual outputs of the dedicated energies of humble teachers who never gave priority to building highrise palaces for their self-indulgence and luxurious lives. Not to let it happen again and again, they deserve to be freed from this muddle of salary anomalies at this critical moment.

Finally, a word about the mediation of the Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters, who are urging the alliance of the teacher-principal trade unions to give the strike up , and restart online teaching. May I appeal to the venerable prelates to be fair to all. Could you, in your respected designations, kindly convey the same message to the government, asking why it is not taking an initiative to resolve this burning issue, by issuing a circular or gazette notification, without postponing it off further, for the sake of the innocent school children?

M.B. NAVARATHNE

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Opinion

Ivermectin for COVID-19 management

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Prof Saroj Jayasinghe’s candid view, published in The Island of September 17, 2021, on Ivermectin use, both in treatment and prevention of COVID-19, has been based on scientific analysis of multiple meta-analyses on the subject. Therefore, his educated opinion must be viewed with great positivity.

Quite correctly, a doctor has to make decisions in good faith in an emergency situation, where any delay in the commencement of treatment could be disastrous. In a life-threatening condition, the treating doctor has no time to wait and waste until the evidence is available scientifically. Instead, the doctor has to make a decision using his clinical acumen and experience in order to save the life of the patient under his or her care.

Another example is: In an instance where an unconscious patient is brought to the accident and emergency department with life-threatening bleeding after an accident, the treating surgeon has no time to obtain the patient’s informed consent (usually a requirement before any surgical procedure), but to attend to (perform surgery on) the patient in all-good faith, in order to save the life. It may require even the amputation of a leg or hand.

Hence, treating a critically ill patient with Ivermectin is more than justified, particularly in the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring COVID-19 as a public health emergency. Further, under this context, the usage of Ivermectin in the prevention of COVID-19 is quite justified. Since no antiviral drug is available hitherto, its usage is further warranted.

As mentioned, Ivermectin is a time-tested and safe drug with no known serious side effects. The call for its usage in the management of and prevention of COVID-19 is time appropriate.

A veterinary surgeon, Prof Asoka Dangolle of the University of Peradeniya, has also expressed his opinion based on his experience with Ivermectin in mammals. In the current context, the world’s attitude is much in favour of the ‘One Health’ concept.

Therefore, in a helpless situation or pandemic of this nature, the consideration of the use of Ivermectin in all good faith is justifiable.

Prof ANANDA JAYASINGHE

Professor in Community Medicine

University of Peradeniya.

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