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Post-pandemic schoolchildren: Does anybody care?

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By Indrawansa de Silva
Professor Emeritus, USA

Arguably one of the least appreciated fallouts of the Covid-19 in Sri Lanka seems to be education. According to United Nation’s early observations, Covid-19 related school closures were responsible for learning losses of 94% students worldwide. At its peak, schools were suspended nationwide in 188 countries affecting more than 1.5 billion schoolchildren. The world hasn’t seen an educational disruption of this scale before. Pandemic shocked the education systems to its core and research shows that it stunted the academic growth. While the rest of the world is recognizing the severity of the situation and finding ways to rectify it, Sri Lanka, however, is acting like business as usual when it comes to educating its children in the post-pandemic world.

There are research coming from developed as well as developing nations formally establishing the obvious: the pandemic had a noticeable negative impact on school performance of children even when the schools were closed for a few weeks. For example, a study from the Netherlands reported that during a school closure of eight weeks children lost equivalent of 20% of what would have been achieved during a typical school year. A recent study by the National Center for Education Research in the United States recently reported that — after studying a national sample of 14,800 nine-year-olds — the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading. Research also questioning the wisdom of virtual learning as evidence show that it wasn’t even a close substitute for in-person learning. Virtual learning’s inefficacy is not just due to lack of internet connections, Tabs, computers or any such electronic devices. It just didn’t do what in-person learning was doing. Even in the countries with near universal availability of broadband at very affordable rates (often free to the low-income children) with larger devices than smartphones are lagging behind. What is clear in the data is the disproportionate impact of school closing. School closing of say, a few weeks, resulted months, if not years, of learning losses.

So, it is not hard to imagine the learning losses that might have resulted in Sri Lankan children who were subjected to prolong school closings that started in March 2020. We must not overlook the school closing related learning losses that resulted due to the teacher strikes during the pandemic as well as the school closings that took place during the curfew amidst the fuel crisis early this year. Even when the children of the world were heading back to school as the pandemic was winding down children in Sri Lanka continued to stay home exacerbating the learning losses. Just take the example of the cohorts sitting for the A-Level examination in December this year. Have that class of students had just two months of continues schooling during their entire two years they were supposed to be at school? As a matter of fact, the government openly accepted its failure to educate this group of students when it waived the 80% attendance requirement that was in place as a prerequisite for sitting for the exam. The government made a mockery of its own education policy when it did that. One may now question the education authorities’ rationale behind the 80% attendance requirement. Why is it in place? If it can be waived at whim what’s the point of having it? We know the answer: if the government to enforce the attendance requirement not a single student would be eligible to sit for the A-Levels in December. In other words this group of students are not academically ready for the A-Levels in December.

For all the practical reasons the government is shepherding an unprepared class of students to this exam that is so crucial to their future and that of the country. Are our education authorities aware of the gravity of this situation but do not give a hoot or are they just clueless or playing dumb? The reason I brought up the 2022 class of A-Level students is not to say that the problem is limited to them. Actually, it is worse for the lower grade students. Just think about the class of students who started the first grade in 2020. Or those who were in third and fourth and fifth grades prepping for the upcoming Fifth Grade Scholarship exam. What’s the impact on them?

Education experts use the term “unfinished learning” to describe the lost learning due to school closure. It is used to capture “the reality that students were not given opportunity to complete all the learning they would have completed in a typical year.” In the United States, for example, it is estimated that unless steps are taken to address unfinished learning those who were subjected to school closure may earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime due to the impact of the pandemic. And the impact on the US economy could amount to $128 billion to $188 billion every year as this cohort enters the workforce. That is why in the United States K-12 schools received nearly 200 billion dollars to combat learning losses as a result of the pandemic.

Unfinished learning is not just limited to the loss of the academic knowledge. Disengagement from school is likely to make students slipped backward as they lose the knowledge and the skills they once had (just ask a teacher how hard it is for a student to engage in learning after a long recess). Education experts also warn that the students who move on to the next grade unprepared would be missing key building blocks of knowledge that are necessary for success as they move upwards in grade levels.

I am dumbstruck that leaders are acting like nothing has happened to the schoolchildren over the past two plus years. I know that Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented economic crisis and one might say that there are bigger problems facing the country. Of course, there are lots of other and bigger problems including children showing up to school with an empty stomach. But those “other” problems do not make this a lesser problem. It should be one of those “big” problems we are facing and should be treated accordingly as it is so consequential. I am happy to see that the teachers’ unions were in the forefront of the “Aragalaya.” However, I would be happier if the teachers’ unions take equal or greater interest in this issue facing the children. Likewise, I was happy how active FUTA was during the “Aragalaya.” Again, I would be happier if they have taken an equal or greater interest in this because, don’t forget the fact that for the next 13 years university spaces will be filled by those who lost two plus years of education on their clock.

It is necessary that the schools, parents as well as teachers’ unions work together to confront this problem as it is happening elsewhere in the world. This is not the time for petty squabbles. It is the nation’s future that is at stake. It seems like we have abandoned the children. No one to speak for them. As the country go forward children appear in the rear-view mirror.

And a few words for those parents who thought they were outsmarting this problem individually by having a tuition master making home visits: you are delusional and have no clue what education is.

Finally, an address to the President. You were once the Minister of Education and I had a front seat at your performance as I was an early participant of the ETV project some 40 plus years ago. I was impressed with the way you led the Education Ministry and the bold decisions you took. And recently I have heard you talk about “short term and long-term solutions to country’s problems. Well, Mr. President, this is an area that need short-term as well as long-tern solutions and I hope you include education in your “things to do for the country” list.

The writer can be reached at:
noholdsbarred222@gmail.com



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South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and what it means for SL

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At the head table (L to R): High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in South Africa Prof. Gamini Gunawardena, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya and Executive Director LKI Dr. D.L. Mendis.

State circles in Sri Lanka have begun voicing the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the country, on the lines of South Africa’s historic TRC, and the time could not be more appropriate for a comprehensive discussion in Sri Lanka on the questions that are likely to arise for the country as a result of launching such an initiative. There is no avoiding the need for all relevant stakeholders to deliberate on what it could mean for Sri Lanka to usher a TRC of its own.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI), Colombo, took on the responsibility of initiating public deliberations on what a TRC could entail for Sri Lanka. A well-attended round table forum towards this end was held at the LKI on November 25 and many were the vital insights it yielded on how Sri Lanka should go about the crucial task of bringing about enduring ethnic peace in Sri Lanka through a home-grown TRC. A special feature of the forum was the on-line participation in it of South African experts who were instrumental in making the TRC initiative successful in South Africa.

There was, for example, former Minister of Constitutional Affairs and Communication of South Africa Roelf Meyer, who figured as Chief Representative of the white minority National Party government in the multi-party negotiations of 1993, which finally led to ending apartheid in South Africa. His role was crucial in paving the way for the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. Highlighting some crucial factors that contributed towards South Africa’s success in laying the basis for ethnic reconciliation, Meyer said that there ought to be a shared need among the antagonists to find a negotiated solution to their conflict. They should be willing to resolve their issues. Besides, the principle needs be recognized that ‘one negotiates with one’s enemies’. These conditions were met in South Africa.

Meyer added that South Africa’s TRC was part of the country’s peace process. Before the launching of the TRC a peace agreement among the parties was already in place. Besides, an interim constitution was licked into shape by then. The principle agreed to by the parties that, ‘We will not look for vengeance but for reconciliation’, not only brought a degree of accord among the conflicting parties but facilitated the setting-up of the TRC.

Meyer also pointed out that the parties to the conflict acted with foresight when they postponed considering the question of an amnesty for aggressors for the latter part of the negotiations. If an amnesty for perceived aggressors ‘was promised first, we would never have had peace’, he explained.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fanie Du Toit, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa, in his presentation said that the restoration of the dignity of the victims in the conflict is important. The realization of ethnic peace in South Africa was a ‘victim-centric’ process. Hearing out the victim’s point of view became crucial. Very importantly, the sides recognized that ‘apartheid was a crime against humanity’. These factors made the South African TRC exercise a highly credible one.

The points made by Meyer and Du Toit ought to prompt the Sri Lankan state and other parties to the country’s conflict to recognize what needs to be in place for the success of an ethnic peace process of their own. A challenge for the Sri Lankan government is to ban racism in all its manifestations and to declare racism a crime against humanity. For starters, is the Lankan government equal to this challenge? If this challenge goes unmet bringing ethnic reconciliation to Sri Lanka would prove an impossible task.

Lest the Sri Lankan government and other relevant sections to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict forget, reconciliation in South Africa was brought about, among other factors, by truth-telling by aggressors and oppressors. In its essentials, the South African TRC entailed the aggressors owning to their apartheid-linked crimes in public before the Commission. In return they were amnestied and freed of charges. Could Sri Lanka’s perceived aggressors measure up to this challenge? This question calls for urgent answering before any TRC process is gone ahead with.

Making some opening remarks at the forum, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya said, among other things, that the LKI discussion set the tone for the setting up of a local TRC. He said that the latter is important because future generations should not be allowed to inherit Sri Lanka’s ethnic tangle and its issues. Ethnic reconciliation is essential as the country goes into the future. He added that the ‘Aragalaya’ compelled the country to realize its past follies which must not be repeated.

In his closing remarks, former Minister of Public Works of South Africa and High Commissioner of South Africa to Sri Lanka ambassador Geoffrey Doidge said that Sri Lanka’s TRC would need to have a Compassionate Council of religious leaders who would be catalysts in realizing reconciliation. Sri Lanka, he said, needs to seize this opportunity and move ahead through a consultative process. All sections of opinion in the country need to be consulted on the core issues in reconciliation.

At the inception of the round table, Executive Director, LKI, Dr. D. L. Mendis making some welcome remarks paid tribute to South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela for his magnanimous approach towards the white minority and for granting an amnesty to all apartheid-linked offenders. He also highlighted the role played by Bishop Desmond Tutu in ushering an ‘Age of Reconciliation’.

In his introductory remarks, High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in South Africa Prof. Gamini Gunawardena said, among other things, that TRCs were not entirely new to Sri Lanka but at the current juncture a renewed effort needed to be made by Sri Lanka towards reconciliation. Sri Lanka should aim at its own TRC process, he said.

During Q&A Roelf Meyer said that in South Africa there was a move away from authoritarianism towards democracy, a democratic constitution was ushered. In any reconciliation process, ensuring human rights should be the underlying approach with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights playing the role of guide. Besides, a reconciliation process must have long term legitimacy.

Dr. Fanie Du Toit said that Bishop Tutu’s commitment to forgiveness made him acceptable to all. Forgiveness is not a religious value but a human one, he said. It is also important to recognize that human rights violations are always wrong.

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Cucumber Face Mask

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*  Cucumber and Aloe Vera

Ingredients

• 1 tablespoon aloe vera gel or juice • 1/4th grated cucumber

Method

Mix the grated cucumber and aloe gel, and carefully apply the mixture on the face and also on your neck.

Leave it on for 15 minutes. Wash with warm water.

* Cucumber and Carrot

Ingredients

• 1 tablespoon fresh carrot juice • 1 tablespoon cucumber paste • 1 tablespoon sour cream

Method

Extract fresh carrot juice and grate the cucumber to get a paste-like consistency. Mix these two ingredients, with the sour cream, and apply the paste on the face.

Leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse with lukewarm water. (This cucumber face pack is good for dry skin)

* Cucumber and Tomato

Ingredients

• 1/4th cucumber • 1/2 ripe tomato

Method

Peel the cucumber and blend it with the tomato and apply the paste on your face and neck and massage for a minute or two, in a circular motion.

Leave the paste on for 15 minutes. Rinse with cool water. (This cucumber face pack will give you brighter and radiant skin)

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Christmas time is here again…

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The dawning of the month of December invariably reminds me of The Beatles ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again.’ And…yes, today is the 1st of December and, no doubt, there will be quite a lot of festive activities for us to check out.

Renowned artiste, Melantha Perera, who now heads the Moratuwa Arts Forum, has been a busy man, working on projects for the benefit of the public.

Since taking over the leadership of the Moratuwa Arts Forum, Melantha and his team are now ready to present their second project – a Christmas Fair – and this project, I’m told, is being done after a lapse of three years.

They are calling it Christmas Fun-Fair and it will be held on 7th December, at St. Peter’s Church Hall, Koralawella.

A member of the organizing committee mentioned that this event will not be confined to only the singing of Christmas Carols.

“We have worked out a programme that would be enjoyed by all, especially during this festive season.”

There will be a variety of items, where the main show is concerned…with Calypso Carols, as a curtain raiser, followed by Carols sung by Church choirs.

They plan to include a short drama, pertaining to Christmas, and a Comedy act, as well.

The main show will include guest spots by Rukshan Perera and Mariazelle Gunathilake.

Melantha Perera: Second project as President of the Moratuwa Arts Forum

Although show time is at 7.30 pm, the public can check out the Christmas Fun-Fair scene, from 4.30 pm onwards, as there will be trade stalls, selling Christmas goodies – Christmas cakes and sweets, garment items, jewellery, snacks, chocolate, etc.

The fair will not be confined to only sales, as Melantha and his team plan to make it extra special by working out an auction and raffle draw, with Christmas hampers, as prizes.

Santa and ‘Charlie Chaplin’ will be in attendance, too, entertaining the young and old, and there will also be a kid’s corner, to keep thembusy so that the parents could do their shopping.

They say that the main idea in organizing this Christmas Fun-Fair is to provide good festive entertainment for the people who haven’t had the opportunity of experiencing the real festive atmosphere during the last few years.

There are also plans to stream online, via MAF YouTube, to Sri Lankans residing overseas, to enable them to see some of the festive activities in Sri Lanka.

Entrance to the Christmas Fun Failr stalls will be free of charge. Tickets will be sold only for the main show, moderately priced at Rs. 500.

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