Securing our schools | Daily News

Securing our schools

Education Secretary Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera. Picture by Wasitha Patabendige
Education Secretary Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera. Picture by Wasitha Patabendige

The Education Secretary explains the Ministry’s blueprint for re-opening schools under the new normal in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for parents and children alike. The return to school is an important and hopefully welcome step, but parents and children alike may have many questions. While protecting children under strict health guidelines, the schools will be re-opened under the new normal situation on January 11. Except the schools in the Western Province and in other isolated areas, all other schools will be re-opened on January 11. Here’s what to expect and guidelines to be followed when reopening schools and continuing education according to Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera, Secretary to the Education Ministry.

In this interview with the Daily News, Prof. Perera also discloses the challenges education authorities had to face and new developments in the field of education in the face of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What prompted the Education Ministry to take the decision to re-open schools again even though the threat posed by the COVID-19 still exists?

A: Children are the future of our country. If their education is not properly attended to, the development of the country would be affected. We have a very strong school system which is the base of our education. While education continued during school closures, we know that the best place for children to learn, especially the vulnerable, is with their teachers and friends in a positive, safe school environment.

When schools close, children risk losing their learning, support system and may be food and safety as well, with the most marginalized children the likeliest to drop out altogether while paying the heaviest price. So, the decision was taken to open schools while protecting the children under strict health guidelines as we cannot keep children away from proper education for a long period.

Q: COVID-19 no doubt posed unprecedented challenges to the management of the country’s education system. Can you share your experiences?

A: As you said COVID-19 brought unprecedented challenges and difficulties for us. During the first wave when other countries were facing increased number of infected persons and fatalities, Sri Lanka controlled it very well. So, we opened schools last May after closing them only for a short period, comparing to a majority of countries in the world. We did this while adhering to health guidelines.

The country’s education system and health authorities have always worked together to ensure the safety of children in the past. This is nothing new to us. Prior to the beginning of every term, we have school cleaning programmes supervised by the school health promotion committees. This time we had a few regulations in place like having a sick room according to WHO standards, social distancing measures, facilities for hand washing and wearing of face masks, checking the body temperature of children, etc. We also advised parents not send children to school if they were sick. We were very confident of ensuring the safety of children at school. But one of the issues we faced was how to ensure the safety of children when travelling to school and going back home. This still remains a challenge. But schools functioned well until the emergence of the so-called second wave of COVID-19.

Q: The Education Ministry was able to hold the Year 5 Scholarship Exam and the GCE Advanced Level Exam during this period. What were the preparations like?

A: In September we faced another challenge after a COVID-19 cluster was discovered in Minuwangoda. The subsequent spread of the virus in the country was called the second wave. At the time, we had postponed the Year 5 Scholarship Exam twice. We also had to postpone the August Advanced Level Exam. Later we decided to have the Scholarship Exam on October 11. Around 331,000 students were eligible to sit for this exam. We had to establish nearly 3,000 examination centres.

But just before the exam, the government took a decision to isolate several areas in the Gampaha district due to the virus spread. Then we faced the challenge on how to conduct the exam in this backdrop. But we did not stop our preparations and they went along as planned. Then we were informed that students from the Gampaha district could not come to Colombo or other areas to sit for the exam. I then held an emergency meeting with relevant stakeholders and later the President also informed us that students from Gampaha cannot come to Colombo. So, we made preparations to have additional examination centres in the Gampaha district itself to cater to these students.

We started collecting details of children and teachers who were slated to go out of the district for the exam and also those who had to come into the district from outside locations. So finally, we decided to establish 12 additional exam centres within Gampaha. We obtained permission from the Minister and allocated monies for any emergency purchases or other necessities.

Then on the verge of the exam, we had another problem to face. There is a secret room for the distribution of examination papers. We had made all arrangements to distribute papers from there to all centres islandwide and vehicles were ready to deliver the parcels. When I went on an inspection visit, I found out that a relative of a person working there had tested positive for COVID-19. There are only two people working in that room. I took immediate steps to contact health authorities and then send the relevant person to IDH for a PCR test. Health authorities helped me to get this test done in the evening as at IDH, PCR tests are not done after 3.00 pm. However, fortunately, the test result was negative. On the day of the exam, around 327,000 from a total of around 331,000 students sat for the exam. If you take the last five years, this time was the one we had the least number of absentees.

For the Advanced Level exam, the attendance was almost 100 percent. There were 59 students who sat for the exam despite having COVID-19 and 530 children who were under quarantine too sat for the exam in special centres. For A/L exam too we had 12 additional exam centres to cater to those students distressed due to COVID-19. The two examinations were held very successfully despite unprecedented challenges. I must say that other authorities like, health, police, security, etc. gave us tremendous support to achieve this success.

Q: How is the school education system structured in Sri Lanka and is it difficult to manage?

A: We have this 9 – 99 – 312 structure which means 09 provinces, 99 education zones and 312 education divisions. The number of schools is 10,165. The decisions taken by the Ministry are relayed to schools through this system. It functions very smoothly and efficiently. Coming back to schools in Sri Lanka, we have 1,468 schools having less than 50 students. We have one school where there is only one student. Approximately 1,498 schools have less than 100 students and around 7,850 less than 500 students which amount to 76.3 percent. Another 13 percent of schools have 501–1,000 students. So, 91 percent of schools in Sri Lanka have less than 1,000 students.

Q: Will all the classes in schools operate from January 11 onwards?

A: On January 11, we will open classes from Years 2,3,4 and 5 and also classes from Years 6 to 13. Year 01 classes will not start as usual and they will open in the second week of February. This is the normal practice for Year 01 classes. However, schools in the Western Province and isolated areas will remain closed until further notice.

Q: When are you planning to open schools in the Western Province?

A: In the Western Province there is a big demand to open schools. I am getting a lot of calls daily on this subject. There are around 1,300 schools in the area. But the largest number of schools – around 1,500 – is in the Central Province. Some medical specialists called me yesterday and asked me why schools in the Western Province are not re-opening. They said they will help maintain health-related matters. We have plans to hold the O/L Exam from March 1.

We have requested the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 through the Education Minister to inform us when we can open schools in the Western Province. They are monitoring the situation closely. We are hopeful of at least beginning the O/L classes from January 25. If we get the greenlight to do so, we will see how we can start other classes at the earliest. We have made a number of plans on how to conduct school classes. Maybe we can accommodate students for two sessions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I have seen some education-related unions criticizing us for some of our decisions. But I believe all should come together irrespective of differences at this critical juncture to help children’s education.

Q: What precautions should the school authorities, students and parents be taking to prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

A: This time too we will clean and disinfect schools with the help of parents, students and other stakeholders as usual. The Minister had discussions with education officials and medical authorities for two weeks. Guidelines for principals, students and parents have been issued. Health promotion committees at schools will monitor the situation. Last May we gave a handbook to school authorities which has a checklist on what to do when starting schools. We will also hold meetings with parents and tell them about our plans and also make them aware about the responsibilities of the child and the parents. All these meetings will be attended by area health officers, PHIs and Grama Niladharis among other stakeholders. After presenting our programme of work, we will get feedback from parents as to whether there are any shortcomings or about areas that need improvement. We will seek their suggestions and make amendments if necessary.

Also, we have instructed schools with less than 20 students to bring all students to school. Other schools can maintain may be 20 students per class for three days a week. We have given permission to school and divisional educational authorities to decide about the number of students attending a class at a given time. Also, a teacher can take a decision on how many students he or she can accommodate at a given time and talk to the principal about it. We have a very flexible approach and school authorities can decide on the matter.

Q: What are these guidelines?

A: Prior to re-opening schools, the guidelines for principals include attending the prior preparations on specified dates, adhering to the health guidelines with a limited number of parents and past pupils, using their suggestions and ideas for further modifications and organizing awareness programmes for staff members on how to work under the new normal situation in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in cooperation with MoHs and PHIs. They have been asked to follow Circular No. 15/2020 – “Preparedness of schools and educational institutions to prevent the spread of COVID-19”.

After re-opening schools, principals have to ensure that students wear facemasks when coming to school and returning home, let primary students to remove facemasks when necessary while keeping social distance, check body temperature, make it compulsory to wash hands at the entrance, keeping social distance between students, prevent large student gatherings, prevent the exchange of water, food, etc. brought by students from home, prevent engaging in the risky contact through sports and physical exercise, keeping all emergency contact information displayed in the office, if someone falls ill, keep him or her in the sick room and take necessary action as per the PHI or MoH of the area, entrust duties to the staff to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through the implementation of the health promotion committee in the school under the direct supervision of the school, take every possible step to make the school a healthy and safe place and ensure the parents and community know about the safety and hygiene of the school, maintain checklists, promote activities to improve mental wellbeing of the students and make parents aware not to send their children until recommendations are obtained from the MOH or PHI, in case of fever or respiratory diseases, students of quarantine families and students from families subjected to testing of COVID-19 and arranging a system or mechanism to facilitate education of students who are not attending schools and under quarantine in their homes due to any circumstances of the COVID-19.

It is their responsibility and accountability of parents to assist to keep the school safe and healthy to ensure health of themselves and their child.

Parents should not send children to school when sick with cough, fever or cold or if members of family are in quarantine or until receiving reports if a member of the family has been subjected to PCR test or Rapid Antigen Test as per the health instructions or if they live in isolated areas.

They should ensure that school equipment of children are disinfected on a daily basis and cleaning, washing and disinfecting of clothes and shoes of the child on a daily basis and keeping shoes out of the home after returning from school.

Also, they should incinerate disposable facemasks and facial tissues after use, clean and wash hands of the child when returning from school, provide food prepared at home and instruct children not to share personal equipment.

The instructions for the students include cleaning hands using soap and cleaning shoes when entering the school premises, keeping adequate distance, not sharing pens, books, etc. wearing facemasks during school hours and keeping extra ones, keeping sanitizer liquids and use when necessary, keeping facemasks safe during eating food, not wearing others facemasks, sanitize hands whenever touching surfaces outside the classrooms, not to exchange water bottles and food, no gatherings, follow health guidelines when using public transport, avoid coming to school until completely recovering from illnesses.

Q: How much has the Ministry spent to improve school health facilities?

A: We have distributed Rs. 480 million to establish sick rooms in all schools and later another Rs.105 million, apart from the Western Province, was distributed to buy sanitizing equipment. For buying sanitizing equipment schools which have 70 or less students have been given Rs. 8,000; for schools having 71 to 100 students, Rs.10,000, for schools with 101 to 150 students Rs. 12,000, for schools with 151 to 200 students, Rs.15,000 and 200 plus Rs. 22,000. We will release more monies if necessary.

Q: What about transport facilities?

A: The Transport Minister and the Education Minister held discussions on how to arrange transport facilities. The ‘Sisuseriya School Bus service’ drivers have been told to go in line, one bus after the other. More SLTB buses have been deployed. But we have to especially monitor children arriving in school vans.

Q: What has the Education Ministry done to improve online education?

A: The E-Thaksalawa programme is free for students and also we have the Gurugedera programme over TV. Schools that do not have TVs will be given television sets. Also, for 1,401 identified schools we are seeking an investment of Rs. 49 million in partnership with Sri Lanka Mobitel and SLT to have PEO TV facilities installed free of charge. We have plans to increase this number to 3,000 in the near future. We are discussing with the Sri Lanka Telecommunication Regulatory Commission about broadband facilities. We are talking to Huawei as well with regard to this. The Commission has promised to establish signal towers in areas where the signal is weak. Also, the Ministry is planning to have lessons on all subjects relayed through its website from 7.30 am to 1.30 pm.

Q: What about re-opening universities, pre-schools and pirivena education institutes?

A: When it comes to universities, we had sessions for 200 students of Moratuwa University recently. I believe universities too can bring small groups and start classes adhering to health guidelines. Pre-schools and pirivena centres can also resume. For international schools we have a separate section at the Ministry and they will soon take a decision in this regard. Meanwhile we plan to release the A/L results in the first week of April or even before it.