Sri Lanka: Students not the only factor in reopening schools

This communication gap in awareness creation remains one major hurdle in reopening schools. There is also an attitudinal issue and a lack of importance given to awareness on COVID-19 prevention.

by Kusal Perera

Announcing details about reopening schools Education Minister Dulles Alahapperuma told media on 12 May “In the new system, it is required to rearrange a class with over 30 students into a minimum of two groups to prevent large concentration of students,”

“There are 1,486 schools with less than 50 students, 1,560 schools with less than 100 students, 1,138 schools with less than150 students, 977 schools with less than 200 students, 2,690 schools with less than 500 students and 1,375 schools with less than 1,000 students” and said it won’t be a big task to run these schools under the new system.

“It will not be easy for about 868 schools with over 1,000 students” he said adding, “but we have to do it because our top priority is the safety and welfare of nearly 4.5 million students and approximately 300,000 teachers,”

I have stressed this before but will do it again as almost all in the education sector including the Minister and teacher trade union leaders prefer indulging on peripheral issues than getting into core issues.

Children are not the main factor in re-opening schools. Let’s clear this principle COVID-19 health issue first. Children are not considered vulnerable as adults. They are at the bottom of the vulnerable list. Latest (May 13) global numbers indicate affected children are less than 02 percent. Larger majority of them are reported from Europe and the USA. Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, professor of paediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and chair of the committee on infectious diseases at the American Academy of Paediatrics was quoted in Time online as saying, “I can’t think of another situation in which a respiratory infection only affects adults so severely.”

So here we are. Children are not vulnerable to be obsessed with “child safety” and the Minister Alahapperuma was right in saying they consider safety of 300,000 teachers (and principals) as a top priority. When reopening schools therefore, more stress and attention has to be given to adults who are required to get involved with reopening. That invariably includes modes of transport teachers and students use. Apart from public commuter buses that includes school service vans and 3 wheelers. There are no accurate numbers of school vans operating. From provincial data there were around 30,000 school service vans registered in 2017. There is nevertheless no count of 3Ws that transport school children and teachers.

What is most important for all of them to avoid COVID-19 infection is to adhere to the basic requirements personal hygiene of regularly washing hands and maintaining social distancing. It is an accepted fact that to establish mechanisms to monitor such individual responses are near impossible. Prevention can only be achieved through serious, community awareness programmes that convince individuals to take personal responsibility in all protection measures. It’s also about communities taking responsibility in overseeing themselves taking precautions. There is no emphasis and stress on individual responsibility in self-protection in any media, where preventive measures are mere advertisements and often discussed with no clear target audience.

This communication gap in awareness creation remains one major hurdle in reopening schools. There is also an attitudinal issue and a lack of importance given to awareness on COVID-19 prevention. It was evident in how the Minister used numbers in pushing his school reopening programme.

This is how that lapse is exhibited. To keep hands regularly washed needs more than usually adequate water. Thus the first priority in reopening schools should be to ascertain all schools have uninterrupted supply of water. That was not even thought of. It is not known whether even private and international schools have such facilities adequately. It is also not known whether there is any regular inspection of these facilities by any State authority.

Where government schools are concerned, water issue is an insult to the whole education system and to children the minister says is priority. According to the Education Ministry’s School Census Report-2017, in Western Province (WP), of the 1,100 plus schools only about 600(54 percent) schools have pipe borne water by municipal or urban councils or from the water board. The remaining 550 schools are dependent on flowing streams, tube wells or normal wells. Even in schools with pipe borne water, there is no guarantee the pipes are in order and in minimum adequate numbers for students to use them without crowding. In WP 04 percent of the schools have no source of water.

That being WP, other provinces fair no better. In CP only 35 percent have pipe borne water and 23 percent have no water. NP have 12 percent schools with pipe borne water while 10 percent have no water. In Sabaragamuwa it is 25 percent with pipe borne water and 19 percent without any water. NW (Wayamba) has only 18 percent with pipe borne water and 25 percent without water. In such context, EP seems comparatively better with 57 percent schools with pipe borne water while 13 percent have no water. Rest of the provinces are no better, or perhaps far worse.

This issue of water leads to a more disgusting situation in government schools that is rarely or never paid attention to. The School Census Report data reveals, of all schools in the island, only 35 percent have pipe borne water. This very clearly suggests that around 6,500 schools are without washrooms and toilets. Even in schools where there is water on tap, there is much doubt many of them have washrooms and toilets that can be tolerated. With COVID-19 spread, these being common facilities, they have to be maintained all through the day as hygienically clean.

It should now be clear that reopening of schools is more complex than numbers the minister provided. Therefore, it is important to focus on what answers could be worked out to reopen schools. The first and the most important condition that must be addressed before schools are reopened is providing a regular, uninterrupted supply of water that can meet the necessities of both students and the teaching staff. That is the most urgent responsibility of the education department under any circumstance.

Thereafter, the other important issues that should be immediately addressed are,
  • conducting special awareness programmes for teachers and parents on their responsibilities, both in and out of school. These awareness work can be delegated to the 370 MOH offices and staff around the country.
  • similarly, awareness programmes should be organised for school van owners/drivers and 3W drivers also by MOH offices
  • school development societies should establish their own monitoring committees, supervised by the MOH office. These committees should be held responsible for maintaining COVID-19 prevention work in schools and also in ensuring supply of water and cleanliness in washrooms/toilets.
  • Schools with water service can be reopened first under such supervision after MOH certifies they have everything in order, while other schools can be reopened as they get a permanent and a regular water service, also with certification from MOH.

Issue of covering lessons the students lost during the past months as impact of COVID-19, is another important issue, but one that requires a different discussion. It should be stressed and be remembered that needs to be planned without making extra work a burden to both students and teachers. Thus, serious attention should be paid to a new teaching approach where education is not invariably linked to exams.

This is a note that was prepared for a broader discussion on re-organising education this moment and therefore alternate or different ideas and proposals are expected in opening up the discussion.

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