All measures in place to reopen schools – Education Ministry Secretary | Sunday Observer

All measures in place to reopen schools – Education Ministry Secretary

10 January, 2021
Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera
Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera

The Government has taken a decision to reopen schools after much thought and deliberations under strict health guidelines on January 11. Except the schools in Western Province and in other isolated areas, other schools will be re-opened. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, Secretary to the Ministry of Education Prof. K. Kapila C.K. Perera, explains the challenges the authorities had to face, new developments in the field of education and the Ministry’s blueprint for re-opening schools under the new normal in the face of the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic.


Q: Why did the Education Ministry decide to re-open schools even though the threat posed by the Covid-19 still exists?

A: Some say reopening schools will be risky. We should open schools because education is very important, and the risks can be managed. Children are the future of our country. If their education is not properly attended to, the development of the country would be severely affected.

When schools close, children risk losing their learning, support systems and may be food and safety as well, with the most marginalised children the likeliest to drop out altogether while paying the heaviest price. A decision was taken to reopen schools while protecting children under strict health guidelines as we cannot keep children away from proper education for a long time. Some may call it risky, others may criticise it, but it is a brave and correct decision on the part of the Education Minister and the Government.

Q: Covid-19 poses unprecedented challenges to the management of the country’s education system?

A: Yes, Covid-19 brought unprecedented challenges and difficulties for us. But we always strived to keep education going.

During the first wave when other countries were facing increased number of infected persons and fatalities, Sri Lanka controlled it well. We reopened schools last May after closing them only for a short time, comparing with many other countries. We did this while adhering to health guidelines.

Q: What were the precautions taken?

A: The country’s education system and health authorities have always worked together to ensure the safety of children. This is nothing new to us. Prior to the beginning of every term, we have school cleaning programs supervised by the school health promotion committees. We have 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. We also advised parents not to send children to school if they were sick.

Q: However, the Education Ministry was able to hold the Year 5 Scholarship Exam amid Covid-19. What were the preparations like?

A: In September with the emergence of the second wave of Covid-19 once again the education system was severely affected. We could not operate schools. Exams had to be postponed. We had postponed the Year 5 Scholarship exam twice. Later we decided not to postpone it further and planned to have the scholarship exam on October 11. Around 331,000 students were eligible to sit the exam and nearly 3,000 examination centres were needed to accommodate them.

Q: What about the GCE Advanced Level Exam?

A: We also had to postpone the August Advanced Level Exam twice. We finally decided to start it on October 12. For the Advanced Level exam, the attendance was almost 100 percent. There were 59 students who sat the exam despite having Covid-19. Some 530 children who were under quarantine too sat the exam in special centres. For the A/L exam too, we had 12 additional exam centres to cater for those students distressed due to Covid-19.

Q: When are you planning to release the GCE A/L results?

A: We are planning to release the A/L results in the first week of April at the latest. Almost 80 percent of answer papers have been evaluated.

Q: How is the school education system structured in Sri Lanka and how do you relay messages to school authorities?

A: We have this 9 – 99 – 312 structure which means nine provinces, 99 education zones and 312 education divisions. The decisions taken by the Ministry are relayed to schools through this system. It functions smoothly.

Q: What is the number of schools in the country and what is the distribution of student population among schools like?

A: The total number of schools is 10,165. We have 1,468 schools having less than 50 students. We have one school where there is only one student. Around 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. Some 91 percent of schools in the country have less than 1,000 students.

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

A: On January 11, we will open classes from Years 2,3,4 and 5 and also classes from Years 6 to 13. Year 1 classes will reopen in the second week of February. However, schools in the Western Province and isolated areas will remain closed until further notice.

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

A: We get thousands of requests almost on a daily basis to open schools in the Western Province. There are around 1,300 schools in the area. We have to consider all aspects when reopening schools in the Western Province. In some areas, the virus spread is still highly prevalent.

Q: What precautions should the school authorities, students and parents take to prevent Covid-19 from spreading?

A: 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 children and the parents. These meetings will be attended by area health officers, PHIs and Grama Niladharis among other stakeholders.

Q: Can the school authorities accommodate the total number of students in a classroom as they had previously?

A: We have instructed schools with less than 20 students to bring all students to school. Other schools can maintain, maybe, 20 students per class for three days a week. In such a case, we have to divide students to two groups. One group will attend classes for three days and the other group three days. School hours also can be extended. We have a flexible approach and the school authorities can decide on the matter.

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

A: We have distributed Rs. 480 million to set up sick rooms in all schools and later another Rs.105 million, apart from the Western Province, was allocated to buy sanitising equipment. For buying sanitising 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 mony 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 program is free for students. We have the Gurugedera program over TV. Schools that do not have TVs will be given television sets. Also, for 1,401 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.

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. 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. They will soon take a decision in this regard.

Q: What about private tuition classes?

A: We are yet to decide on this matter. This is an area which is not under our direct supervision.