Education Ministry awaits greenlight from health authorities - Dinesh Gunawardena | Sunday Observer
Re-opening schools:

Education Ministry awaits greenlight from health authorities - Dinesh Gunawardena

3 October, 2021

As the Covid-19 daily fatalities and infections dropped drastically, the Education Ministry began making preparations to resume physical classes in schools, with the final go ahead by the health authorities to be issued any day. Nevertheless, the teacher trade unions threatened to continue their strike which would shatter all hopes of an early resumption of schools.

Their action will further deprive children’s education which has already been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in an interview with the Sunday Observer last week explained the plans afoot to put the education system back on track and overcome the challenges ahead.


Q: The Education Ministry issued instructions last week to Provincial Authorities to clean and disinfect schools that were closed for months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with an aim to re-open them in the coming weeks. Have you finalised the dates for the re-opening?

A: We would be able to start over 3,000 schools with less than 200 students in October. These are in rural areas. In parallel, we are discussing re-opening national schools.

To decide on a date, clearance has to be given from the health authorities. Parents and staff will be involved in disinfecting and cleaning schools. For certain responsibilities, prior to the re-opening and after, we will need their help.

The provincial Governors have shown interest in speeding up the process. Out of 10,000 odd schools, some 9,000 are under provincial authorities.

The Governors and provincial authorities will play a major role in this process, in ensuring that schools are safe to welcome students and facilities are in place to follow health regulations.

Q: What is the expectation of the Education Ministry with regard to teachers’ and Principals’ attendance once schools re-open, given that there is an ongoing strike by the trade unions?

A: Overwhelming numbers of teachers are waiting to report to work. Various trade unions have been responding to our call to get back to teaching online and report to work once the schools re-open.

We have completed the vaccination of school teachers last month. We have been reported that the vaccination of the non-academic staff such as the security guards and canteen support staff, is almost complete, under the state vaccination drive.

Q: Some of the trade unions are adamant that they have not received a favourable solution to their longstanding salary issue. Your comments?

A: I don’t agree with that stance. We took a clear decision to fulfil their demands even in the midst of Covid-19, a global crisis that has crippled our economy. We have pledged that their demands will be met from the next year’s budget - that is to favourably rectify salary anomalies.

I don’t think it is fair for trade unions to continue their strike. Besides we continued to pay the teachers’ salaries despite their withdrawal from online teaching for nearly three months, which is a severe blow to students who have already been affected by school closures for over a year. In addition, the Government paid an extra Rs.5,000 allowance to them from September this year.

The trade union’s demand to declare the teachers’ service a closed service and the demand to appoint a committee to look into several other long standing issues has been implemented.

Recommendations of the committee are due in six months. We have taken their demands seriously and are taking action to resolve them. Therefore, the ongoing strike is absolutely unfair.

Q: But the trade unions claim that the Rs.5,000 allowance was not paid along with their September salary?

A: The Government allocated funds for this purpose. Instructions were given to release this special allowance. Teachers have to collect it from the zonal office or schools.

Q: The parents have been patiently watching the developments with regard to the teachers’ strike. If the trade unions have been offered favourable solutions, the parents ask why can’t the Government resort to effective action to make teachers resume online classes for the sake of the children?

A: As I mentioned before, we are gearing up to resume schools. We had to wait for the vaccination to be completed. We were able to get the GCE Ordinary Level 2020 results out despite attempts by the trade unions to delay it further with threats. Now, this batch of 600,000 students can proceed to GCE advanced level studies.

Amid the setbacks of Covid-19, we are committed to seeing children get back to school as soon as possible. We are working on it now.

However, the re-opening will have to be on a staggered basis to ensure that we will not put the children at risk.

Q: The children have lost over a year of schooling due to Covid-19, in the Western province, the schools were closed for about 30 months. What is envisaged to catch up lost time in school – vis a vis education, and other vital activities that play a crucial role in a child’s growth, especially for young children?

A: That will be a concern once the schools resume. The schools might have to continue for longer hours. But our main concern was to protect lives and bring the country back to normalcy. That was deemed the most important thing by the Government - protecting our children. Once the schools re-open, schools will be guided to make their own plans to catch up what the children have lost.

The education authorities are discussing a special arrangement – to cover syllabi- for GCE Ordinary Level and Advanced Level students. The Advanced Level and Grade 5 scholarship exams will be postponed, but not for a long period.

All Academic Institutions in the country are currently discussing as to how to once the Health Ministry gives the green light to re-open schools which is expected within this month.

Q: The GCE Ordinary Level 2020 practical tests have been postponed indefinitely. Any plans to complete these soon?

A: We plan to hold them once the schools re-open. The practical tests might not be postponed beyond December.

Q: The Ceylon Teachers’ Union said they will continue the strike even after schools re-open. In the face of these threats, what will be the Education Ministry’s plan to ensure that schools will continue without disruptions?

A: The children are the future of our country. The country is at a very difficult time due to a global pandemic that has affected even the developed nations.

We managed to keep Covid-19 figures under control, with meticulous policies adopted by the Government.

We have surpassed even developed nations in our vaccination drive, and have come this far to re-open the country.

A lot of funds were spent to acquire vaccines. A lot of hard work was put into by all stakeholders to ensure they are secured on time, and administered without delay.

The others must now get their act together and help the country move forward. I hope the teacher trade unions will understand this situation.

It is our understanding that the vast majority of teachers want to get back to schools and help students with their studies.

There must not be any action to sabotage this effort, especially when the Government has been sensitive to their woes and accepted that they have genuine grievances that need to be rectified. Action has been taken. We have given them our word. All we need is time to deliver upon our promises.