Reopening of schools and new educational reforms | Sunday Observer

Reopening of schools and new educational reforms

10 October, 2021

Many countries are starting to lift restrictions on activities after the positive outcomes of the vaccination programs. In Sri Lanka, more than 50% of the population was vaccinated successfully and with the vaccination drive is going on vigorously; re-opening of schools in the country is most likely to take place with the next few weeks.

Vaccination and reopening schools

According to the health authorities, the reopening of schools will be guided by a risk-based approach on a phased-out plan to minimise the risk of students, teachers, and non-academic staff. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued comprehensive guidelines on the reopening of schools covering all stakeholders to minimise a new outbreak.

Sri Lanka has the best literacy rate in the region at 96.2% and is on par with many developed countries in the world. Sri Lanka has an approximately 4.2 million student population in over 10,000 Schools island-wide, including 392 international schools. The annual enrolment rate of primary education stands at 98.5%, the country is one of the best in the world in this sphere.

Sri Lanka also records a low rate of drop-outs in primary education that stands at 14%. Hence, over 600,000 students reach sit for the GCE (Ordinary Level) examination as of now of which approximately 300,000 students continue to the GCE (Advanced Level) examination annually. Meanwhile currently, there are over 247,000 government teachers scattered around the country.

The Covid-19 pandemic created havoc in education in almost every country in the world delivering the worst impact in contemporary history to students at all levels. Physical classroom education, known as one of the most essential aspects of mental well-being, was disrupted mercilessly. According to expert opinion, the online education that was introduced in countries is not an effective alternative for comprehensive education.

Being in a classroom

The negative impact of the situation was devastating and perhaps created unknown repercussions to the future of the entire student fraternity as a whole. For example, students in Sri Lanka have already lost over eighteen months of continuous education. The bygone time may never be recovered. Out of 210 school days in a year, in 2020, the schools were opened only sixty-five days while in the year 2021, students in the Western province attended school only five days.

Although the schools in the other provinces had the first term, they also were forced to close since the third wave started in April this year. Young students who enrolled in year one last year only experienced a very short period in their respective students.

According to paediatric psychologists in Sri Lanka, the most productive time on a school day is the time spent with other students engaging in non-academic activities. They reveal that such activities provide the students in primary education the best mental balance that provides rational well-being. This alone is evident for the extremely depressing outcome of the closure of schools for long periods.

The opinion of most medical experts is that long closures of schools may produce both physically and mentally unwell children in the long run due to the deprivation of physical activities. The reason they cite is that the physical activities of a child directly impact the balance of physical and mental comfort. Particularly, the bodily actions of young students from grades one to thirteen are essential as they are undergoing physical changes where both physical psychological developments take place at a rapid pace.

Their opinion is that when looking at the damage that can cause by the virus and the dispossession of physical activities displays an imbalance. Hence, in the long run, the effect of long closures can be much more.

Whilst, children suffer bodily disparity due to lack of physical exercise, the harm created to other organs of the body due to excessive use of electronic devices create can be more devastating. They fear that the children will be dangerously exposed to chronic diseases which are accountable for 80% of deaths in Sri Lanka.

According to Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, every child has a right to an education. Also, Article 15 of the convention states that children have the right to meet with other children. Regrettably, children in Sri Lanka were deprived of both these rights for the past eighteen months.

Due to the superfluous fear, parents have made a prison for the children in their homes that made them more like robots. The important social integration factor of children during this period has dropped to almost zero. As explained previously, education is not limited only to provide subject-related knowledge. Socially mixing with others of the same age to share experiences is an essential part of psycho-social development.

Harms of being online

Incessant influence on children to participate in online education is another negative factor. Unlike in schools where there are specific times, online classes are conducted by teachers usually at their convenience. Hence, most often students are forced to attend some of the lessons even at late night or too early in the morning. The tolerance for pressure incurred by these time constraints may be harmful to the students, especially at lower grades.

According to the legal fraternity, one important reason for the rapid escalation of crimes in the country is directly related to the public unawareness about the basic law of the country. Even when mainstream and social media reporting a crime, the main focus of their news is to attract an audience often by dramatising the story. Most often they ignore to communicate about the anti-social factor in such crimes. Also, they give priority to the negative side of the reported crime and pay no attention to the possible punishment.

The Government, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education together with the National Child Protection Authority, has introduced a plan to include basic laws as a subject for students from Grade six upwards.

This is not only an important task but also a dire need. The plan is to introduce topics such as environmental law, basic human rights, social security, children’s rights, and many other areas related to applicable basic law in the country. The intention is to provide phased-out knowledge about the prevailing applications in law and possible sentences on violation of those laws.

Currently, almost every school gives priority to preparing the student for the Grade five scholarships. Subsequently, from grade nine to grade thirteen, the schools focus on GCE (O/L) and GCE (A/L) examinations and exert unnecessary pressure on students. Usually, Grades between six and nine are somewhat neglected. In the present context, most parents wholeheartedly accept this phenomenon with open arms. The Government is seemingly considering these facts in future reforms.

Vistas of Prosperity

In keeping with chapter four of the manifesto of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘Vistas of Prosperity’, the State Ministry of Education Reforms has prepared new proposals that will likely be policy in a short while. The process, according to the State Ministry sources were done in consultation with the best available experts in the country. They have taken the concept of ‘health first’ as a key aspect of the proposals.

One of the main criteria of the new proposals will be to convert the present examination-centered system to student-centered education. According to the same sources, the expert panel has taken all the Covid-19 related experience when preparing the new scheme. Also, the new proposals have given priority to teacher training methods to suit the future considering the most modern global trends.

One salient factor everyone, including relevant authorities, must realise is that children have already lost nearly two years of education and social interactions.

The literacy and numeracy of students must catch up as early as possible to cover the gap created by the closures. The vaccination was administered to almost 90% of both academic and non-academic staff according to the health authorities. Therefore, the entire country expects the Government and the teachers’ unions to agree on a compromise and support the continuation of education in the country.