Most Ven. Theras urge teachers to report for duty | Sunday Observer
UNICEF welcomes resumption of schools

Most Ven. Theras urge teachers to report for duty

17 October, 2021

With the teacher trade unions threatening to continue the strike beyond the reopening day, the Most Venerable Nayake Theras stepped in last week to urge teachers to report for duty on October 21 and help restore the long disrupted school education system.

Some 3,000 selected state schools with low student populations are poised to begin physical classes after months of closure due to Covid-19, under the first phase of school reopening on October 21. The primary sections will be the first to reopen under this phase, according to the Education Ministry.

Mahanayaka of Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Dharma Sangha Sabha Most Ven. Dr. Ittapane Dhammalankara Thera, Anu Nayake of Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven. Wendaruwe Upali Thera, Lekakadhikari of the Asgiriya Chapter Most Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera and Chief Incumbent of Bellanwila Temple Dr. Bellanwila Dhammarathana Thera were among the Buddhist clergy who called on the teachers to return to duty ending their nearly four-month-old strike.

The Theras said that although it was the teachers’ right to fight for salary issues, this was hardly the ‘proper time’.

Hardships due to pandemic

“The Government is facing severe economic hardships due to the pandemic, thus all their demands cannot be met at once. It is only fair to accept what has been offered by the Government now and return to work. They must think of the future of our young generation,” the most venerable Theras said. At a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the teacher trade union representatives last week, the Government agreed to grant one third of their demanded salary increase in the upcoming budget, while the balance two thirds is to be met in the 2023 budget. Although they did not reject the offer at the Temple Trees meeting, trade union representatives later said they cannot accept the deal.

General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Teachers’ Union Joseph Stalin told the media on Friday that they were open for discussion if at least two thirds of the demanded salary increase is granted in 2022.

Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thera and Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera reprimanded the trade union leaders for being rigid and dragging the strike unnecessarily, depriving children’s education which is already hit by the pandemic. The ongoing strike had been one of the longest trade union actions staged in the country. The Government parties said that the JVP backed trade unions were not genuine in their demands and that it has a political twist.

Political observers said the power struggle between the JVP and the breakaway Peratugami Party which is trying to seize power within trade unions, were also a reason for the protracted strike. “The strike is a means for the JVP to show its strength,” they said.

Meanwhile, the Government prepared contingency plans to get the services of recently recruited graduate trainees to substitute for the strikers, if the situation worsens.

Public Administration and Local Government Ministry Secretary J.J. Ratnasiri said the Government recruited 53,000 graduates under the graduate employment scheme last year. They are under a one-year training. Of them, 18,000 are being trained as teachers to be absorbed into the teachers’ service later.

Opening in phases

Under the first phase of the schools reopening program, Grades from 1 to 5, in schools with less than 200 students, will begin physical classes. Next, all grades (classes) in schools with less than 100 students, will be reopened. Under the third phase, Grades from 10 to 13 of all the schools islandwide will be reopened.

Under the fourth phase, all other grades in all the schools countrywide will be reopened. The school authorities are required to ensure that students wear face masks, follow respiratory etiquette, hand washing and social distancing norms while in school.

“We have suggested that classes with over 40 children be divided into three groups, below 40 into two groups. If the number of students is less than 20, all students can attend physical classes. When one group is allowed to come to school, the others will have to attend online classes alternatively,” Education Ministry Secretary Prof. KapilaPerera said.

Large classes will continue with online lessons and physical classes alternatively, even after reopening of schools, to help students maintain social distancing norms. The teachers will be advised to share the daily lesson with the other students using online facilities. The Education Ministry has offered flexibility for provincial and school administrations to devise programs to cover up missed lessons during the nearly two years of closure due to Covid-19.

Despite the meticulous plans by the Education Ministry to put the primary and secondary education system back on track, with the blessings of UNICEF which called for swift resumption of all schools, the trade unions are yet to reach a compromise to end the strike.

Union Leaders Joseph Stalin and Mahinda Jayasinghe representing JVP trade union wings at a recent press briefing said, if a favourable reply is not offered by October 21, they will not hesitate to continue with the strike into the fourth month. The teachers’ strike was launched in July over 24-year-long salary anomalies and other issues endemic to the teachers’ service.

Lessons via TV

Education State Minister Susil Premajayantha told Parliament recently that the Ministry was striving to impart lessons to students via the television medium to lessen the damage caused by the continuous teachers’ strike and shortcomings in online teaching. All private and state TV channels have dedicated airtimes to recreate classroom lessons.

Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (retired) Dr. Sarath Weerasekera warned trade union leaders on Friday not to sabotage the Government’s plans to reopen schools on October 21.

“They are sabotaging our children’s education, the education of the future generation, that cannot be condoned,” he told the media, adding that many teachers were taking part in the senseless strike under pressure.

“We will take tough action if the teachers who report to work are threatened in any manner. Even if their demands are fair, this prolonged strike cannot be justified,” he said, likening it to the LTTE terrorist battle.

He said the police will be deployed near schools to provide protection to the teachers who will report to work for the sake of children.