How creativity, technology and teamwork toppled COVID19

The Story of Our Lady’s Upper School, Nuwara Eliya

UNICEF
Our Lady’s Upper School, Nuwara Eliya District, Central Province, Sri Lanka
Chameera Laknath
02 December 2020

Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo, the Principal of the school, recalls the day that schools were asked to shut down.

“It was on March 13th around 1:45pm, just 10 minutes before school usually ends for the day, when we learned that schools were to be closed. We knew we had to act fast.”, he recalls.

Mrs. Thatchayani, an English teacher at the school, remembers how she felt that day,

“We were really worried and scared. We were afraid the COVID-19 virus might spread to our area. We didn’t know when we would open again. We did not have a  plan at that moment”.

Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo

Still, the teachers and staff sprang into action, taking small steps that would lay the foundation for greater action in the days and weeks to come.

“Our first priority was to make sure that we could stay in touch with students and with each other”, says Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo, “We made sure to gather information for all students so we could contact them by phone or Whatsapp. Teachers were instructed to give all their contact  information to their students, and students were asked to reach out and make contact”.

Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo addresses his team of teachers
Chameera Laknath
Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo addresses his team of teachers

Suddenly, and without warning, school was out and there was no end in sight. It fell to Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo Rev. and his team to find innovative ways to continue educating and engaging with students.

The first step was to call a voluntary meeting for small groups of teachers to discuss the way forward. Where team members were unable to meet up, discussions were facilitated through Whatsapp.

“Our first task was to find ways to keep students engaged with their work. We decided that class teachers should create whatsapp groups for each of their classes. We started with Grade 11 (aged 15-16) because they had exams coming up. We used whatsapp to send and receive revision worksheets and assignments. When we realized that the lockdown might go on for some time, we quickly extended this system to other classes as well”, says Mrs. Thatchayani.

As the school closure extended to a month and more, the teachers quickly saw the need to move from simple revision worksheets to more engaging, sustainable, long-term methodologies that would help students move forward with their studies.

 

History teacher Mr. Shashi Jayasingha observed,

“If the lockdown was going to take a really long time, we needed to find better ways to reach the students. Worksheet activities and simple revision would not be enough. That’s when Father Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo had an idea to create an online website”.

Mr. Shashi Jayasingha

With the help of a parent who works in the software development industry, the school quickly set about building a website which would act as a central repository for daily online lessons and other educational content.

Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo, while acknowledging that technology was a key tool in this strategy, acknowledges the challenges as well.

“Shifting from whatsapp to the website was challenging. We had to convince the teachers and parents to embrace the technology. We had to follow up and ensure that each and every person was registered on the new website.  We also had to convince parents to let students use smartphones, something that is usually banned at school and in many homes. These were all immense challenges.”

Now, with a basic system of communication in place, teachers and students were able to create more enriching learning experiences. Teachers were able to move forward with their syllabuses by providing online lessons on the website (linked through Youtube). Whatsapp was used to collect assignments and provide feedback. Students that struggled were contacted individually for remedial learning. Some class groups even conducted interactive lessons on Zoom.

Technology was at the centre of distance learning during curfew
Chameera Laknath
Technology was at the centre of distance learning during curfew

A system of checks was also put into place to monitor and ensure that students and teachers were completing the necessary tasks and doing the work they claimed they were doing.

Students submitted daily sheets, signed off by their parents, that  tracked their daily work hours. Every week, teachers would report to our Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo to summarize the students’ work hours and let him know the work we had accomplished that week. He would then send a separate voice message to each class’s whatsapp group (which included parents) summarizing the week’s activities and each child’s progress. This kept everyone accountable to each other.” says Mr. Shashi.

This wasn’t all. These educators soon set about finding ways to enrich not only students’ minds but their hearts as well.  To keep students flourishing in their free time, teachers promoted other activities.

“We did a contest for planting trees and asked students to send in the best picture of their garden. We also did a drawing contest with entries submitted online and even had students participate in creative writing competitions.” says Mr Shashi.

At the end of the day, points out Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo, it was a combination of technology, teamwork and creativity that really helped his team achieve success

“I never lost support and encouragement from the teachers who kept saying we can do this. The teachers who understood the technology came up with creative solutions and helped their colleagues. They also helped to convince them to get on board with the plan. I am so proud that we never let go of a single student or parent. Step by step, we pushed through.” he proudly states.

Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo

Our Lady’s Upper School can indeed be proud of what they accomplished during curfew. In a moment of crisis, this team of educators showed that creativity, commitment and teamwork can overcome the most difficult of challenges.

UNICEF has supported the education sector through the pandemic, especially with regards to underserved students and families who face structural impediments to distance learning. To address these needs, UNICEF has provided curricular content for blended learning,  carried out competency-assessments to identify and address learning gaps, and rolled out an awareness campaign at all levels to promote knowledge of IPC guidelines and instil confidence in a safe return to school.

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