Dr Sivakumar Manickam, new chairman of the Board of Directors of Indian Schools in Oman, is an academician, columnist, researcher, teacher and writer who has been living in Oman for the last 18 years. Having served in the Indian School Muscat management committee earlier, Manickam currently heads Oman Dental College’s eLearning department.
“The COVID-19 crisis has stimulated creativity and innovation among our teachers and students. The board will certainly leverage this to make our system more inclusive and resilient,” he tells Hubert Vaz in an exclusive interview.
As you take over the reins of the Board of Directors in the midst of the pandemic, what are you immediate thoughts regarding the road ahead?
I am humbled and honoured to take up the role of chairman of Indian Schools in Oman.
This is a time when meeting colleagues, teachers, students and parents happens only through devices and every one of us is experiencing some kind of stress or uncertainty. Stepping into the role of chairman at this time is indeed challenging. My colleagues on the board are experts in various fields; the board is capable of leading our system in the right direction.
I strongly believe in equity-focused and human-centred leadership and our board will take the right decisions to ensure continuity and holistic education without compromising quality. Hurdles will always be there and repercussions of the ongoing pandemic on our society, economy and educational system are expected to continue for some more time. However, this crisis has brought out the potential of our system.
What key lessons have been learnt over the past year when students had to stay away physically from schools yet progress academically?
The prolonged online classes have completely transformed academic delivery. Teachers who were accustomed to conventional classroom teaching have flawlessly adapted to the new methods of imparting information through virtual platforms and students of all levels have become more independent learners. The COVID-19 crisis has stimulated creativity and innovation among our teachers and students. The board will certainly leverage this to make our system more inclusive and resilient.
What initiatives taken up during the term of your predecessor need to continue?
Every initiative of the board is implemented with the objective of facilitating overall growth of our students and teachers. We will enhance all those activities and continue to implement them in an efficient and suitable manner. Based on current requirements, modifying existing initiatives as well as introducing new ones will go side by side.
What new initiatives would you like to introduce to make this new order of distant education more meaningful for students?
We recently conducted an online survey to obtain feedback on ongoing classes amongst all schools in Oman. There were 10,336 students, 6,361 parents, 1,309 teachers and 21 principals who participated in the survey.
Using statistical analyses and triangulation of the data obtained, we arrived at several important conclusions. Critical issues like screen time, duration of break, etc were analysed through the perspectives of students, teachers and parents. Based on survey data, many actionable steps were recommended for immediate action. The board’s latest initiative – Samriddhi Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching – has been founded to fill in critical gap found in our system.
Once normalcy in school functioning returns, will there be need for any major changes with regard to hygiene, sanitation, seating arrangements, sports and group activities?
Each school’s reopening strategy will include plans to continuously engage its parent community, and provide required resources for healthy and safe school environment. There will be a specific action plan to recover learning loss due to remote teaching. The safety of our teachers and students will be our utmost priority. All school activities and processes will be revisited based on the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education guidelines and all precautionary steps will be enforced strictly.
Do you foresee an additional financial burden in the wake of the new order? Will there be need to pass on the burden to parents?
Our schools currently have strained financials owing to falling student strength. But the board has not allowed any school to increase fees this year considering the difficulties faced by parents. Last year, no student was denied education due to non-payment of fees and fee concessions amounting to RO1.2mn offered to eligible parents.
The School Management Committees (SMCs) have been asked to allow parents to pay fees in easy installments and deserving parents are being given fee concessions. SMCs are also advised to take all possible measures for cost control.
Do you think the dynamics of education have received a major blow with respect to student-teacher and peer relationships considering students have been deprived opportunities to socialise. What can be done to bring the losses in psychological development back on track?
Yes, undoubtedly remote learning during this pandemic has affected the mental wellbeing and overall growth of our children. We are able to provide continuity of education due to the foresighted policies of the previous board. Three years ago, I spearheaded the implementation of Indian School Oman Virtual Learning Environment (ISOVLE) and trained our teachers to inculcate online teaching. This helped our teachers a lot to move to teaching remotely.
As stated earlier, our reopening strategy will include a specific action plan to recover learning loss due to remote teaching. Special attention has also been given to students with learning difficulties since they are not able to have personal interaction with their teachers.
Our schools will be prioritising essential and non-essential subjects based on each student’s level to ensure educational continuity. With the importance and usefulness of our curriculum content currently being challenged, our schools will engage in ‘Authentic learning’ by:
-Maximising learning outside the classroom
-Supporting students’ independent learning
-Developing teachers’ digital literacy skills
With a large number of Indian expatriates losing their jobs and moving back home, do you expect a further drop in student numbers? Will class sizes be reduced?
Yes, there is a decline in student numbers across all Indian schools in Oman and we expect a further drop post summer break. Although this could lead to reducing the size of classes, there will be a deeper impact on each school’s financial condition. We will come out with a detailed plan regarding (additional premises and) class size prior to opening of schools.
What is your general advice to the Indian student community as well as to the teaching staff in these disturbed times?
Students have quickly adapted to online learning and they are showing remarkable academic performance. Reading books, regularly exercising and spending time on hobbies help students focus on studies without distractions. Students should regularly communicate with teachers and classmates and practise mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety.
The shift to online teaching pushed teachers to serious uncertainty requiring an adaptive approach and extraordinary perseverance. Teachers deserve sincere appreciation indeed for their efforts in handling this unprecedented situation. Several programmes are arranged to take care of their mental and physical health. Our counselors are regularly conducting dedicated sessions on overcoming issues like Zoom fatigue, mindfulness and social-emotional learning.
Students will, indeed, learn better in a three dimensional world consisting of teachers, classmates and activities. But COVID-19 has reshaped education with increased complexity, uncertainty and fragility. Our recent feedback survey helped us understand that remote learning is just a supplement and not a substitute for classroom instruction.
With the support of all stakeholders of our schooling system, I look forward to our academic year getting better as we move away from the COVID-19 past to a happier and more fulfilling future for our students.
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