A teacher conducting classes at a school in Colombo at the onset of COVID 19.Pic AFP
Health and defence authorities on Sunday claimed that they have contained the coronavirus threat in the country, as no infections have been reported for the past two weeks outside the navy cluster and quarantine centres which are under their microscope. Only a political hypocrite who might fear that the credit for the success in bringing the COVID-19 under control would go to the government or to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – would be unhappy over this situation.
The government is slowly relaxing the restrictions that had been in place for the past two months in view of the local spread of the global pandemic. The Education Ministry is also planning to open the schools. During a recent meeting on the issue Education Minister Dallas Alahapperuma had explained the pathetic situation of some of the schools in the country.
While citing that there are many schools in the country without electricity and internet facilities, he stated that 582 schools do not have water facility at all. According to the Minister, there are 123 schools in the country which have less than 10 students and around 300 schools with less than 20 children. When it comes to the schools less than 200 students the number stands at 5143. In the Western Province which is considered as the “most developed” province there are 200 schools with less than 100 students and 77 with less than 50 students, the minister observed. He said that he recently visited a school where there are four teachers for the only student who attends that school.
Although this situation helps the government to open some schools – the least privileged ones - before others amidst prevailing COVID-19 threat, as the “social distancing” could be maintained in them, as the minister suggested, this speaks volumes on the vast disparity among schools in terms of facilities and the injustice meted out to a section of the society for decades under various governments.
There are schools with fully-fledged computer labs whereas hundreds of schools in the country lack electricity. While some schools in cities with swimming pools, Minister Alahapperuma states that 582 schools do not have at least water for drinking purpose. While the government rightly encourages the students in distance education or on-line education, the minister himself laments over the 77% of Sri Lankan households lacking computers.
In an interview with yesterday’s Lankadeepa, the Education Minister claims that this was not a hurdle, as 339,000 students had applied on-line for Grade 5 scholarship this year while 369,000 had applied for the GCE A/L examination. Despite the good intention of the minister to push the students towards digitalized education, especially in the backdrop of a global pandemic like the current COVID-19 warranting commends, one cannot deem both posting an application on-line and learning on-line on an equal footing in a country where only 23% households have computers.
Here the gap between the theory and practice is tremendously wide and the injustice meted out to a section of the student population is undeniable, in spite the Minister in his interview having denied it saying examinations are not conducted taking the on-line part into consideration.
Ironically, so many education ministers in the past several decades have lamented or pretended to lament over the lack of facilities, especially electricity and water in schools where the children of poor people attend. We have also editorially commented on this issue when former Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam once lamented in the same way over facilities in schools. It has to be recalled that the disparity in facilities within the school system and the resultant injustice that had been meted out to the poor people in the country was one of the main issues that had been raised by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1960 – before its first insurrection in 1971- and thus students constituted a sizable number of their rank and file then.
This long history of the problem has proved sufficiently or more that the two main political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) along with its leftist buddies have been paying lip service to this issue among others. (It has to be noted that the SLPP cannot absolve itself in this regard, as the party is nothing but the same SLFP, sans a few persons). Had we eliminated this disparity and honestly created a situation where one could genuinely boast that “the nearest school is the best” as had been the slogan of the last government, authorities would have been able to open many more schools amidst coronavirus threat, as the need then for transport facilities would have been far less.