The Coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has, according to the United Nations created the biggest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries in all continents. The closure of schools and other learning spaces have impacted 94 per cent of the world’s student population -up to 99 per cent in low and lower-middle-income countries.
Research carried out by the World Health Organisation has shown that while children and adolescents can be infected and can infect others. It has also shown the virus can kill children. But children tend to have a milder infection and there are very few severe cases and deaths from COVID-19 among children and adolescents.
The data has revealed that less than 10% of reported cases and less than 0.2% of deaths are in people under the age of 20.
However, although children have largely been spared many of the most severe health effects of the virus, schools have been closed and led to a disruption of essential services such as nutrition and immunization programmes which were carried out via the schooling system. Even worse is the fact that millions of children have missed out on months of schooling.
In our country the Annual School Census of 2018, carried out by the Ministry of Education reveals that 4,214,772 students are studying in 10,175 schools. When the first wave of the Coronavirus hit the country in March this year, one of the first acts of the government was to shut schools to protect the children.
In an effort to ensure that student education would not be badly disrupted, the government also launched a number of innovative initiatives to minimise the disruption caused by the closure of schools through distant-learning programmes carried out via audio and video communication systems.
Unfortunately, all students in our country do not have equal opportunities in the field of education. UNICEF reports reveal that around 95% of schools in Sri Lanka are in rural areas and are attended mostly by children who live in poverty.
The report adds public investment in provincial education is only about 65% of total general education spending. 35% of central government spending goes mainly to national schools, which only account for about five per cent of all schools and are typically attended by affluent urban children.
This means that levels of learning, literacy and achievement can be very low in areas of acute poverty, particularly in the estate sector and the former conflict-affected regions of the North and East.
Ms Kamanthi Wickramasinghe writing in the Daily Mirror reveals the highest number of 1AB schools —schools with A/Level Science— are in the Western Province. These include international schools attended by children from middle and upper-middle-class families. Many schools have been conducting online classes via Zoom and Google Meet and WhatsApp applications.
But the situation, Wickramasinghe reveals, remains grim in many less-affluent schools in the Western Province, where parents, many of whom are daily wage earners cannot afford smartphones needed to download these Apps today they have lost their wage-earning capacity. ‘Keeping the wolf from the door’ has become a daily battle.
LIRNEasia’s (A Colombo-based think-tank) latest report states only 34 per cent of Sri Lankan households with children (Those aged 18 years and below) have some type of connection to an internet device to access e-learning, ranging from online classrooms to tutorials disseminated through social media platforms.
However, amongst the lowest socio-economic groups, the number of households with access to internet connectivity dropped significantly to 21 per cent. For the children in plantation communities, access to e-learning during the COVID-19 school closures has simply not been viable. According to a 2017 World Bank report, when compared to those in urban and rural sectors, enrollment rates in plantation communities are the lowest at all education levels.
Today, once again with the second wave of the virus hitting Sri Lanka in October, all schools in the Western Province have been closed. The State while believing it is protecting children is taking away the right of millions of the country’s children to an education -a basic right enshrined in our Constitution. It is dooming them to a fate to be a coming ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ to the elite.
The WHO itself insists ‘schools should only close as a last resort (www.who.int). Yet, the leadership of our country seems to be taking the easy way out and closing down schools as a first step to halting the march of the virus.