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School closures

18 July 2022 10:51 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Dinuli Francisco 

School closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities. Their impact, however, is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls and their families.

All schools in Sri Lanka’s Colombo region and other major cities across the country have closed for two weeks after a nationwide fuel shortage prompted the government to rule that only essential services would operate until July 10, which was further extended by a week.  

Daily Mirror sat down with, Former Secretary of the Education Ministry and Co-founder of the Education Forum, Dr. Tara De Mel, to discuss the depths of school closure and practical solutions to overcome the severe impact of losing education. 

When questioned as to what extent the economic crisis has affected the school children, she said that both school students ( 4.3Million) and university students (140,000 in all universities within the UGC purview) had been significantly affected since March 2020, when all schools and universities were closed. “Although schools gradually limped back into function after about 18-20 months, all 17 state universities did not do so. As a result, academic activities have been interrupted, and school students are facing learning losses or learning gaps, which no one has quantified scientifically”, she said. 

Dr. Tara added that the pandemic-led education crisis evolved into an economic crisis-led education crisis from about January 2022. “ In the case of the former, lack of affordable/suitable devices, coupled with widespread inaccessibility of broadband, prevented successful online learning for many students. Today, all forms of academic life are at a standstill due to deepening fuel, transport, and other crises. “ Students have lost months/years of education and lost all hope for the future,” she added in a hopeless voice. 

In addition, she said that those who can afford it have already migrated or are getting ready to do so. Eventually, those who remain in the country will be a group of under-educated and under-skilled youth who’ll enter an economically harsher society riddled with multiple problems.

“The fact that ‘learning losses’ due to disruption of academic life transforms into ‘earning losses’ and thereby will add to the contraction of economic growth eludes understanding by the Authorities,” 
she added. 


As a solution to minimize the negative impact of the closure of academic institutions, she said that schools and universities have to reopen fast and conduct academic work and all other activities. “ Take schools: out of some 10,170 schools island-wide, only about 385 are national schools managed by the central ministry of education. Most of these national schools are located in urban and suburban environments, with students and teachers requiring public/private transport to attend school. Whereas the large majority of schools are provincial schools located in rural parts of Sri Lanka, where often children walk to school. These Provincial schools are managed by Provincial and Zonal Directors of Education, and the latter is empowered to decide on school opening/closing per local requirements”, she underlined. 

In the case of the universities, Dr. Tara added that the same principle applies. “ Each Vice-Chancellor is empowered to take decisions as per each university. They must decide what’s best and most practically possible per each locality. Until internet and device accessibility is ensured for large numbers of students and teachers, and until power supplies are restored to normal, education and learning should be in-person, as far as possible”, she added. 


The fact that ‘learning losses’ due to disruption of academic life transforms into ‘earning losses’ and thereby will add to the contraction of economic growth eludes understanding by the Authorities”  

Dr. Tara also said that even in 2020, when schools and higher education institutions closed globally due to the pandemic, the decision to close was made on the presumption that contagion increased within schools. But few months into the pandemic, research studies were published on how school closures didn’t decrease contagion and that transmission within schools was similar to that within communities given identical circumstances. This prompted most schools to reopen fast since educationists and others realized the dangers of long-term school closures to growing and formative minds.

Alternative education methods 

As to what alternative methods we can enter into compensating for the loss that occurred with school closures, she said that in Sri Lanka, in-person education still becomes the first choice for education for the reasons explained above.

“ Even in countries where online learning is easy to access and affordable, educationists and psychologists don’t recommend long-term school closures and long-term online education. A device and internet can never replace the teacher, and laptop learning’ in social isolation is far from healthy. We are seeing the repercussions of 18-20 months of school closures and even now the haphazard closures happening at whim”, she underlined. 
Moreover, she said that children go to school not just to learn lessons and prepare for examinations but also for social interaction, co-curricular activities like sports and drama, and singing; they need a wholesome education that broadens their minds.

“So, in my opinion, schools and higher education institutions have to reopen and offer a stable education fast.”


With regard to homeschooling, Dr. Tara was of the view that homeschooling is not practical in 
Sri Lanka, considering the current crisis. 

“ Nearly 70% of school-going children and their families have been facing the harshest economic, gas, fuel, and food crises for more than 6-8 months. Some average families are struggling to have two meals, let alone three. Power cuts are still rampant. Elders in families spend days in fuel, gas, food, and other queues. In such a harsh environment, how can we expect any form of supervised education at home or ‘homeschooling’ to take place?” 
she stressed. 

On the other hand, she said that Home-schooling could successfully happen in upper-middle-class homes where the challenges of low-income families are less manifest. “ Yet even then, we know that a crisis of this depth has spared no one, save perhaps 0.5% of the population or less. So I reiterate that when schools are shut, by and large, most students lose out on education and learning”, 
she added.   

She also added that in 2019 pre-pandemic, a World Bank study showed that in developing countries, less than half of 10-year-olds, when finishing primary school, could not read or understand a simple story. Then with the pandemic, about 80% of students in South Asia had no formal education for nearly two years, leaving their minds to atrophy. 

“Sri Lanka was one of the worst affected countries since options like homeschooling aren’t practical for the reasons mentioned.”

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