Photo courtesy Eminetra

Today is the International Day of Education

Sri Lanka can be justly proud of its educated population and high literacy rate due to decades of free education up to university level. Universal access to primary education has been achieved and the enrollment rate for secondary education is 79 per cent, on par with most developed nations. Free education includes free textbooks and school uniforms as well as a network of public schools in towns and villages.

Covid-19 has disrupted education for 4.2 million students and 235,000 teachers throughout the country. The closing of schools for just one day causes a loss of about 25 million learning hours and 1.4 million teaching hours. The closure of more than 10,000 schools, 736 pirivenas and over 100 private schools means that the country is unlikely to achieve the education Sustainable Development Goals, according to an UNICEF report on the effects of Covid-19 on Sri Lanka’s education sector.

“Experience from other emergencies such as the Ebola crisis and the earthquake in Nepal teaches us that school closures in the long term can have adverse impacts on the number of school dropouts, children’s attainment of age-appropriate learning competencies and an increased tendency for child abuse and neglect. In the Sri Lankan context, the pandemic and the subsequent school closures are likely to have severe effects on the most vulnerable children, including children with disabilities, those in the plantation sector, children of female-headed households, and those living in urban settlements,” the report said.

The success of distance learning differs widely depending on access to laptops, mobile phones, TV and radio. School closures have led to inequity in access to and participation in learning. Fifty five per cent of primary school students have no access to internet facilities and need written materials. This is the same for 40 percent of O’Level students and 39 percent of A’Level students.

Teachers struggled to teach through distance learning methods. They have not received training on information and communications technology or distance learning, yet adapted to the alternative methods of teaching and learning, the report said.

In order to find out more about how the pandemic has affected the school-going population, Groundviews spoke to Dr. Sujata Gamage, Co-coordinator Education Forum Sri Lanka and Senior Research Fellow, LirneAsia.

What are the pros and cons of lockdowns versus keeping schools open?

We are going onto the third year of the pandemic. Keeping schools open without going into education lockdowns is of course the preferred option but keeping schools open during a pandemic is not easy. It requires a determination by the authorities to keep schools open. With the exception of China with its zero Covid policy, almost all countries in the world are learning to live with the pandemic by minimizing lockdowns and relying on vaccinations, hand washing, social distancing, and wearing masks – three cardinal rules of behaviors during a pandemic and the test-trace-isolate for dealing with infections. What we are missing in Sri Lanka is the testing. Yes, we need to keep the schools open but without access to tests, some children may find that schools are more closed than open for them.

What are the drawbacks of online education?

Even under the best conditions, online education is inferior to face-to-face education. As we quickly learned during the pandemic, schools’ function is much more than what students write in their notebooks and repeat at examinations. The report by Jacques Delors Commission for UNESCO in 1996  identified four pillars of learning – Learning to Know, Learning to Do, Learning to be and Learning to be together. Essentially what is important in education is not what you learn but the process of learning. When the process is limited to interactions through a screen, the learning is not the same.

Has the gap between urban and rural students increased due to Covid-19?

The gap is more about educated versus the less educated parent, not rural versus urban. According to a LIRNEasia survey of the impact of Covid on education, 81% of students received education services from their schools but 33% received services from their tuition providers too. Of those who received education services, access to education was greater among children from households with more educated household heads but age, gender and urban-rural gaps were minimal.

Have teachers been able to adapt to new teaching techniques? 

Changing teaching to distance mode would not change teaching techniques if the objectives of learning remain the same. In the absence of alternative methods of assessment, the objective of education continued to be reduced to passing as many children at the end of term or end of year examinations. Assessments in even the health and physical education subject is a written paper. A child is expected to describe the three ways of passing a baton in a relay race, for example but nobody asks whether he/she has actually passed the baton in a relay race. The shocking truth is that some children, if not most, ever get a chance to go to the field to run an actual relay race. What do teachers do in distance mode? Nothing new. PDF files sent over WhatsApp take the place of notes teacher over the blackboard. As long as our methods of assessment remain the same, teaching techniques would not change.

What are the long-term impacts of Covid on education in Sri Lanka? 

We have lived with the pandemic for almost three years now. Unfortunately, we don’t have data on the impact on children. Schools started in earnest in January 2022 with all the children attending school as usual. But how many returned to school? We don’t have the statistics. The government has the resource to report these numbers but it has not happened so far. What are the learning losses?  Here too we don’t have data. At least the government could have guided the school schools to assess the extent of learning of essential learning outcomes in language and math. It does not look like the government is ready to muster our ample divisional, district or provincial resources to do that. The best we can do is to make educated guesses. It is likely that the dropout rates would increase. Pre-pandemic, almost all students completed primary education but about 15% would drop out without sitting for the O’Level examination in Year 11. That number is likely to be higher as a result of the pandemic. As for learning, I would not worry too much about teachers not being able to cover çover the syllabus. More important to know whether the students would have the essential literacy and numeracy skills and the social-emotional learning appropriate for their age level.But children are resilient. I am sure they will recover from the effects of the pandemic if the government takes the appropriate steps.