Pandemic education’s missed opportunity

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The disruption to education continues unabated into its 16th month, but Sri Lanka has done little to improve how it delivers education to schoolchildren and how inclusion and access may be improved. The scale of the education emergency brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented; it’s been indiscriminate in its disruption of every school-going child’s life, wherever they may live and whatever their circumstance. It is, however, in the responses of individual countries and their education systems that the chasms have appeared.

Mass-scale distant learning, implemented overnight, has challenged students, educators, and policymakers everywhere. Sri Lanka’s 10,000 schools have been closed intermittently since March 2020, and the approach to education during the current prolonged school closure for the third time is proof that in that entire year and more, we have made no great strides in adapting to better educate amid a pandemic.

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Less than half of Sri Lanka’s schoolchildren are estimated to be getting any education at all; policy experts Education Forum Sri Lanka say that of the others, just about 5% enjoy the privilege of an online classroom experience while the other 45% receive lessons and notes transmitted over various media, including television and WhatsApp. The problems of digital equity plague the delivery of any kind of learning to some communities that do not have the right devices, data, nor connectivity. Rural settings are especially challenged – some of them so remote that even terrestrial television channels don’t offer good coverage.

And we cannot forget the impact this education emergency has had on the world of work; parental involvement in education has amplified – many of them playing the role of educators in addition to juggling their own careers from home. It has been especially hard on women: A recent McKinsey report highlighted that the pandemic heightened the large and small inequalities faced by women, both at work and at home; particularly affected were working mothers and of those, women with kids younger than 10. The disproportionate caregiving burden exacerbated by the pandemic has driven millions of women out of the workforce while employers have had to extend extra support to facilitate the continued employment of those who remain. Normalcy in education must, therefore, precede the restoration of normalcy for women’s careers.

It is likely that school disruptions will continue until Sri Lanka reaches a satisfactory level of herd immunity or banishes Covid from its shores – both possibilities a considerable time span away. While America and Europe will vaccinate their younger school-going citizens this year, the Global South will be hard-pressed to procure vaccines for even its most vulnerable. Many children of school-going age are a part of Sri Lanka’s many extended families and thus resuming education amid a pandemic does pose a real danger for senior family members back home. Despite these challenges, every effort must be made to bring children back to physical schools – our education system may be replete with plenty of shortcomings, but at least it enshrines and delivers every child’s right to education.

The current model only serves to cover a curriculum from a distance, with an eye on examinations; policymakers should have endeavoured to simplify the content; to narrow down the desired learning outcomes; to use this moment to guide children to learn through exploration in their own settings. In the absence of the teacher-student dynamic, there should have been more effort made to empower children to think by themselves outside of the curriculum, instead of burdening parents with added responsibility. Instead, the response has been unimaginative and tedious, and we are likely to find thousands of children – especially the weaker ones and the poorer ones – left behind.

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