Brunch

The Covid education crisis: An open letter to education authorities 

An open letter about the Covid education crisis was submitted by the Education Forum Sri Lanka yesterday (1 July 2021) to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Education Prof. G.L. Peiris, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, and Members of the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Education. 

The letter was written to draw the attention of education authorities to the serious situation faced by the 4.3 million student population in this country since March 2020 when the pandemic first appeared. “There has not been any education for them in the last 15 months, except for a few weeks when schools opened briefly, and a façade of online education received by a few at other times,” noted the letter. The letter further listed out some of the grave consequences of long-term school closures, which are presented below.

Due to an undue reliance on online education, more than half the children are left out of contact with their schools. Left without guidance, teachers have adopted social media such as WhatsApp to send out notes and assignments connecting with whoever they could, even though the Census and Statistics Department reported in 2019 that only 29% of the population accessed the internet. 

Further, a survey of teachers representing large and small schools across all 25 districts carried out by the Education Forum Sri Lanka in November 2020 revealed that on average teachers were able to give a real-time classroom experience using software such as Zoom to only 5% of their students and another 40% were contacted via social media, leaving 55% without any contact. Some schools used ad hoc methods to share printed material with their students.

Even those receiving an “online” classroom experience  are subjected to “chalk and talk” style of teaching made worse by the mediation of a digital screen. With no instructions to manage a heavy  curriculum under these extraordinary conditions, teachers are rushing to cover the syllabus in the accustomed chalk and talk style. Zoom fatigue is causing even the small percent of children who are online to switch off from any learning, making online education a mere facade. 

All children face loss of learning, and mental, physical, and emotional issues after being isolated for 15 months and more. Students who have been stuck at home for long without physical interaction with friends and the simplest of activities at school face emotional problems, mental health issues, and even depression. These anxieties are compounded by the fear of facing national examinations, which are competitive and highly stressful. 

Also, not all home environments are safe for children. For some children, school is often the place where they find a respite. Isolated due to Covid-19, children have no escape from family conflicts and even violence, and in some cases they themselves suffer physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

We urge the authorities to reflect on the above with the seriousness it deserves, and to implement the following measures with urgency:

 

Develop and execute a plan for opening schools at the earliest possible – Vaccinate all teachers identifying them as frontline workers; order low-cost test kits focusing on testing high-risk areas first; decentralise decision-making to allow each school to open to the maximum extent possible as per each local situation.

 

Support schools and teachers to reach out to all home-bound children – Instruct schools to prioritise the education of the most vulnerable children and conduct distance education using offline methods as the base. Offline modalities can be discussed as needed; support the teachers with funds for devices and other tools they need to adapt to the individual situation of each child; instruct Grama niladhari level committees to work with schools to follow up on social, emotional, nutritional, and other needs of each child in their jurisdictions.

Reduce curricular and examination burden on home-bound students Direct the National Institute of Education to identify essential learning competencies for those in grades 1-11, noting that collegiate level grades 12-13 require different solutions; postpone all national examinations and other competitive assessments to the end of 2022, noting that Advanced Level examination requires special consideration; develop benchmark diagnostic tests for teachers to assess student learning; trust the teachers to do the right thing.

Continue with reduced curricular and examination burden as students get back to schools – Do not overload children with academic content. Focus only on getting them up to speed on essential competencies; do not wait till 2023 to introduce proposed education reforms. Proposed reforms aim to reduce the examination-based content of the curriculum to 30% and enable activity-based learning for the other 70%. This is the moment to pilot the reforms. Trust our provincial, zonal, and divisional education experts and principals and teachers to experiment with minimum guidelines from the centre. Circumstances have forced them to experiment without guidance from the centre, anyway.

 

It would be a very grave mistake to trivialise or ignore this situation. The education crisis would be the one that would remain even after the pandemic settles. It could turn into  a catastrophe with many children leaving school permanently, setting back past gains on school attendance. We are yet to find the effects of hours spent on the internet without adequate preparation or supervision, or the Covid learning losses. Future youth will be entering a harsher and poorer post-Covid-19 world ill-equipped. 

Civic groups across the country have been convening dialogues on all aspects of distance education during the pandemic. Resources are available on offline distance education, social-emotional learning, emergency preparedness of schools, and other topics related to proposed solutions. We urge the Government to seek help from all quarters including the cross section of signatory educationists, civil society organisations, and other professionals here to prevent the covid education crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

 

– Education Forum Sri Lanka Co-Founders Dr. Tara de Mel and Dr. Sujata Gamage

The letter was consigned by All Ceylon Union of Teachers President Angela Wijesinghe, Ramanie Jayaweera from the All Ceylon Union of English Teachers, Wasantha Dharmasiri from the Association of Education Professionals, Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) President Prof. Shyama Banneheka, former D.S. Senanayake College Colombo Principal Somabandu Kodikara, Methodist College Principal Hiranya Fernando, S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia Warden Rev. Marc Billimoria, former Trinity College Principal Andrew Fowler-Watt, former Methodist College Principal Shanthi Dias, Seekers Pre-School Director Shanthi Wijesinghe, Training Centre for Montessori Teachers Director Kumudini Nanayakkara, St. Thomas’ College Gurutalawa Headmaster Rev. S. Philip.Nesakumar, veteran science educator Lakshman Nonis, Learn for Life Lanka Co-founder Murtaza Esufally, Venture Frontier Lanka Co-founder Heminda Jayaweera, Advocata Institute Chairman Murtaza Jafferjee, LIRNEasia Chairman Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Sanasa International Managing Director Samadanie Kiriwandeniya, Marga Institute Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Amar Goonatileka, former Anglican Bishop of Colombo Rev. Duleep de Chickera, playwright and theatre director Ruwanthie de Chickera, Opene Sri Lanka Activist in Mannar Raga Alphonsus, economist Anushka Wijesinghe, University of Melbourne Research Fellow Dr. Januka Attanayake, social-emotional learning researcher and Without Borders Founder Kavindya Tennekoon, psychologist Evan Shanthini Ekanayake, retired company chairman and Eisenhower Fellow H.D. Gunawardena, Attorney-at-Law Dilani Alagaratnam, consultant paediatrician Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe, Ministry of Health DDG and Eisenhower Fellow Dr. Susie Perera, former Sri Lanka Medical Association President Dr. Ruvaiz Haniffa, Dr. D. C. Ambalavanar from the Faculty of Medicine of Jaffna, Dr. Mahim Mendis from the Open University Sri Lanka, Prof. Saumya Liyanage from the University of Visual and Performing Arts Colombo, Prof. Priyan Dias from the University of Moratuwa, former Open University of Sri Lanka Professor Dr. Thaiyamuthu Thanaraj, Prof. Shamala Kumar from the University of Peradeniya, and Women’s Education and Research Centre Governing Council member Sulakshana de Mel.