Do Not Let COVID-19 Disrupt Education
By Buddhika Samaraweera
There is hardly a field, not only in Sri Lanka, but also in the world that has not been affected by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been able to have such a major impact on all sectors, including education, tourism, and health sector.
At the same time, a large number of people lost their sources of income and some were even more severely affected. A prime example for this is the difficulties faced by tutors and students who attend tuition classes.
In March 2020, the Government decided to close tuition classes across the country after the first COVID- 19 infections were reported in Sri Lanka, and subsequently tried to reopen them on several occasions, but these attempts were not successful since the virus was spreading fast.
It was recently announced that permission has been granted by the authorities, to reopen tuition classes in areas other than the Western Province and areas designated as isolated, from tomorrow (25).
We must all acknowledge, whatever is the debate in society about tuition and school education, they have now become an integral part of the Sri Lankan education system.
In such a background, the continued postponement of tuition classes will cause inconvenience to teachers, students as well as many who engage in indirect jobs related to it.
The decision of the authorities to resume tuition may be reassuring to them, but it is very important to make sure that the classes are conducted following proper health guidelines, in a way of ensuring the health of both teachers and thousands of students who attend them.
The Ministry of Health recently announced, that the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardena had taken steps to issue a special circular regarding the conduct of tuition classes on 15 January. Accordingly, tuition classes have been allowed outside the Western Province and only 50 per cent of the total number of students, who can be accommodated to sit in a particular tuition class can participate, he said. The maximum number of students that can be in one class is 50, and Dr. Gunawardena requested the teachers and the owners of the institutions conducting the classes to conduct them only for the students who are scheduled to sit for the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations.
Dr. Gunawardena further said, considering the situation in the country, the resumption of tuition classes for other students could be considered and he hoped that those institutions and teachers would work ensuring classes are conducted in accordance with the health guidelines.
He said, it was the responsibility of all to ensure such tuition classes were not allowed to become hotspots for COVID-19, in the context where cases were still being reported in various parts of the country. In particular, he said, students are not allowed to travel from one district to another to attend tuition classes and only those students in the respective district are allowed to attend.
Also, Head of the Epidemiology Unit Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, at a recent Media briefing said, tuition classes are planned to commence with the opening of schools this year. He said, especially in the face of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ education has been severely hampered over the past year and steps should be taken to return to education as soon as possible.
“We hope that education will be restored in an organised manner in 2021. If in any way a COVID-19 patient is found to be among school children or among teachers, it is necessary to discuss how to provide the necessary treatment and separate them from others.
We will find solutions for these so that we can continue without closing schools and classes again,“ he said.
Speaking further, Dr. Samaraweera said, “We also know that conducting tuition has become an essential part in our education system. There is a need to restart them too.
In order to do it, the Ministry of Health is in discussions with the tuition teachers’ organisations and those conducting tuition classes and is in the process of preparing guidelines for the conducting of them in a hygienic manner,”
As Dr. Samaraweera said, the education sector in Sri Lanka suffered a major setback over the past year due to COVID-19. Even if the teachers try to conduct tuition online since they cannot do it physically, it doesn’t seem to be 100 per cent successful. This, is because some areas do not have adequate telephone signals and some students do not have sufficient technical knowledge to use such methods. In addition, the inability to pay for data by the parents is also a problem that many students face these days. Some families have two or three children attending tuition classes, and parents may not be able to provide all of them with a Smartphone to be following classes online.
Where COVID-19 patients are being reported daily, it is somewhat questionable whether the virus can be controlled by only stopping tuition classes in a situation where the Government has decided to open many public and private institutions and even bring tourists in.
Especially, in the recent past, various people had advertised on social media platforms such as Facebook about places where they could buy mobile phones at low prices, and many of them had stated, they were looking for Smartphones as their children needed to follow classes online. Especially at a time with the spread of COVID-19, many people have lost their jobs and many more have salary cuts. They cannot afford to buy new mobile phones in such a background.
Commenting on the authorities’ plans to resume tuition classes, Nandana, who runs a tuition institute in Ratnapura said, the institutes owned by him and many others in the area, have sufficient facilities to conduct classes in a manner that ensures the health and safety of the students. He added that many institutions had already taken steps to facilitate the conduct of classes in a safe manner, especially, during the period that classes were allowed.
“When people hear about tuition classes, they recall it only to be teachers and students. But, apart from students and teachers, there are several parties depending on this. In the current situation caused by this virus, not only teachers and students, but also many other parties have become helpless both financially and socially,” he added.
Meanwhile, Ransara, a teacher who conducts tuition classes in Avissawella, said, teachers as well as students have become very helpless with the suspension of tuition classes. He stated, teachers who conduct tuition on a large scale have other sources of income such as running businesses, and many who earn an income from tuition alone are now helpless. He also said, the government had not given them any special relief, except, the grace period to pay back loans.
He said, although he was conducting classes online, it was not 100% successful. He noted that a significant number of students, do not follow classes online, and the teachers are facing difficulties of obtaining payments from some students.
He also said, it would be appropriate to allow physical classes to be conducted, especially as some students may not follow classes online due to financial difficulties to buy mobile phones and data.
It is true that almost every country in the world is going through difficult times in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a lot of talk in the society about moving towards an online education system. In fact, if an online education system can be established instead of what we have today, it should really be appreciated. But if anyone had the idea that we have adapted to an online education system simply because a teacher and students are connected by a mobile phone and an Internet application, we must admit it is not true. Because it is very clear that it will take a considerable amount of time to establish such education system in a country like Sri Lanka. Also, considering the economic status of many families, it is questionable whether they really have the ability to adapt to such modern methods.
Whatever the educational system, we, as a country, must never allow education of children to be disrupted by blaming only the COVID-19. The pandemic will reach an end in a year or two, or researchers will be able to find a drug or vaccine in the future that can cure it 100%.
But if authorities do not provide necessary facilities for the education of children today, if they do not create the necessary environment for children to continue their education properly even in the midst of COVID-19, consequences of it will continue to be felt for many more years to come. But in spite of this situation, if we are able to equip the children of the country with education, without hindrance, it will, for no doubt, be marked in history as a great achievement for the country.