Education must continue | Sunday Observer

Education must continue

24 January, 2021

Asked to name a field or endeavour that was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, most people will say ‘tourism’. True, international tourism has suffered a massive downturn as countries keep their borders closed to keep the virus at bay. Millions of people who depended on tourism have lost their jobs and the aviation, cruise and hospitality industries will take years to recover.

On second thoughts, there is another human endeavour that has been adversely affected by the pandemic, perhaps with even greater implications for the future of humanity – education. Worldwide, children have been confined to their homes as schools remained shut for most of last year. However, many countries including Sri Lanka have cautiously re-opened schools on a limited scale, probably aiming at a hybrid in-person and online education system.

It is vital that we somehow see the back of this pandemic for the sake of the future generations. A pandemic cannot be allowed to disrupt the future destiny of our young generation. This is the message that we have to ponder on as we celebrate the International Education Day today (24). The IED occurs in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that led to a global learning disruption of unprecedented scale and severity.

The closure of schools, universities and other learning institutions, as well as the interruption of many literacy and lifelong learning programs, has affected the lives of 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries. As a New Year begins, now is the time to step up collaboration and international solidarity to place education and lifelong learning at the centre of the recovery and the transformation towards more inclusive, safe and sustainable societies.

The right to education is so fundamental to human existence that it has been enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration calls for free and compulsory elementary education. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, goes further to stipulate that countries shall make higher education accessible to all. In Sri Lanka, education is compulsory till age 16.

When it adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015, the international community recognised that education is essential for the success of all 17 of its goals. Sustainable Development Goal 4 aims to ‘ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ by 2030.

Education offers children a ladder out of poverty and a path to a promising future. But about 265 million children and adolescents around the world do not have the opportunity to enter or complete school; 617 million children and adolescents cannot read and do basic Mathematics; less than 40 percent of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school. Without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind.

Covid-19 has aggravated this situation and also exposed another glaring factor – the Digital Divide. As schools moved online using tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom, millions of students found themselves out of the loop either due to lack of equipment (laptops, tablets) or broadband access. In fact, UNICEF has estimated that 463 million children worldwide or one of every three school-aged learners, do not have the tools they need to participate fully in virtual schooling.

Here in Sri Lanka, we saw pictures of children studying by drains in towns, as their homes do not get a 4G signal. Most of them have to borrow a Smartphone from their parents, who can hardly afford to buy laptops or tablets. A Smartphone screen is hardly adequate for online lessons in any case. While data is comparatively cheap in Sri Lanka (100 GB for Rs.1,000), many parents cannot afford recurring payments of this nature either.

The Government plans to provide loan facilities for university students to buy laptops, which is a long-felt need. Moreover, they only have to pay it back once they are employed. This will help many university students to catch up on their studies online. Granted, the Government cannot extend such a facility to the four million schoolchildren under the current economic circumstances, but most experts are now advocating an in-classroom hybrid education model, where some online teaching takes place in the classroom itself. This is also known as the smart classroom concept.

Now that schools are open countrywide except in the Western Province, the authorities should ensure a faster rollout of the smart classroom concept countrywide. It is already operational in a few schools. The Government should also open more Nenasalas in major towns and computer centres in schools for children to access online lessons. The Government should, at a later date, contemplate providing laptops or tablets to senior students.

There is a raging debate about having schools open during the pandemic. Different countries have taken different approaches to this question. However, it is universally known that children are the most immune group in the population.

The only controversial point is that they can be unwitting carriers of the disease even if they themselves do not show any symptoms. Thus the Sri Lankan authorities should maintain a constant vigilance on the schools that are open and advice the school principals to report any infections immediately. In some countries, students are tested weekly, though this could be impossible here given our economic constraints. But the safety of children is paramount, as is ensuring a brighter future for them.