Sri Lanka Struggles with Virtual School

by Anya De Saram-larssen

Sri Lanka prides itself on the fact that every child is entitled to free education. When
COVID struck and the first local case was reported on March 10th, 2020, the majority
of students no longer have access to education as schools were forced to shut down
and switch to online learning. According to the Department of Census and Statistics,
over 4.2 million children are in Sri Lanka’s school system. However, it is estimated
that only a fraction of these students has access to a stable internet connection or a
device. This has highlighted the socio-economic inequalities in Sri Lanka. When
talking about what school was like in Sri Lanka during the pandemic, how you
experienced school depended on where you lived, and what your socio-economic
background is.

British School in Colombo (BSC). Photo courtesy of Anya De Saram-larssen

If you lived in the capital city, Colombo, and attended a posh international school,
school life under the pandemic was much easier, than if you attended a public school
in a rural area, where your family may not be able to afford a device and where
internet connection may be non-existent. Over 66% of households with children
under the age of 18 do not have any connection to an internet device, according to
LIRNEasia’s recent report.

For many of these children, having enough food to eat was a more pressing challenge
than trying to keep up with school. School children attending public schools are
entitled to a free meal. This is because most of them have to walk a long way to reach
school. It also motivates their parents to send them for an education because it means
one less meal to provide. However, when schools shut down children more likely
went hungry without their free meal.

Kavitha, age 14 who attends the British School in Colombo (BSC), explained what it
was like doing online school during the lockdown. Her father is a businessman and
her mother is a stay at home mum. “It was rather difficult to gather resources like a
proper internet connection and paper for subjects like art. When we were online we
had a huge amount of work, so when we switched back to offline it was stressful as
there was no time to revise what we didn’t understand during the lockdown and
relearn what we forgot over summer”.

16-year-old Yubeen is a Korean expat who lives with her aunt who owns a packaging
factory in Sri Lanka. Yubeen, who is also a student at the BSC explains what a
typical school day was like when she returned to school after the lockdown. “Parents
were not allowed to enter the school, so it was just students and staff. There were hand
sanitizer bottles almost outside every classroom and everyone wore a mask. It was
really uncomfortable to wear a mask because all the windows were open so we could
not turn the AC on. Everyone was sweating so much. No one really social distances,
so the only main difference between school before and after the pandemic was the
masks, the hand sanitizers, and no sports and after school societies”.

Sadhinsa, a 15-year-old girl and a student at the Overseas School in Colombo (OSC)
mentioned that “Before the pandemic, everything was much more physical, and we
were able to do a lot more things without the fear of getting Corona. I don’t think
anyone really took Corona seriously until schools decided to go online. You didn’t get
to see friends or go to school, that was a bit difficult especially for extroverted people.
However, Corona was actually pretty helpful in getting closer to some people through
texts and calls. I was able to form and build relationships with people that way”.

Radhika, who is 15 years old and attends a public school in the suburbs of Colombo
shared her very different experience with learning during the pandemic. Her father is a
fisherman and her mother is a cleaner. Both of her parents were unable to work during
the pandemic, making her economic situation very precarious. Radhika said, “I had
nothing to do all-day besides look after my little brother because school was closed
and I did not have the option of online school.”

Outside of the capital city, things were quite different depending on where you lived.
In the mountainous area in the middle of the country called Galaha, it was as if
COVID-19 didn’t even exist. No one was wearing masks and everyone went about
their daily lives. Schools in that area were small and the classes were usually
conducted in an outdoor area. Those children did not get affected as much and their
lives continued without much disruption.

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