With the Covid-19 pandemic showing no signs of abating just yet, there is every possibility that school kids will be staying at home for a while more.  At least most of those residing in areas where the number of Covid cases is high will not be returning to school proper any time soon.

It also means more time spent learning online.

Caught unawares, Sri Lanka’s education system, like in many other countries, has not been geared to online or distance education.  Naturally, almost a year since the country went into lockdown in March last year, teaching methods remain the same.  Granted, there has been little or no opportunity to provide training in online teaching methods, except of course through online courses!

Teachers are expected to complete the given syllabus, and if that means loading more and more work on the children, so be it.   For parents who are managing this new normal especially through their phones, the issue of not only about ensuring that they have enough data, but having to share their phones with the children.  If such parents fall within the essential services category, children must wait for their parents to get home from work, to access their lessons.

In almost all instances where children have access to a computer, it also means allotting equal or adequate time for each child, if there is only one such devise in a family of more than one child.

Of course, as we all know, a larger portion of our school aged children have no phone or a computer, and even if they do, most have no internet access.  Though the Education Ministry had made arrangements to mail the lessons to such children, the fact remains that this situation has only widened the gap of equal access to education between students of better of families and the rest.

Along with all these challenges are concerns about the health of children who must sit before a computer screen for most of the day, as well as the issues faced by parents in managing them.

Keeping children, whose attention spans are quite limited, focussed on the computer screens and the teaching imparted in this manner is definitely a challenge according to Professor  of Psychiatry, University of Kelaniya, Shehan Williams,  who recently participated in an online discussion on e-learning and the challenges posed, organised by the Sunday Times Business Club.  He says in a formal school environment, children are more inclined to follow processes because there is structure and discipline.


Even though he despairs of Sri Lanka’s traditional method of teaching by rote, and ramming down information that may not be of any use in a child’s later life, the advantage of being at school, he points out is that children mix with their peers and engage in the natural social interactions of role-playing, arguing, fighting, taking  responsibility, discipline etc., which are all important in the development of a child.    Being confined to the home and studying on line, robs children of the opportunity to hone those everyday life skills in an environment away from their homes.

The new normal has transferred the role that a school plays in the life of a child, to parents.  And that too is a new challenge, Williams says.  Most parents too work from home, while others may not.  However, though one may work from home, it does not necessarily mean spending quality time with their children.
Granted the parents are at home in the physical sense, but not necessarily in the emotional sense. Oft times, it would be a case of parents even spending their free hours, or meal times, scrolling through their phones, and paying little or no attention to their children.

Williams who was joined by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Ravimal Galappaththi in the discussion also cautioned against allowing children to spend all of their free time playing video games or watching TV, as a convenient method of keeping them occupied.  Instead he advises parents to spend more time in sharing stories, going for walks or similar activities that help in the development of the child and keeping them away from a computer screen.

Siblings they maybe, but each child has a different temperament, and parents must be cognizant of that too.

No one under 16 years should have independent internet accounts says Williams, as such practices could lead to more complicated issues and children even being lured into unsuitable activities  by unscrupulous entities. Here, the school too has a role to play teaching children to discern practices that are right or wrong when using the internet, he adds.

Dr. Galappaththi explained that the change from attending regular school to stay-at –home online learning, means a huge adjustment in a child’s brain. Parents must be mindful of that he says, adding that kids who seemed to be demanding more attention, could simply be dealing with their sense of fear and anxiety brought upon by this new situation.

It is also important that children take ten to 15 minute breaks after twenty to thirty minutes of study.

Parents must not only interact more with their children, but must be supportive of each other and take turns spending quality time with them, he added.

The panelists discussed how parents would consult them to have sleep medication prescribed for their offspring.   With no requirement to wake up early for school, children, mostly older kids tend to sleep late and wake up much later.   This is because many tend to get online late in the night as data is free or available at a lower rate then. Parents need to be aware of such trends instead of seeking psychiatric intervention, they advise.

As the panelists say, such instances do not require medical treatment, but understanding the trends, showing empathy and working out suitable arrangements.

Another area of concern is that children are deprived of physical activity outside their homes, given the health guidelines that must be adhered to.  Urban kids are more negatively impacted in this case, especially those living in apartments.  In such a situation of course, children living in rural areas stand to gain, even though they may be losing out on keeping abreast with others of their age in terms of their studies. Yet, they will  the less crowded and open spaces will

Looking at the overall system of education, the panelists lamented the very long years of schooling Sri Lankan children are put through.  Says Williams, nine years of schooling is more than enough instead of the current 13 years.  It is time, he says, that the entire system is revamped, and the number of subjects taught reduced to six from 13.  As well, learning should be student centred and not teacher centred.  Should religion for instance be an exam oriented subject?

Clearly, the Covid -19 new normal has brought with it many challenges that society needs to work through.

In terms of Sri Lanka’s education system, perhaps this would be a golden opportunity, if Education authorities have not already begun exploring, to revisit teaching methods and syllabuses and introduce a more student friendly, less stressful learning experience with equal access and facilities for all.


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