By Dinithi Gunasekera
“When the Covid restrictions were in place earlier in the year, we had lectures through Zoom. Then, we started university on 24 August. We had just started exams the week before last when these new cases were detected. All our exams are postponed yet again. It seems we will be graduating in five years instead of four,” said Anudi Karunanayake, a first-year student at the University of Colombo, in conversation with The Sunday Morning Brunch.
Things seemed to be slowly but surely drifting back to normal in the island of Sri Lanka, after over a two-month period of islandwide curfew and a few months of adjusting to the “new normal”. However now, the public is yet again left in the lurch after a garment worker in an apparel factory tested positive for the coronavirus at Gampaha Hospital on 3 October, which also led to the detection of the Minuwangoda Covid cluster soon after.
As at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (7), the Covid-19-positive cases from the Minuwangoda cluster stood at 832 and curfew was imposed in the Divulapitiya, Minuwangoda, Veyangoda, Gampaha, and a number of other adjacent police divisions until further notice.
When will this end?
Following the recent developments, schools that were to be closed for holidays following the grade five scholarship examination and Advanced Level (A/L) examination commenced vacation five days prior to the set date.
Although many may state that schoolgoers have it easy as the holidays were pre-planned and so it was set to begin either way, the hourly news updates on hundreds of newly confirmed cases suggest otherwise.
“Right after quarantine, when we came back to school, we started off where we left off. The newly inducted batch of prefects in our school was determined to get back to work – as we all should be. We had an excellent batch of prefects last year and we noticed how, unfortunately, they were unable to go through with their planned duties to their fullest capacity because of the coronavirus. The goal of our newly inducted guild was to make sure that we covered everything the previous batch couldn’t,” said Dulandi Gunasekera, a newly inducted prefect at Musaeus College.
“We stopped school when we were on the verge of distributing permission slips to start physical meetings and projects at school again. We had a ray of hope that everything will go as planned. But now, the permission slips are in my schoolbag since Friday (2).
“The uncertainty is the most daunting thing. The problem is we don’t know how far this would go. We don’t know if we would go for another lockdown. We were really hyped up about everything we had planned and now we’re not even sure if we can execute it. This whole incident hitting at the peak of everything going back to normal is possibly the worst thing,” explained the forlorn school prefect.
Besides the disenchanted feelings and the dashed hopes of school students, we learnt that the teaching staff of schools too are deeply concerned about the foggy path ahead.
Prolonged lockdowns and curfews would only mean the continuation or resumption of lessons online via popular online platforms and learning management systems (LMSs) such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom, etc.
Did the first lockdown have its benefits?
However, one of the very few silver linings of the first wave of Covid-19 was undoubtedly the major developments in the information technology (IT) sector in Sri Lanka, and only a very few would disagree. It can be said that Covid-19 practically forced Sri Lanka to adapt to the functional utilisation of e-learning and work-from-home arrangements, which we’ve been stalling for a much longer time period than we’d like to admit.
“The Covid-19 situation changed the lives of students and teachers alike. I am part of a leading private school in Colombo where the school authorities managed to launch online teaching on a regular basis by creating an online teaching platform,” shared Sajeevanie Bandara, a senior teacher and university guidance counsellor from a reputed school in Colombo.
“Regardless, many of the schools in the island do not have the same facilities and resources. We as a school successfully ensured the academic progress of the students, and even held online tests for evaluation purposes. It’s true that it wasn’t smooth sailing initially, as all the teachers were not equally competent in using IT for teaching purposes. However, with time and regular training sessions, they became competent.
“As an A/L teacher, online teaching during the pandemic situation proved to be very successful as the students are more mature. They even felt quite confident in asking questions verbally and through the chat box. So the school I represent is ready to face any unexpected situation as we successfully handled the first lockdown. However, I understand that it won’t be the same for schools throughout the island.”
Sri Lanka, still classified as a developing nation on the world stage, has enough and more reasons to be anxious about the rocky months to come. Despite the plentiful praise and commendations received by reputed international organisations from all across the globe, the country is currently at a stumbling point economically.
Another looming fear is the possibility of a further postponement of the already delayed A/L examinations that were originally scheduled to be held in August.
The government announced on 7 October that GCE Advanced Level and Grade 5 scholarship examinations will be held as scheduled.
“My batch mates and I are fed up. The constant delaying of the exam is such a burden and an added stress. I was so fed up that I even went on a trip to Nuwara Eliya with my friends last week. If anyone hears someone from an earlier batch having gone on a trip at the brink of A/L exams, they would have asked if he or she was mad,” shared Liyara Silva, a frustrated A/L student following the local curriculum.
In addition to schools, a couple of government universities have also closed while many other neighbouring universities and private institutions have done so unofficially on the basis of keeping its student population safe.
Sri Lanka’s state-run universities, reputed for its long-drawn semesters due to reasons varying from sudden student union strikes to political interventions to mere inefficiencies of the system, could potentially inculcate more unrest within the avid young student population as a result of further obstacles to their graduation.
“The exams are postponed, but we have lectures, for now. They informed us, strictly, to wear masks within the university premises. The lack of time is what I’m worried about,” commented Anuki Viyathma, a second-year student at the University of Jayewardenepura.
The limitations to learning due to the lack of an online platform were yet again highlighted by a number of university students we spoke to. This proved to be particularly challenging for students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
“The major problem we are facing currently is connection issues. Luckily, we had our exams in the last three weeks. We haven’t completed the practical units yet. They were planning to carry out face-to-face practical exams, like observing tissues and so on. But yesterday we were informed to prepare presentations on those subjects, which, to be honest, is ineffective,” shared a second-year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo.
Stuck here: The plight of students studying abroad
University students either already attending a foreign university or even prospective students in foreign universities who are currently in Sri Lanka are facing major challenges. The visa issuing process, which was by default regulated due to the circumstances in other countries, would be further hindered, while travel restrictions imposed would now be further heightened.
Sadhana Ranasinghe, a prospective medical student of a university in Georgia, US, shared her thoughts with us, stating: “At the moment, I’m highly stressed because the university keeps telling us to come there as soon as possible. The Health Ministry of Georgia stresses that doing a medical degree online is not acceptable, which is true. At the moment, the university just announced that they will stop conducting online lectures by 19 October and that we should get there through a chartered flight. If we can’t or we aren’t willing to come, we are requested to skip this semester, or worse, repeat it all over again next year.
“In medicine, there is also a secondary subject called ‘communication skills’ in which we are supposed to go to clinics, visit patients, talk with them, and get the relevant patient history and diagnoses. We were supposed to start communication skills and Georgian language in the first semester.”
Think of this as a ‘delay’; focus on mental health
Despite all the evident drawbacks the student population is facing, many share the sentiment that the country’s prompt response to adversity is in fact, “the best solution according to the current situation”.
The hindrances to conducting lessons are, in a sense, only one side of the coin. A pandemic such as this has more deep-rooted psychological impacts on citizens, even more so in the case of students. In an exchange with senior lecturer in psychology and Open University of Sri Lanka Department of Psychology chartered health psychologist Dr. G.P. Gamage, a number of considerable pointers were unveiled.
Dr. Gamage shared that it’s important to have a clear picture of the situation without any misinformation.
“Most of the time, it is misinformation that creates a lot of distress. This is particularly important for grade five students who were about to face the exams as these children are 10-11 years old and do not have the level of cognition and emotional maturity of adults. They see their parents in distress and tend to ‘mimic’ them.”
Dr. Gamage advised parents, teachers, and children to minimise their exposure to many different types of media and curtail viewing news items at short intervals, while maintaining calm within the household. “Adults within households can encourage more ‘opportunity’-based discussions with regard to the current situation. You can prepare them for any situation just by engaging them in household chores and showing them that when things are not perfect, there are other options. The main message is to prepare them for eventualities by showing them that the world is not a perfect place, that sometimes we all have to adjust accordingly, and that the outcomes may not even be as negative as they think,” explained Dr. Gamage.
“We need to think of the delay as just one occurrence in the whole array of events that will happen. While it will leave a ‘mark’ in the students’ records, what’s important is that this obstacle should not stop them achieving their life goals, as there can be opportunities also hidden in this dark cloud.”
Sharing her expertise, Dr. Gamage recommends an activity for A/L students preparing for the upcoming exams and for parents of younger children.
“Take a piece of paper, divide it into two halves, and on the right side, write down the things you enjoyed doing during the lockdown period. On the left side, write the things you did not like about the lockdown period that’s now in the past. Compare both sides and try to see that all the experiences are balanced in a certain way with both positive and negative aspects. However, you need to also remember that while we should hold on to the positives and enhance those, we should either convert the negatives also into positive or discard these negative aspects as life experiences we gained.”
Talking about mental health amidst the pandemic, Dr. Gamage stated that circumstances in life are always changing – that it is a fact of life.
“Maintaining good mental health is all about adjusting to the situations in a healthy manner without resorting to harmful behaviour or negative reactions continuously.”