Sri Lankan authorities announced over the weekend that State and government-approved private schools across Colombo and surrounding regions will be closed this coming week, in a further blow to children’s education already impacted by years of disruptions due to COVID-19.
The move comes amid a worsening nation-wide fuel shortage, with parents having to wait up to two days – or over 50 hours – in queues to refuel their cars. While parents queue for fuel, many children are either accompanying them for hours, or are staying home worrying about their parents’ wellbeing. Queuing for fuel is also keeping parents away from work, creating further financial stress on families.
Without enough fuel for both private vehicles and public transport, many children across the country have no way to get to school, even in regions where schools are formally open. Only 20% of public bus services across the country are in operation and private transport services, such as trishaws [motorised rickshaws], are also operating at partial capacity, with drivers stuck in long fuel queues.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence, with food security, agriculture, livelihoods, and access to health particularly affected. Many schools in Sri Lanka were closed for one and a half years during the height of the pandemic, but since they re-opened at the start of 2022, they have closed multiple times as a result of the current crisis.
This latest closure will further disrupt children’s education across major cities and towns, as well as prevent children from accessing free school meals, a lifeline for the country’s most vulnerable children. A recent needs assessment by Save the Children showed that 50% of families were struggling to support their children’s education as a result of the crisis and some children were already dropping out of school.
While the government of Sri Lanka has requested that schools across the country re-introduce online learning systems that were in place during COVID-19, many children and families don’t have the money to afford data. Children have also told Save the Children that in many rural areas, they don’t have access to the internet or share a device with multiple children.
Hasna*, 16, a student from Colombo, told Save the Children:
“Standing in the line for kerosene oil made me very sad. We’ve never had to do something like that before, but now we have to go, and there’s nothing to do. My mother has headaches, and that makes me scared.
“Going to the queues is a huge expense for us – the bus used to be 30 Rupees (8 cents USD), but now we have to pay 200 Rupees (56 cents USD), so we all try to go together and split the cost. But now the situation with the trishaws [motorised rickshaw] is the same with buses – everyone’s on strike and there are no buses. The only reason I was able to go for my O-Levels in a trishaw is because the driver knew us, and was willing to stay in line only because it was us. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go.”
Ranjan Weththasinghe, Save the Children’s Director of Programmes in Sri Lanka, said:
“A recent needs assessment by Save the Children shows that 50% of families are really struggling to support their children’s education and some children are already dropping out of school. Parents are having to decide whether to buy data to access online classes, or use this money for food. Faced with such a decision, families make the life-saving choice. But at what cost?
“Children across Sri Lanka have had a terrible two years, with COVID-related school closures completely disrupting their ability to get a basic education. This economic crisis is making things worse. Not only are schools closing once again, but families have even less resources at their disposal to keep kids learning than they did before the pandemic.
“We are deeply concerned that this worsening economic crisis is going to hold back Sri Lanka’s children for possibly years to come. Children are the country’s future. Their needs must be the priority. Now is the time for the international community to show solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka.”
The UN and humanitarian organizations are calling on donors to urgently provide life-saving assistance to the women, men, and children most affected by the crisis to prevent the humanitarian situation deteriorating in the country.
Save the Children Sri Lanka is implementing a ‘food for education’ program across 887 schools in seven districts in the country, many of which will be impacted by the latest closures. The project complements the government’s school meal program to improve children’s nutrition and reduce the dropout rate from schools across the country.
Save the Children conducted a rapid needs assessment from May to June 2022 from a total of 2309 households across nine districts in Sri Lanka.
Save the Children Sri Lanka aims to help one million people through humanitarian assistance implemented in vulnerable communities in nine districts across the country. Save the Children’s response will provide immediate food and nutrition needs to the most vulnerable populations and protect and diversify livelihoods. It will provide support to children, in small and resource-poor schools in rural and urban areas, to ensure they have uninterrupted access to education.
Sri Lanka was formerly an upper-middle income country, however the pandemic in 2020 resulted in the country being downgraded to lower-middle income status.
The World Bank suggests that over 500,000 people in Sri Lanka may have been pushed into poverty as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and this number is now likely to increase.
Sri Lanka was progressing steadily towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, especially in relation to poverty reduction (SDG 1) reductions in maternal, neonatal and infant mortality (SDG 3), and in literacy, enrolment and completion rates for primary and secondary education (SDG 4). However, the current economic crisis threatens reversing many of these gains, including the peace dividends.