The closure of schools is, of course, damaging to children’s education, however, the damage is far deeper than solely academic. Schools are not just a place for learning- rather, they are places to socialise, develop emotionally, and for some children, a refuge from a troubled family life. Prof. Russell Viner, President of the Royal College [...]


Does closing schools close lives?


The closure of schools is, of course, damaging to children’s education, however, the damage is far deeper than solely academic.

Schools are not just a place for learning- rather, they are places to socialise, develop emotionally, and for some children, a refuge from a troubled family life. Prof. Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health UK, expressed this concisely, addressing MPs on the Education Select Committee: “When we close schools, we close their lives.”

Whilst children are not likely to find Covid-19 as life-threatening (there have been far fewer deaths of children comparatively to the older age groups), they are very much the victims of the pandemic and our response to it, in many other ways.

Some of these- the long-term effects of which are arguably worse than any illness, or perhaps even death. From increasing rates of mental health problems to rising levels of abuse, child neglect, as well as emotional and developmental harm, this global pandemic continues to have a devastating effect on Sri Lankan and the world’s, youth.

Prof. Viner further emphasises the range of harm to children because of the pandemic – from being isolated and lonely, to suffering from sleep problems and obesity, along with unhealthy habits caused by reduced physical activity and in some cases, even lack of access to fresh air.

In addition to the closure of schools, the pandemic has brought about crippling amounts of stress to families- the rising levels of unemployment and resulting financial insecurity, combined with the “stay-at-home” government directives, has placed incredible strain on home and family life, throughout the island.

The UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), reports the amount of counselling for loneliness provided by its “Childline” service, has risen by ten percent since the pandemic started. Neil Homer, a volunteer for the service for the past twelve years since 2009, states, “It’s had a devastating impact”, as he has never known anything like it.

Unfortunately, we don’t have these statistics for Sri Lanka; nevertheless, experts agree that mental health problems are on the rise and there are clear signs that the upheaval in children’s lives is having a marked impact on children’s mental health. One only has to listen to a local news channel to hear of the tragic and strange acts committed by children to and within their families

The UK’s Office for National Statistics has been tracking more than 3,000 young people over the last four years. The latest findings of the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report (produced by NHS Digital), found that one in six children, aged five to 16 years, had a “probable mental health disorder” – a statistic up from one in nine children, just three years previously.

Children involved in the research cited family tensions, financial concerns, feelings of isolation from friends, as well as fear surrounding the virus, as causes of their distress.

Undoubtedly, older teenagers and adolescents have too been affected as they have seen their prospects shrink; in fact, older girls recorded the highest rates of ‘probable mental disorder’.  Of the youth, more than half were “always” or “often”, feeling anxious – this is the highest level ever-recorded, where fears have exacerbated as young people are “losing all hope for their future”.

The Invisible Cost of the Virus and Lockdowns

The “evidence” is to be proven; however, experts suggest that children, youth and teenagers are being “harmed” by what is the secondary, indirect impact of the virus. Children, especially those with disabilities, residing in sub-urban or vertical-living, low-cost housing areas, are completely restricted – almost as if they were ‘incarcerated’.

The situation for children with learning disabilities in Sri Lanka, is that too many children living with disabilities are missing out on the benefits of education. In 2016, UNICEF Sri Lanka commissioned the ‘Learning Disabilities in Sri Lanka’ report, with the following findings:

-23.5% of children aged 5-14 with disabilities are excluded from mainstream education (DCS, Statistical Data 2012) and amongst those who do attend mainstream schools, participation in educational activity reduces with age.

-Around 55.4% of the disabled population aged 15-19 and 86% of the disabled population aged 20-24 are not engaged in any educational activity or vocational training.

-The main challenges for children living with disabilities in benefiting from education cited a lack of skilled teachers, a lack of appropriate infrastructure in schools, limited scope in curricula and the overall quality of education.

These UNICEF Sri Lanka figures are from 2016- given it’s now the final quarter of 2021 and nineteen months into a global pandemic, we can be all but certain that the latest statistics would denote an even larger gap to be addressed. With the nature of the pandemic and our response to it, we have created even greater challenges for these children and their families.

For example, families of children with the most complex conditions, requiring at-home care from specialist nurses and carers, would have been left helpless with their carers being deployed for Covid-19 duties.

So, with the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the lockdown, in some cases, children have ended up “incarcerated” in their homes, “There are some who have barely had any formal education since lockdown began.”

Since most independent children and youth have struggled with closures and online classes and such, the estimates are that more than half of the parents and guardians have been unable to address the additional learning needs of children with special needs, who are learning remotely.

Dire consequences of the “invisible” aspect of the pandemic, is that the abuse of children has also become invisible, with numbers of children being physically and psychologically harmed, on the rise. Lamentably, with the police focused on lockdown rule-breaks etc., there are no statistics in Sri Lanka indicating any rise of these cases, except for a few high-profile media / politically motivated cases. A lack of statistics, however, does not mean there’s no situation there; indeed, there are reports of the Women and Children’s facilities at local police stations being overwhelmed by complaints of domestic violence. We can be sure where there is domestic violence, children too will undoubtedly suffer the horrors – psychological or physical trauma; more often than not, both.

In the UK, published research between April and September 2021, cites 285 reports by councils of child deaths and incidents of serious harm, including child sexual exploitation. This was a rise of more than a quarter on the same period the year before. The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, is worried this is just the tip of the iceberg, arguing the lockdowns, closure of schools and stay-at-home orders have led to a generation of vulnerable children becoming “invisible” to social workers.

Figures from the UK show that before the pandemic, there were already more than two million children in England and Wales living in households affected by one of the “toxic trio” – domestic abuse, parental drug and alcohol dependency or severe mental health issues. The fear is this will have risen significantly during the pandemic.

Sunil Bhopal, an expert in child health at Newcastle University, agrees. He believes too many people dismiss the impact on children, claiming they are “resilient” and will “bounce back”. He believes this is misguided and instead, growing up in a world where even “playing with your friends is illegal” threatens to cause long-lasting damage to many; “I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say children and their families have been abandoned.”

Global experts warn that children will be living with the legacy of the pandemic for “years to come”, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, and want to see a major investment in support for all children, especially those that struggle with the physical and mental challenges on a daily basis.

Disclaimer: All ideas and comments are my own and does not represent the views of the company or organisation. This article is combination of published plus new ideas and meant only to inform.

Krishan Senaratna
BSc Hons (Middlesex – UK)
Grad Dip(CIM-UK), Dip (IOH-UK),

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