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COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education on Saturday ordered schools in Colombo closed for the next week as the island nation grapples with a severe fuel shortage that has nearly halted land transport across the country .

Sri Lanka, facing its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, has been short of foreign exchange to fund the import of essential goods, including food, medicine and fuel, since late last year. The country’s existing stock of gasoline and diesel is expected to run out within days.

The country of 22 million people defaulted on multimillion-dollar foreign debt payments last month as inflation hit nearly 40%. Long queues of people outside petrol stations are now commonplace, with many having waited days to refuel their vehicles.

As the economic crisis worsens, the Ministry of Education has announced that schools in the capital must close for at least a week, citing “transport difficulties due to the current fuel crisis.

“The Ministry of Education declares that all government-approved public and private schools within Colombo city limits will remain closed for the next week,” reads a circular issued by the ministry.

Online teaching is to replace in-class learning for the time being, with education sector authorities due to meet next Saturday to decide whether to continue academic activities.

The announcement comes after the Ministry of Public Administration on Friday ordered the closure of government offices and schools across the country due to fuel shortages. Earlier this week, the government approved a four-day working week for public sector workers in a bid to save fuel.

The Ministry of Education said schools outside Colombo, where transport issues are not as great as in the capital, will continue in person.

Teachers in the capital said students were losing an essential part of their educational experience, while some feared some students could not access virtual education.

“They talk about online lessons – how many kids can afford this program? Smartphones and laptops are so expensive, making it a distant dream,” Mohammed Nizar Mohamed, a master teacher formerly employed by the Ministry of Education, told Arab News.

Mohamed said children in Sri Lanka have been psychologically affected by a series of events over the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019. The worsening of the economic crisis and its impact on the education sector “adds fuel to the fire”, he said.

“Poor children, who are the future generation of our nation, have been innocently caught up in this cycle,” MSM Suhar, principal of Al-Meelad High School in Dehiwela, told Arab News.

“Children learn a lot by going to school every day. If that is lost, much of their school career that provides a variety of childhood experiences is lost,” Suhar said.

Nasriya Munas, principal of the Muslim Ladies College in Colombo, said that while classes can also be conducted virtually, “classroom teaching is only part of their school experience.

“But the social interaction, the student-teacher relationship and the school environment cannot be enjoyed by the students,” Munas told Arab News.

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