The more than 18 month-long pandemic induced closures of schools and now their incremental reopening is not a usual back to school story. Rather there are lessons, imperatives and valid reasons to see it as a transformation of the education system itself
For India’s estimated 250 million children in the school age group, schools have now disappeared for too long (80 weeks as on Dec 1). India is one of the a few countries left in the world in the ‘partially reopened school’ category and perhaps without any logical basis and largely due to a failure of public policy vis-à-vis education needs and rights of children. Not surprising therefore, after pleading by several experts and children activists, it is now the groups of parents from Mumbai to Delhi and elsewhere, who are demanding reopening of schools for the socio-emotional wellbeing of children and their education.
It is pertinent to mention that most of states have reopened schools partially or fully but three major urban areas of Delhi, Mumbai and Pune have seen a see-saw of opening and closing all this while. Schools in Delhi in addition to being closed for covid, were also shut due to severe air pollution within days after reopening. Keeping the online option alongside has actually kept the attendance at schools thin whenever these have reopened in these cities and elsewhere. The country actually has compelling need to keep schools open as most surveys have found about 80% of children may have just lost the touch with academics and schooling . Ranked 101th in Global Hunger Index (GHI) among 116 countries this year, India’s efforts of supplementing nutrition through midday meal scheme has also suffered a big jolt. Combined with nearly absent learning achievements in face of popular policies of promotion and rudimentary academic transactions both online and offline, India’s poor treatment of its children can result in a catastrophic human capital crisis in next decade onwards.
Many people believe the school reopening was tactically delayed by months in India because of the pressure created by edtech companies and their influential lobbyists even as most statistics from surveys clearly said that young Indians have lost the precious learning curve and environment. The surge in greater adaptability of digital education as Smartphone ownership has almost doubled from 36.5% in 2018 to 67.6% in 2021 (ASER 2021), confirms some this notion. A divide has emerged on reopening with a set of worried parents reluctant to send their children school unless reassurance comes through things like vaccination or signs of pandemic losing its killing steam. The other set of parents, mostly from the disadvantaged background and digital divide, happily welcome schoolreopening. At the same time most expert opinion is in the favor of back to school.
According to Dr Vandana Prasad, community pediatrician and National Convenor and Technical Advisor for Public Health Resource Network (PHRN) besides a former member of NCPCR, after home, school is the second most important space of care for children and has been disrupted by pandemic. “Parents, authorities and schools are naturally worried. It is a complex situation and changes in data and context about the virus are unpredictable. In this case, experts need to give assurance. And we know there are no high risks for children in this phase. The schools could have reopened a few months back,” she said.
The damage from prolonged school closures is almost a confirmed conclusion with findings come to fore. A recent national survey conducted by LIRNEasia, a regional think tank working on digital policy issues across the Asia Pacific, and ICRIER, a policy oriented economic policy think tank based in Delhi showed that only 20% of school-aged children who were enrolled in the formal education system received remote education during COVID-19 induced school closures. The findings released on November 12 said the other 80% of children, however, were left behind.
The face to face survey, conducted between March and August this year, covered a nationally representative sample of 7000 households. Only Kerala was excluded, due to high COVID-19 cases.
Many of the 20% who were able to access education during school closures did so through multiple channels. However, these students’ experiences were heterogeneous. Only 55% of students (of this small group who received some education) participated in live (real time) online lessons, while 68% watched recorded video lessons and 75% had information and assignments communicated to their smartphones through channels such as WhatsApp. It is also noteworthy that 58% of these students also had contact with schools through offline channels, with information and assignments being physically delivered to their homes.
The challenges faced by those receiving and not receiving education also differed. The parents of those who received education said their key challenges were their children not being attentive, schools being unprepared to deliver online education and high data costs. Meanwhile, the most cited challenges of those who didn’t receive education were poor connectivity (3G and 4G signal) in their area, and insufficient devices at home to meet the competing needs of all their family members.
“The pandemic made the education gap worse, impacting students from disadvantaged households the most. But it wasn’t just a connectivity problem schools were caught off-guard and were not prepared to deliver online lessons in the first round of lockdowns. Luckily things did improve in the subsequent shut downs. But unless a mix of real time online and self directed learning and meaningful feedback is provided, the learning gaps probably were not bridged” said the CEO of LIRNEasia,Helani Galpaya.
Another report Mumbai-based nonprofit Pratham Education Foundation almost mirrored some of these findings The 16th Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2021 or ASER 2021 released on November 17 confirms greater adaptability of digital education as Smartphone ownership has almost doubled from 36.5% in 2018 to 67.6% in 2021. But at the same time, a great variation has been observed in possession of devices with Kerala having 80.9% in contrast to Bihar’s 27.2%. More children in private schools have a smartphone at home (79%) than government school going children (63.7%). Even gradewise senior class students have more access than junior ones. As parents’ education level increases, the likelihood that the household has a smartphone also increases. Over 80% children with parents who have studied up to Std IX or higher had a smartphone at home, as compared to just over 50% children whose parents had studied till Std V or less.
The report also found a big increase in children taking tuition has been seen in the survey results from 30% in 2018 to almost 40% in 2021, across gender, grades and school types. Tuition is up across the country in all states except Kerala. The proportion of children with parents in the ‘low’ education category who are taking tuition increased by 12.6 percentage points, as opposed to a 7.2 percentage point increase among children with parents in the ‘high’ education category. Tuition classes are more common among children whose schools were still closed at the time of the survey.
“We have thoughtfully and systematically reopened our cities for adults, linking decisions with research, but we don’t seem to have done the same for our childrendespite the fact that in our country, education is a fundamental right,” wrote Shaheen Mistri, CEO, Teach for India in Times of India (Dec 4, 2021), while adding that fear of the new strainOmicronhas faded the glimmers of hope of reopening as this has already caused officials to delay it.
According to experts, the Government has failed to recognize the Education Emergency in this country and remained oblivious of addressing this huge crisis. “The kind of devastating effect on education by pandemic had become obvious within the first 6-8 months of its outbreak but see the bankruptcy of decision making, the union budget this year actually cut outlay for critical Samagra Shikha Abhiyan and MDM when the parliamentary standing committee in its conservative estimates had recommended 2 lakh Cr for education. Our institutions needed massive grants to augment to strengthen infra but nobody recognized it,” says Prof Praveen Jha, professor of economics at JNU.
With the kind of damage already done to education of youth, now every day matters to protect their future. “Whether at a micro level, school by school or at a macro level, state by state, for the remainder of the school year, it will be critical to track enrollment, attendance and learning. The fluidity of the current situation (when schools are open and when they are closed, when who is supposed to come to school and when they are not) will make this task very challenging. But it will only be by closely watching the situation day by day, with eyes close to the ground, that effective forward planning for the next school year can be done,” write Rukmini Banerji (CEO, Pratham) and Wilima Wadhwa (director ASER Centre) in the report (ASER 2021).
Back to school is not yesterday’s normal
According to Geeta Menon, a senior consultant in Early Education and Academics, the development of children is a combination of processesphysical, biological, psychological and social. This development is nurtured through age appropriate processes that are highly disturbed during emergencies. The fear gives rise to anxiety and students are not able to concentrate. It shakes the children subconsciously in a big way. “The wellbeing of learners is important being the critical stakeholder. And their protective environment needs to be well understood in this time of crisis. The protective environment has two components. One is physical where you have to follow protocols of sanitation, physical distancing and other is psychological. The environment has to be free from fear, the triggers have to be recognized and sanitized. Assessments, teacher behavior, rules and regulations that pressurize children need to be thoroughly sanitized as we welcome children back to school ,” she added. For this specialists and resource agencies have to be integrated with the school system and importantly teachers need training to handle all this.
Opining on the pandemic scare and precautions, Dr Vandana Prasad says periodic quality checking should become part of routine and schools should enter into formal arrangement with primary healthcare centres. “If unvaccinated teachers are an issue, they can be put on digital mode. Children in this phase are doing well and there should be a rush for vaccination. No terrible side effects are reported. We shouldn’t go overboard with masking. Ventilation is important and this time of year is good for opening windows and doors. Best will be class rooms in the open,” she adds.
The next big challenge in back to school is the classroom and actual learning. According to Prof Anita Rampal, former dean of department of education at Delhi University, states will have to look at redesigning and restructuring syllabi for the next two years while working closely with teachers. “Encourage participatory group learning than individual students. There is a real fear that some students will have inferior complexes and fears about being signaled for not catching up or understanding after this long gap . But the reduction or rationalization shouldn’t be as was done in removing citizenship topics. Teachers engagement with keep children learning activities like open experiments, narrating stories is critical,” she said.
Teachers themselves are perplexed
There is a real danger of teachers becoming complacent and losing professionalism in face of the technology push particularly with the pandemic. “There is now an assumption that digital literacy and digital working is adapting to new way of working and has been chosen by the government. There is a deficit of teacher perspective in this whole debate. Teacher-child relationships, pedagogical issues, involvement of children and teachers as intellectual social beings all are strained,” said Prof Poonam Batra, Professor of Education at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi. Citing a recent study on voices of teachers by UNESCO, she said that teachers are feeling they being robbed of their roles. “Now the fashion is teachers need to be told, given everything and made just conduits in this pipeline of passing outsourced learning and assessment material to their students. The teachers are being deprived of their primary duty as teachers,” she added. Children are not anonymous statistics, they come from diverse backgrounds from a certain social milieu, have own aspirations and constraints and this makes role and presence of teachers compelling. “Teachers feel the little agency they had in the classroom has been snatched in online. Now we are just servants,” she said.
Citing how online was harsh on teachers, she added that teachers have accountability to the system though it should be the other way round. “Now teachers are accountable to edtech companies, online surveillance of parents (on dress, pronunciation at least), nodal officers who keep a watch. Utilitarian role of teachers already institutionalized has got crystallized. This is dangerous and will have a price. Teachers always remain and should remain critical”, she emphasized.
While an assessment of underserved areas and populations and block-level surveys to map the impact is being suggested to generate data for policy interventions, starting the derailed teacher recruitment of past two years, training of teachers, reconvening of school management committees is being suggested by experts to get over the crisis. However, the big catch is it remains to be seen if the Government actually wakes up from the slumber and recognizes the crisis as such.
In conclusion, back to school is not the pre-covid normal but a new challenge that needs recognition, which hopefully will lead to strategies and plans by education departments and schools in meeting this national crisis. Governments must take note of this transformation and what impact will it have on the future of school education in this country. Only then, will the school education system become benign and responsive to education emergency of past 18 months.
—By Autar Nehru