Young minds in dark times: Learners and a pandemic
With the declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 12 following the rapid spread of the coronavirus across the world, several countries announced the closure of schools even before lockdown. The Unesco has estimated that 1.5 billion students — about 87 per cent of the world’s students in 165 countries — are affected by coronavirus-induced school closures. The massive disruption in education has enormous ramifications on children and young adults in myriads of ways, ranging from poor learning outcomes to children dropping out if their parents suffer severe economic hardship. This means that our commitment to meet the target of the fourth sustainable development goal, which insists upon all nations ensuring that, “all girls and boys [get] complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education”, will be delayed.
Given the extraordinary health crisis, the move was ostensibly to avert the spread of the virus as schools are places for gatherings and social interaction. We do not fully understand the virus yet, and many assumptions about transmission have been proved wrong; yet, data across the country show that children are least affected so far. The ramifications of school closures varied widely across the globe: countries with high internet connectivity could compensate for the loss of physical classes by using a virtual platform. In India, the virtual class is an elusive dream for most.
According to Unesco, over 32 crore students are severely affected by the pandemic. At a pre-primary level, a total of 1,00,04,418 children enrolled in primary school and Integrated Child Development Services centres are denied basic education and nutrition support. The nutritional support received at ICDS centres contribute to the cognitive development of the children. In many states, these children were not taken into consideration while dry rations were provided.
About 7,57,96,975 students at the primary level across India are the hardest hit. Their transition from pre-primary to primary is fraught with the long absence of interaction with teachers. The mid-day meal had proved to be a key factor in the retention of children at the primary level. With school closures, as World Banks Groups notes, “student nutrition and physical health will be compromised, because some 368 million children worldwide rely on school feeding programs”.
The number of affected children at the secondary level is around 13,31,44,371, many of them either in the middle of writing their board examinations or set to appear for them. They do not know how their syllabus will be covered. Online classes are not feasible for all in India, as about 24 per cent of households have internet facilities. More worryingly, only about 11 per cent of people in rural areas and 40 per cent of citizens above 14 years could operate the computer as well as use the internet. The disaggregated data show that there is a wide ‘digital divide’ across economic class, gender and educational level. Emphasizing online courses as a solution for the loss of instruction days could further widen the ‘learning inequality’ already entrenched in India.
The decreasing number of instruction days in some states has already affected learning outcomes; the lockdown for over a four-month period is likely to worsen the situation. As learning outcomes are ensured through innovative classroom interactions, this disruption may be the cause of a loss of interest in education among children from socially disadvantaged communities. Also, economic uncertainty emanating from the lockdown may force families to withdraw their wards from schools. The economic burden will fall on the male children; the young adults will land up in exploitative jobs. Teachers could foresee a spike in the drop-out rate of young children.
There can be no shortcut to solving this extraordinary crisis in the educational sector. The biggest stumbling blocks could be the ‘top-down’ bureaucratic approach to education: hastily covering the syllabus rather than focusing on a context-specific solution. Intense discussion among teachers and education officers that empower the teacher to take decisions could lead to some tangible results. As school closures will continue till the middle of June, there should be some strategy to be in touch with the students. Even a phone call could instil confidence in them. Teachers shared that children can be kept engaged not by assigning homework but by encouraging them to read whatever is available to them.
Once school resumes, many teachers think that the initial days should be focused more on fun-filled activities than putting unnecessary pressure to complete the curriculum. This could help teachers assess the learning gaps and design the course work accordingly for the rest of the academic session. Given the unavailability of instruction days, the focus should be always on learning rather than a mechanical completion of the syllabus.
To address the nutritional deficit arising out of the closure, the government should substantially increase the allocation for mid-day meals. A concrete measure could be one egg per child each day. The government may widen the scope of the mid-day meal during the summer and festival holidays. As the pandemic is also a life lesson, public health components should be integrated with the education system. Over the years, awareness about health and hygiene, including washing hands, has increased among students. Similar efforts should also be made to raise awareness about covering the mouth while sneezing and coughing, and fighting the urge to spit everywhere. Adoption of these practices in schools will have a positive societal impact.