UNESCO recently estimated that 1.5 billion students, about 87 per cent of the world’s students in 165 countries, are affected by the corona pandemic school closures. The massive disruption in education has enormous ramifications on children and young adults in various ways, ranging from poor learning outcomes to children dropping out if their parents suffer severe economic hardship. With the extraordinary health crisis, the closure was ostensibly to avert the spread of the virus as schools are places of gatherings and social interaction.
In India, 32 crore students are severely affected by the pandemic, as per UNESCO data. At a pre-primary level, a total of over 100-lakh children are enrolled in primary school and ICDS centres are denied basic education and nutrition support. In many States, these children were not taken into consideration while dry rations were provided. About 758 lakh students at the primary level across India are the hardest hit, both from the educational perspective as there is no atmosphere for learning all by themselves as well as being deprived of the essential mid-day meal.
As regards the secondary level, the number of affected children is over 1331 lakh, many of them either in the middle of writing their board examinations or set to appear for these. Only about 11% of people in rural areas and 40% of citizens above 14 years could operate the computer as well as use the internet. The disaggregated data shows that there is a ‘digital’ divide across economic class, gender and educational levels.
In every sphere of life, we fail to understand that a major segment of the population belongs to the economically weaker sections and the lower income groups, not to speak of the poor. It is thus not quite prudent to think that every family will have a computer and the student would be able to attend online classes. Thus, this cannot be the solution as it would further widen the learning inequality already entrenched in the country.
About 56% of Indian children lack access to smart phones, key to online schooling which has become the norm during the corona-induced lockdown, according to a study titled ‘Scenario Amidst Covid-19: On-ground Situations & Possible Solutions’, conducted by child rights NGO Smile Foundation. As per the study, 43.99% of children surveyed had access to smart phones and another 43.99% had access only to basic phones. Nearly one in eight – or 12.02% — lacked access to smart phones or basic phones. As regards television, 68.99% have access.
Thus, the study suggested that using smart phones interventions for enhancing learning outcomes is not the only or ideal solution. Experts feel that virtual classes are deepening the educational divide in the country because it is difficult for rural and poor children to access these.
India has over 35-crore school and university students and grass-root reports indicate that over 55 per cent of students have access to smart phones. One must also realise that while a family may have such a phone, it may be required for use by the earning member of the family. It remains unclear what proportion of them have access to digital devices and the Internet
First and foremost, there is no need for online classes up to Class VI or VII. Three States – Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – have rightly banned such classes for students of Class V and below. Moreover, Jharkhand’s Dumka district has come up with the idea of using a network of loudspeakers connected to a microphone for lessons after learning that 80% of students in a school do not have access to a smart phone. Though education should not suffer during a period of around three months, excluding the summer vacation, it may not be a wide period as the syllabus could be covered through necessary modifications.
It is pertinent to note that for students up to Class VI or VII, modern methods of teaching have clearly stated that classes have to be interactive, which means that teachers must reach out to students. Thus interaction and examples ensure that even students, who may be relatively backward, feel interested and are able to grasp the contents of what is being taught.
The ‘top down’ bureaucratic approach to education needs to be rectified specially the urban bias, as it is manifest that good education is normally available in metros and cities. Those belonging to the EWS and even lower income groups have to attend government schools and colleges in rural areas where different surveys have revealed that the standard of education is nothing but poor, primarily due to lack of teachers as well as less efforts of those who are there.
Moreover, there is need for giving more attention and fundamental change specially towards school education and this can be accomplished through intense discussion among teachers and education officers. Besides, mid-day meals need to be improved and a concrete measure be to add one egg per child at least three times per day. The nutritional deficit arising out of the closure needs to be understood for which the government should substantially increase the allocation.
It is expected that the closure of schools and colleges because of the pandemic may not extend beyond mid-August. However, at present it is necessary to use the time to ensure that educational standards are upgraded in schools in rural areas, specially in backward districts, of north and east India. The aim being to plug the lacunae: lack of strict monitoring, which has resulted in poor quality education being imparted due to negligence of teachers, infrequent attendance and lack of involvement with students to make teaching interesting and user-friendly.
At the same time, Union Human Resource Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal’s recent open letter to parents and students is welcome, where he has stated that while “extraordinary decisions in extraordinary circumstances” are being taken, there will be no compromise on the health and safety of children and their future. He also pointed out that though times are quite critical, the ministry will leave no stone unturned to facilitate quality learning.
So there should be hope that when school reopen the entire methodology of teaching would change with a fresh outlook. At the same time, Government would need to ensure more resources, both for school as well as higher education, in the backdrop that EWS and low income groups cannot afford to send their children to private institutions. The story of demographic dividend can completely go wrong unless we undertake reforms in education on a war footing. If 100 million children are not technically educated or gain skills training, it is unlikely that India will grow to be a mature economy