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The pandemic disrupting the future of millions of underprivileged children

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

There is nothing that has not been disrupted by the borderless invisible enemy, the COVID 19, originating in China. The impact of this pandemic is too deep and wide, beyond all expectations, which we will reminisce and analyze long after 2020. Besides the global impacts such as unimaginable loss of human lives, an unprecedented economic slowdown, the derailed intellectual and career advancement, hundreds of millions of school-age children from economically disadvantaged families are the worst affected, particularly, in the developing and under-developed countries.

They have been out of the school since March when “shutdowns” went into effect. Most of them lost the opportunity for intellectual and social development and group learning. We won’t know the long-term consequences of the “stay home” for such a long time on their physical, emotional, and mental health. The questions include; should the school open at all and if yes, how? Should the school year be abandoned or should the children be promoted to the next grade without adequate learning? What would their learning deficiencies mean in the long run? We have many such questions and no concrete answers.

The shutdowns prompted the use of distance education such as online, radio, television, or other distance learning modes to lessen learning interruptions. It was a well-intentioned effort but the longstanding deep Digital Divide and inequalities in the socio-economic status of people deprived many children globally. The question is what are the next steps while we are still faced with coronavirus with no end in sight?

Our focus is on the children in rural India’s government schools which serve the educational aspirations for economically disadvantaged families. The discussion is perhaps equally applicable to other developing and under-developed countries. The discussion is based on anecdotal conversations by the author with Vidya Gyan networked teachers. The author has spent the last five years on the ground learning about school education in rural areas. Vidya Gyan is a nonprofit which has been active for about five years in improving the learning environments of rural government schools in India.

Current Status: With the sudden school closures, the teachers were directed to use distance learning without much training, tools, and financial resources. They accepted the challenge just because of their students’ learning was at stake. Many conscientious teachers used their smartphones but not too surprisingly, fewer children had access to smartphones to engage in a two-way interaction with teachers. In the most optimistic scenario, perhaps 90% of children in rural government schools have been deprived of learning for the last 5 months and are likely to remain in that state for the foreseeable future. The schools may not be safe to reopen the way they generally functioned until a vaccine or other pharmaceutical means become available.

Denmark has successfully continued schools for several months with strict social distancing but no masks. Their philosophy included relatively small groups of students staying together in all classes but no mixing with other groups. Denmark succeeded because the teacher unions, officials, and the local community worked together. The U.S. school systems are using different models in different jurisdictions but the hybrid (a mix of face-to-face and distance learning) is perhaps more common. India must devise its own model but take advantage of what other countries have done.

In government schools in Uttar Pradesh (perhaps true in other States too), the teachers are coming to school every day and we hope that they are eager to engage in teaching because they care about the learning of their pupils. However, the students are not allowed to return to the classroom for the obvious fear of infection. We suggest a model which is based on our informed view that ‘Every Child Matters’ and deserves an EQUAL learning opportunity for learning, unlike the current situation in which only about 10% are able to access distance learning.

PLAUSIBLE IMMEDIATE SOLUTION: India has managed the pandemic relatively well considering her population, diversity, and wide socioeconomic disparities. The leadership down to the district level deserves credit for good management under the most extenuating circumstances and for making decisions with speed over precision and prioritizing public health as a common good in the national interest. Extraordinary measures like total shutdown and travel ban were enforced rapidly to combat the spread of coronavirus leading to a relatively low number of deaths and infections. Now, it is time to focus on public education with the same speed and determination to keep the children engaged in learning and not let millions of them compromise their dream of education, career, and wellbeing.

While India must develop broad guidelines, each district must be empowered to lead in good faith recognizing that there are no rewards without some risk. Simply put, implement the extraordinary measures to deal with the most unprecedented coronavirus but remain flexible, vigilant, and prepared for rapid deployment of best safety measures as and when warranted. It is no different than what India has successfully demonstrated and done in managing public health issues so far.

Based on our careful analysis and using knowledge of India’s school system, a LIMITED HYBRID LEARNING model is best suited requiring:

  1. Strict enforcement of SMS ( Social distancing, Masks, and Sanitization) for safety in the schools. Every child must be given at least two cloth masks and required to use it. In Uttar Pradesh, they are getting masks with their dresses.
  2. No MDM to be served at the school (Currently, parents are getting MDM equivalent money transferred in their accounts).
  3. Divide each class into small groups of 5-7. Each group should come to the school at least two times a week depending on the school enrollment, the physical size of the classrooms, and how many staff members. One group size will not fit all and thus each school should be empowered to propose the group size and class duration for accommodating children safely.
  4. Teachers should record their classroom instruction if possible and share it with those at home recognizing that everyone will not be able to access it (no different than now).
  5. Why bring children to school? This model will allow every student to have social interaction with peers, some group learning, and the teacher will get to make some level of student learning assessment. Teachers will give instructions and assign and collect homework each time the children are in the school. This will offer “equal access and opportunity” for most children rather than only a small percentage receiving instructions/homework by phone. Recently, Vidya Gyan received an unusual request for printers. Why unusual? Because we had not thought about it until the teachers told us that they are writing homework by hand and sharing only with a limited number of students because only so much one can do by hand. The printers will allow them to print homework and distribute it. Vidya Gyan will provide printers to a few schools because of the limited resources but the larger solution is that if the children come to school a couple of times, they can copy homework from the blackboard, do it at home, and bring it back next time. That is why, we emphasize children coming to school at least twice a week even if it is 90-minute interaction with teachers/peers.

Model 1 A : School opening 6 days; 5 teachers, and 100, 150 and 200 children. For modelling and discussion, we assume that each class has approximately the same number of students e.g. 20 students in each class with 100 children in the school.

100 children (4 groups of 5 in each class)             150 (6 groups of 5) and 200 (6 groups of 7)

8.30-10.30          11.00-1.00                                        8.30-10.30          11.00-1.00

Mon       Group A               Group B                                  Group A               Group B

Tues       Group C               Group D                                 Group C               Group D

Wed.     same as Monday                                                 Group E               Group F

Thu.       Same as Tuesday                                                           Same as Monday

Fri.         Same as Monday                                                           Same as Tuesday

Sat.        Same as Tuesday                                                           Same as Wednesday

Model 1B: School open only 4 or 5 days: (a) 100 children schools will come only twice a week. (b) Schools with larger enrollment will have only 90 minutes long periods twice a week.

Model 2A : School opening 6 days; only 4 teachers and 100, 150 and 200 children.

(a) 100 children: Combine class 1 and 2 (40 kids); classes 3, 4, and 5 (20 each): Make the groups of 7 for the combined class and groups of 5 for others. Use the model shown above.

(b) 150 children (challenging): Combine class 1 and half of 2 (45); half of 2 and 3 (45); class 4 and 5 (30 each): Divide each classes in 6 groups and have them in school twice a week.

(c) 200 children (very challenging with 4 teachers)

Model 2B: School opening only 4 or 5 days: Groups of 7 kids with reduced class time of 90 minutes and 3 groups each day (for example 8.30-10.00; 10.15- 11.45; 12.00-1.30).

It is important to acknowledge that implementing change is not easy but in the pandemic environment, we must do the best we can in good faith. The national lockdown was to save lives in the long run which India did relatively well. Likewise, the proposed partial school opening is an effort to offer the level playing field for learning to all children rather than about 90% not learning at all. We cannot rule out anybody falling sick but we can be prepared like India was during the mass migration of labor force to U.P., Bihar, etc. from other States. The alternative of little or no learning for about 90% of children for the next 4-6 months means a total loss of one school year for millions of underprivileged children. This will mean delaying their further education/career by at least one year and at worst, losing them altogether from further education.

LONG TERM STRATEGY: India should consider the following:

  1. Cancel most holidays including summer/winter breaks and ask the schools to observe essential festivals/national holidays as much as possible at the school.
  2. Combine school years 2020-21 and 2021-22 (say January 2021 to March 2022) as a continuum to complete the curriculum of two consecutive years to minimize the loss of learning. This will allow the school year 2022-23 back on track on April 1, 2022.

While there is no one size fit all solution for COVID19 pandemic, we must do the best possible in good faith. The national lockdown was to save lives in the long run. Likewise, the partial school opening will allow children some learning. We cannot rule out anybody falling sick but we can be prepared like India was during the mass migration of laborers. The alternative of little or no learning for the next 4-6 months means a total loss of one school year for millions of children. This means delaying their further education/career by at least one year.

The pandemic accompanied a rude awakening that public education and public health are the fabric of any society. However, neither was well funded and/or managed globally. Even the most powerful country, the United States, found itself unprepared. Consequently, with only 5% of the world population in the U.S., there have been over 6 million (and counting) people infected with COVID, a whopping ~25%.of the global count. In the U.S., children’s education was quickly changed to distance education using the internet and laptops. How much of their intellectual, social, mental, and physical development is going to be impacted will be a subject of study for the years to come.

According to the United Nations, low and middle-income countries already faced an education funding gap of nearly $1.5 trillion dollars/year even before the crisis. This gap is now bound to grow. It will be critical that education is at the heart of domestic budget increase as well as international monetary development assistance is forthcoming. All countries must invest in education including the bridging of the Digital Divide and building infrastructure for public health and education. We had not anticipated COVID19 and no one has a crystal ball for the future for what and when may occur?

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agarwalvj
Born in village Kotah (Saharanpur), Vijendra Agarwal, left India in 1973 after Ph.D. (Physics) from IIT Roorkee but always remained connected with his roots. A researcher in Italy, Japan, and France, he came to the US in 1978. He served as faculty and academic administrator (Assistant Vice President, Associate Vice Chancellor, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering) in several universities, and an Executive Fellow in the White House S&T Policy during Clinton administration. Following his voluntary retirement in 2014, he and his wife co-founded a US-based NGO, Vidya Gyan, to serve rural India toward education, health, and empowerment of girls and overall development. An Indian at heart, his passion for writing has no boundaries. This includes policy, politics and people, and social/cultural activities promoting community engagement. Currently, he is the Brand Ambassador for Times of India and frequently blogs on Linkedin on various topics.

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