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Celebrating visibility of children following yearlong invisibility from schools

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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.

The world changed almost overnight due to an invisible coronavirus- the dreaded COVID-19. The yearlong pandemic of the century made most things different. We worked from home, shopped online, virtually no travel, held classes using digital tools, and no get together with our family and friends. A different world indeed that will be part of our memory and a fact of history books forever.

Now, almost a year later, the communities around the world are beginning to open schools to make the children visible in the classroom. It is time to celebrate and cherish their visibility with caution. The State of Minnesota, where I live, already opened elementary schools and Uttar Pradesh, where I was born, will open starting March 1. It is a welcome step for the holistic development of children needing social, emotional, physical, and intellectual stimulation from their peers.

Personally, I am energized for the sake of the nonprofit, Vidya Gyan, which has been invisibly active during the pandemic in an improved learning environment in the rural schools. The schools in U.P. have been directed to open at a reduced capacity with children of different grades coming to school only twice a week. The schools in Minnesota are open for all elementary students but not without parental consent which is also true in the U.P. schools. In the big picture, the schools on both sides of the ocean have similar guidelines to ensure safe learning while the COVID-19 threats are reduced and vaccination has begun.

What makes me skeptical and worried is whether adequate sanitization resources and masks will reach children in government schools in rural areas of the U.P., which is Vidya Gyan’s focus. The government mandates preventive measures, such as social distancing, masking, washing hands with soap, etc. However, it does not necessarily equal the measures being practiced on a daily basis at the local level. When the U.P. government-mandated “choupal” classes (outside the school premises), I was shocked to see the photos of teachers and students in proximity without the mask. Either they did not have the masks, did not care, or a combination. Let us hope for the better when children return to school.

A more important concern is about the limited learning for almost a year. Even without the data, in my professional view, the children anywhere completed only part of the curriculum because it is hard to motivate them, particularly at the elementary level, with online teaching assuming that they had the proper tools and access to reasonably high-speed internet. As I spoke with U.P. teachers regularly, I estimate that no more than 10% of children in government schools had access to a smartphone to participate in online learning compared with almost all children in Minnesota having access to those means.

The schools in Minnesota will have about 3 months of classes before the summer break to catch up with the lost learning but in U.P., the school year ends on March 31. I don’t have to second guess that the children in both places will be moved to the next grade except that those in U.P. will have learned very little. Even pre-pandemic, children in U.P. generally performed below their grade level in reading and math which will change for the worst post-pandemic. What are the possible solutions?

While India’s policymakers care little about public opinion, it does not prevent me from offering one. In my informed opinion, the teacher unions and the government should work together and hold classes during the summer without the mid-day meal. Let the hours be from 8 to 10.30 am before the temperatures become intolerable. The focus should be on learning from April to June to make up for the missed curriculum due to school closing. The schools in Minnesota and elsewhere should also consider similar options to celebrate the improved learning of children.

Why should teachers do it anywhere? First and foremost, they should do it for the goodwill and pride of their profession to impart skills and knowledge to awaken wisdom among the learners. They should recognize that a little sacrifice on their part will make a visible difference in the learning of their pupil and thus significant rewards toward self-satisfaction. If the unions are unwilling, the teachers may choose to offer limited classes voluntarily; even 2-3 times a week is better than nothing because the continuity of learning matters.

The visible losses in our communities during the pandemic globally will not be recovered at least in the short term, but our children deserve better.  As the schools return to life, we must take precautions and fight the invisible corona not to ever return and celebrate our children’s uninterrupted learning as visibly as we can.

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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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