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The lost year- Shadow pandemic in education

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Shuttered doors closed gates and empty classrooms across millions of schools has put our children’s future on an indefinite pause. The health emergency has also created an unprecedented education catastrophe that at the peak of the crisis impacted more than 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries. In India, closure of 1.5 million schools has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, reportedly over six million girls and boys were out of school even before the COVID-19 crisis began.

A generation has already lost 15 months schooling (and counting for most children). The impact of education emergency is insidious, invisible, and prolonged. It will continue to eclipse the future of our children long after the health crisis has finally receded.

Plight of the disadvantaged

The pandemic ushered the era of virtual classroom and remote education which is being imparted on multiple digital and electronic media platforms including imperfect substitutes like TV, radio etc for better reach. However, the tragic consequences of existing socioeconomic disparities, the rural urban and gender divide has only got exacerbated. The lives of our children who have been left out of lockdown schooling is in total disarray. The pandemic has adversely remapped their childhood, schooling, and their future in multiple ways.

Access to virtual classrooms

It is only about 20-30% of the population who have been able to effectively avail of online learning as most students do not have the appropriate connectivity, dedicated devices and even digital skills required. The situation becomes grimmer in rural India with 15-20% of households have access to connectivity (as compared to 42% in the urban households.)

Effectiveness of remote learning

Transitions to distance learning platforms and dissemination of lessons and information is uneven and patchy even in ideal circumstances. Given the impersonal nature of delivery, the onus of learning on the students and in the absence of a robust remote monitoring mechanism, learning asymmetries have grown.

Inadequate infrastructure capacity

It is an overwhelming challenge to sustain remote education specially with budget and infrastructure restraints that plague our country. 1.2 million government and 400000 private budget schools are simply not equipped to provide this facility effectively impacting a large majority of students. Private schools also now face the spectre of bankruptcy as students because of financial constraints are moving to the already overstretched governments schools thereby adding to the burgeoning problems faced in school education.

Confusion and stress for teachers, & parents

The pandemic has directly affected 63 million primary and secondary teachers. Teachers were compelled to hurriedly adapted to remote teaching that including modifying curricula, lesson plans using high, low, and no-tech solutions. Many teachers have been woefully ill equipped to deliver on remote learning platforms. Moreover, many teachers have been dismissed or salaries payments have been erratic adding to their stress and anxiety.

Parents too with limited or no education have been unable to facilitate home schooling. Burden of eking out a livelihood for survival has compounded their problems of looking after their children.

Interrupted learning & learning loss

Learning levels in our country are already low and now our children are falling below the basic proficiency levels. Lost learning is no longer counted in days and weeks as shut down spills into the new academic year with continued uncertainty. The longer schools stay closed, the higher the risk of children losing out on their future as reversal of learning gaps will take years to bridge. It is estimated that our children have lost 2 months for every month school has remained shut which for now accrues to approximately 30 months of learning.

In a recent study across 4 states, it is estimated 92% of primary school students have lost at least one language ability whereas 82% of children have lost at least one specific mathematical ability. The younger children have lost their basic language and numeracy skills.

Health & nutrition

Schools play an important role in provision of health and nutrition services in the crucial first 8,000 days of a child’s life. An estimated 115 million children are at the risk of severe malnutrition. A recent report by OXFAM India suggests that 35% children did not receive their midday meals despite Take Home Ration scheme, because of tardy and patchy implementation across geographies.

Mental and psychological well-being

The security of the four walls of a classroom has deprived these children of a hope for a better life in the future and reprieve from the chaos and hardship of their existence. Schools are not only an academic seat of learning but a social space for engagement, laughter, and cheer. Physical activity keeps them fit, while social interaction with peers, celebrations and support from their teachers are an integral part of a structured school curriculum. Various languages, cultures, religions, various contexts, diverse experiences, backgrounds are integrated and unified in a single classroom. Now, the social isolation has widened the social distance and masked their smiles affecting them psychologically and emotionally.

Increased exposure to violence & exploitation

Protracted and repeated virus resurges and lockdowns with resultant economic shocks has compelled children to work for a living. Reportedly there has been a surge in the demand for cheap child labour and they are being pushed into illegal and ‘hazardous’ work setting back by decades of India’s fight against this scourge. Parents themselves are illiterate and struggle for livelihood leaving their children open to risk of child abuse, delinquency, and substance abuse. More children are now being recruited into illegal mafias, and juvenile crime has only grown. Efforts towards gender equality are also defeated as our girls are more vulnerable to violence, sexual exploitation, adolescent pregnancy and forced marriages.

‘CHILDLINE 1098’ Helpline, India recently reported that there has been a 50% increase in calls, requesting protection from abuse and violence since the onset of the pandemic.

Dropouts

Children’s education is the first casualty in the face of hardship experienced during the pandemic. Prolonged out-of-school learning has alienated children from school systems resulting in potential “dropouts”. The older boys supplement the frugal family income, while the girls attend to domestic chores. It is estimated 3% of our children may never return or enrol in schools in addition to the existing 3% already out of school.

School closures for millions of students then is not necessarily a temporary halt but an abrupt and tragic end to their education with resultant diminished opportunities for decent livelihood and economic progress for this generation. Impact is then profound as the gaps in schooling are likely to further push behind the quest for Education for All.

Reimagine shool education

Given our country’s diversity, complexity, and unique problems, there is no simple and “zero risk” “one size fit all” solutions to resolve the inequities that confront our education in the present crisis. Yes, the New Education Policy lays down the path; however, too much water has flown, and restart of schools cannot be a mere take-off from when the schools were abruptly closed.  

We must now leverage the crisis to challenge the status quo and redress the tragic injustice meted out to our children. It is time to reimagine education, which not only mitigates the impact of the pandemic but is holistic, equitable, inclusive, and has enough flexibility to cushion any future disruptions and calamities.

Empty classrooms to restart

It is abundantly clear brick-and-mortar schools, physical classrooms cannot be replaced with digital analogue regardless of the relevance and critical role of digital education. Prioritizing and focus on education recovery and reopening plans needs to be fast tracked. Across the world 90% of countries have already started the gradual process of opening schools and is certainly the need of the hour.

Yes, in India schools have also started the process of partially opening schools in some states. Our trauma is however real, and apprehension continues of another resurge. When and how the schools will fully be reopened is anybody’s guess, but current situation is dangerous specially when it is not backed by effective and concrete steps for mitigation of this protracted shut down to restart of our empty classrooms.

Accordingly, a well-planned strategy rather than patchy half-hearted efforts are necessary that focus on effective kickstart to schools reopening with focus on integration of digital education, multiple pathways to learning for effective outreach and arrest the growing spectre of school dropouts.

Increased funding for education

The right to free and compulsory education can only be upheld if the government devotes serious attention and resources to ameliorate, mitigate, and correct the long-standing inequalities in education system. Increased funding will enable an education recovery and implementation of specific programs not only for strengthening of digital infrastructure and capacity building but to safeguard the physical and mental health of students, teachers, and school personnel and mitigate the learning loss caused by the disruption.

Safety & vaccination

The road map for staggered reopening will need to be carefully chalked out depending upon situation on ground for different age groups and geographies. Apart from safety protocols, it may also be necessary to ensure millions of teachers and school staff are given priority in vaccination campaigns as well as the vaccination trials for children is fast tracked.  

Rehabilitation & reach out to out of school children

A multipronged outreach program needs to be drawn out to track children and their families to arrest the existing an anticipated dropouts and out of school children to ensure their reenrolment, retention, transition, and support for their mainstreaming. To encourage children back on track to school, the program necessarily has to encompass active engagement with community leaders, support and guidance to the parents, children, and encompass initiatives for employment generation, counselling, health etc.

Capacity building for teachers

Teachers need to be adequately empowered and equipped to harness the potential of digital technology and alternative pedagogies for blended learning routes not only as “knowledge delivery agents” but to reach the last child in the last mile. Teachers will need to galvanise available resources and support with a common goal to continue schooling by adapting to the needs of what, how and where and when the children can learn.

Fast track learning recovery

School reopening plans must incorporate efforts to recover children’s lost learning including assessment of current learning levels, design of bridge programs for remedial learning as well as physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. Accordingly, rather than restart of existing grade-based curriculum, it may be appropriate to introduce an alternate holistic and calibrated curriculum which focuses on language and numeracy skills based on existing performance levels, and potential of the students.

Learning anywhere and anytime

Connectivity and access to virtual learning is critical to guarantee the right to education. However, to break the barriers of digital divide and bridge the learning loss, in the interim, it will be necessary to strengthen the existing blended learning solutions that ensure knowledge assimilation and integration beyond the precincts of schools. To pave way for successful pathway back to school, efforts need to be made to effectively leverage the potential of a combination of multiple delivery platforms for grade-based remedial learning programs in learning camps/centres.

Coming together to restart

The time has then come for all stakeholders viz educators, policy makers, politicians, parents, students and NGOS to set aside their personal agendas, opinions and interests and join hands to draw a comprehensive road map that resolves the challenges in the learning spectrum as we can ill-afford to have millions of children fall behind.

Our children are the rich demographic dividend of our country’s future. We must then collectively ensure we equip, encourage, and empower our children to negotiate the world they live in with courage and confidence for a bright and prosperous tomorrow.

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