An overview of School Education in India during the pandemic

-Sujoy Ghosh

It has been more than a year since the COVID pandemic caused schools to close and disrupt the normal routine of school students throughout India. This sudden change has affected a large number of children across states, class, caste, gender and region. According to a very recent study by UNICEF, school closures have affected 286 million students (48 per cent girls) from pre-primary to upper secondary education in India.

Due to this sudden shutting down of schools, traditional classroom based Indian schooling system had to shift to an unplanned online based education system. This unforeseen shift not only created a digital divide across the students, it also slowed down the learning and overall progress (including social and cultural skills, fitness, etc.) considerably. Other than learning, the absence of schooling is also having a long-lasting detrimental effect on overall growth and development of children and adolescents. Moreover, losses during closures are likely to snowball after children return to school if lessons and curriculum do not match their learning level.

To assess the perceived impact on student learning due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF undertook a rapid assessment study- “School Closures in The Context Of COVID” based on six states (Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) of our country.

One of the key findings of this study is “While students are spending time on self-study while schools are closed, but less time on learning overall than when schools were open”. According to the data, 97% of students spend 3-4 hours studying and learning, per day on average. But this 3-4 hours of studying per day is lower than the amount of study when schools were open. In addition, students typically spent time on homework, tuitions, and other self-directed learning activities when schools were open.

Now if we look at the availability and accessibility of infrastructure and technology required for the online education, most of us are aware about the ‘digital have nots’ in our country across geographies and socio-economic classes. Across the six states, this study found that 10 per cent of students do not use any of the following devices – smart phones, feature phones, TV, radio, or laptops/computers – for any purpose, whether privately owned or accessed within or outside of the household. Hence, it can be said that access to technology remains far from universal. However, it is also very surprising that despite the availability of remote learning resources across multiple channels, 40% of students in the six surveyed states did not use any form of remote learning since the schools shut down. When students who did not use remote learning were asked why they did not use remote learning tools, the lack of awareness about learning content or resources was cited by approximately 73% of those who do not use remote learning.

Above two observations indicate a two-facet problem- affordability and awareness. For a group of parents, key constraint is affordability of device and internet (data). And there is another group pf parents who can afford both device and internet for their children but don’t have either the awareness or the ability to use remote learning tools and process.

Effectiveness of Online schooling is one of the major points of this study (done by UNICEF). Findings suggest that both parents and teachers feel that students learn less through remote learning than they would in school. 76% parents of students aged 5-13 years and 80% of those aged 14-18 years believe that students are learning somewhat less or significantly less than they would in school. Whereas 67% per cent teachers perceive students to have fallen behind in their overall progress compared to where they should be if schools were open. This is sharper especially for elementary students (70 per cent elementary grade teachers compared to 61 per cent secondary teachers).

Beyond learning shortfalls, school closures have affected students’ mental health also. As students stay sheltered in their homes, away from friends and teachers, other COVID-related factors can cause the stresses to cascade. The anxiety from seeing a parent lose work or the death or illness of a family member from the disease can have a major effect on the child’s mental well-being.

One third of students aged 5-13 years and nearly half of adolescents (14-18) have poor or very poor mental health. Interviews suggest that social isolation, disruption to learning, and family’s financial insecurity are key reasons for poor mental well-being.

In our country, there is also the school feeding programme (mainly in govt schools): Mid Day Meal (MDM) with multiple benefits viz reducing drop-outs, increasing school attendance, and addressing malnutrition overall. Now, with the schools closed across the country, the school feeding programme could no longer provide the much-needed free lunch to 115.9 million children who are enrolled under the scheme (MDM Portal). Hence, other than learning, the absence of schooling would also have a long-lasting effect on the health and nutrition of children from the economically weaker backgrounds.

As COVID-19 situation become little better than April-May, stakeholders have started thinking about the reopening of the school with a belief that this will help their learning and overall future development. However, UNICEF reports reveals that approximately 8% of students will likely not return to school in the next three months or after, most of them (60%) because of health-related concerns. This rapid assessment report also exposed, that as a major setback of school closure, some children cannot afford to return; they may drop out of school completely. 10% of families state they cannot afford to send children back to school whereas 6% say they need their children to help earn an income. Another recent survey in West Bengal has found that child labor among school-going children has increased by 105% during the pandemic (HT, 2020). A similar survey by Save the Children during the pandemic reports the discontinuation of children’s education in 62 per cent of the surveyed households with 67 per cent in rural and 55 per cent in urban areas, respectively (Save the Children, 2020).

Widespread unemployment and income loss will hinder the ability of households to afford to keep students in schools. This impact will be greater for poorer households who might face budget constraints. This will cause children to drop out of schools and be pulled into economic activities to support their parents’ in earning. It is obvious that the longer children stay out of school, the more vulnerable they become, with less chances of returning to school.

COVID-19 has created an opportunity for both government (State & Central) and public education facilitators to learn valuable lessons to deal with such situations and revamp the system so that it is better equipped to deal with them and ensure inclusive education for all.

Sujoy Ghosh is a Trend Watcher ( Economy and Politics and holds a masters degree in Economics)

Kindly note that the point of views expressed in the article are entirely the author’s personal views. IPD takes no responsibility for the same.

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