Government must address challenges facing children’s education amidst pandemic that shows no sign of receding

All school teachers and children must be vaccinated so that schools could reopen as soon as possible. Further, govt must invest in pre-primary and foundational literacy and numeracy education efforts

Representative
Representative
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Yuman Hussain and Ayush Jha

The COVID-19 pandemic has left behind a trail of destruction for India and the world. From the economic suffering of all nations across the globe to the ravaging effect on the human mind and body, every sector has been impacted by the global pandemic.

The education sector has, in particular, suffered a huge blow which is a major concern, keeping in mind that this sector is the critical determinant of the economic future of any country. School closures due to COVID-19 have brought significant disruptions to education across the globe.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), over 800 million learners from around the world have been affected, 1 in 5 learners could not attend school, 1 in 4 could not attend higher education classes due to the pandemic.

Following the global trend of fighting the virus, India closed its educational institutes at the beginning of the pandemic. While there have been instances of reopening of educational institutions, however, the scare of mass infections and schools becoming hotspots has prevented the authorities to limit and constrain the number of students attending the education institutes in offline mode.

The global pandemic has further helped in widening the inequality gap between the haves and the have nots. With education shifting online, the need for a good quality device and a stable internet connection became indispensable.

The uncertainty surrounding the conduction of exams and the irregular updates on the syllabus caused a huge commotion and impacted the mental health and well-being of not only the students but also their parents during the pandemic period.

A lost year

Forty-one per cent of India’s population is below the age of 20 years. As one of the youngest nations on the planet, a sizeable chunk of our population is school-going. Due to the pandemic, nearly 1.5 million schools were shut down in India, a significant part of 2020 and 2021. This impacted the education of an estimated 250 million children.

Furthermore, children have been experiencing an unexpected gap in their schooling that has thrown their academic year out of focus. The uncertainty surrounding the spread of the virus has forced the authorities to take a controlled approach in opening spaces attracting huge crowds.

Due to this factor, conducting exams and classes for the students in their board years became impossible. The Indian education system’s over-reliance on exams and the impact exams create on the future of a student’s career was very much visible in the pandemic years.

Due to the slow adaption of the new normal by the Indian education system, Indian students suffered major gaps in their education, with non-checking of exams and non-declaration of results pushing enrollment dates into colleges and universities, further and further. This not only resulted in creating confusion but also impacted a great deal to the education of students, who were rushed in with completing their first-year education to minimize the year gap with their peers.

The impact of uncertainty surrounding whether exams would be conducted or not and the constant changes in the syllabus caused a great deal of mental discomfort and anxiety to the students.


A battle for education

The global pandemic has surely magnified the presence of income disparity in our country. The UNICEF India’s report ‘Rapid Assessment of learning during school closures in the context of COVID-19’ mentions the usage of WhatsApp and YouTube when compared for different categories; girl's usage was 8 per cent lower than that of boys; usage by younger students (5-13-year-old) was 16 per cent lower than that of older students (13-18-year-old); rural student's usage was 15 per cent lower compared to urban students and for students of class 1 to 5, government school student’s usage was 10 per cent lower compared to students from private schools.

According to the Lancet COVID-19 Commission India Taskforce, only 24% of Indian households have access to internet facilities. As per the Ministry of Education, over 50 million primary school children were not attaining foundational literacy and numeracy due to a lack of proper internet connectivity.

This data is extremely worrying. For a country as young as India, its better economic days depend on the educational skills acquired by its young population today. With the method of education shifting completely to online mode, the demands of affording a decent device and a stable internet connection overburdened many economically underprivileged families.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on girls’ education is going to be massive. The Childline Helpline number 1098 saw a 50% increase in call volumes in 2020 with 4,60,000 calls pleading for protection, of these 6,355 calls related to child marriages. COVID-19 has reversed decades of progress in schooling and in preventing child marriage and child labor. It is also threatening the progress made by us as a society towards gender equality with more and more females at risk of violence and neglect.

According to estimations, 11 million girls might not return to schools causing unprecedented education disruption. The main reasons for the girl’s school dropout reported during the pandemic are attached to the financial constraints and increased engagement in domestic.

In rural and underserved communities, adolescent girls lack significant agency over learning with insufficient access to nutritious food, sanitation, and basic technology required to attend online classes.

Parents in families that own a limited number of devices often prioritize boys over girls for more screen time. Further, gender bias and poor quality of school education also result in high dropouts. At the time of the crisis in most underdeveloped and developing nations, girls are regarded as a liability and married off.

Even before the Covid pandemic, India faced a severe learning crisis with nearly 50% of Class V students in rural India unable to read at even Class II level. A recent study by Azim Premji University estimates that 92% of children in Classes II-VI have lost their language skills and that 82% have lost Math skills, the cost of school closures is going to be long lasting and would potentially scar an entire generation.

Further, what makes matters worst is the impact on tens of millions of children from marginalized groups with limited access to technology.

According to the report ‘Rapid Assessment of Learning during School closures in the context of COVID-19’ released by UNICEF, 80% of the students aged between 14-18 years reported lower levels of learning at home compared to when they attended classes in school. 76% of the parents of students aged 5-13 years and 80% of adolescents aged 14-18 years report that students are learning somewhat less than they would in school. 67% of the teachers perceive students to have fallen behind in their overall progress compared to where they should if schools were open.

Most of the schoolteachers found themselves stuck in an awkward situation. The majority of schoolteachers have taught in their life through the traditional ‘chalk and blackboard method’ and a sudden change in teaching methods has caught them by surprise.

Most of the teachers are yet to be trained in online pedagogy. Lack of access to and unfamiliarity with electronic gadgets with lack of educated home supervision in the absence of teachers means the socio-economically disadvantaged children fall far behind.

UNICEF India’s report ‘Rapid Assessment of Learning during School closures in the context of COVID-19’ estimates roughly 8% of the teachers do not have a personal smartphone or laptop. 33% of the teachers saw no benefits of remote learning.

The report also mentions that in rural areas, village youth and community members have stepped up to fill some of the access gaps. This includes teachers using offline resources such as loudspeakers, families, and communities pooling digital devices to share, and older children taking on the role of educators.

The prolonged school closures have also caused many children to miss out on learning social interaction and playtime which are essential to their overall development. The quality of education has also been severely affected, from practical lessons to acquiring new skills, offline school and experiences gained used to help students-built confidence, as well as participation and involvement in team activities, used to help them become and evolve into better humans and citizens.

However, due to the lack of offline human-to-human interactions, students are missing out on so many lifesaving life lessons and experiences that mould humans into becoming an asset for their country.

Impact on mental well-being

With the highest rate of student suicide rates in the world, India can no longer ignore the aspect of the effect on the mental wellbeing of the students. The Child fund Survey reported that a majority of the parents observed an increase in adverse behavior in their children, and more than 60 per cent of children themselves felt behavioral changes such as increased anger, irritability, and lack of concentration.

Mental health plays a crucial role in the wellbeing of a student, and dealing with anxiety and separation can be a hamper to the overall development of an individual. The emotional well-being of the students cramped up in small homes with no contact from their classmates and teachers needs to be particularly looked into.

Furthermore, children from the underprivileged sections of the society, who have gone through struggles for surviving during the pandemic period are the most vulnerable to fall into depression and to struggle with mental health. The struggles of accessing online education further create a negative environment for a young child to flourish.

According to UNICEF India’s report ‘Rapid Assessment of learning during school closures in the context of COVID-19’, one-third of primary and half of the secondary students have parents reported that their children’s mental and socio-emotional health has been compromised since May 2020.

Children in more than 30,000 families were abandoned /orphaned or lost at least one of their parents between April 2020 and June 2021 according to the latest data submitted to the Supreme Court of India by NCPCR. The data submitted by NCPCR shows that among 30,071 children; 3,621 lost both parents; 26,176 children lost either parent and 274 children were left abandoned.

More than 11,800 children are in the age group of 8-13 years requiring urgent care. About 10,247 children are between 14-18 years of age.

Witnessing the death of a loved one at such a young age can be extremely devastating. For children undergoing such circumstances, mental health struggles are very common, which can further impact their education and character in the longer run.

The complete disappearance of early childhood care and good quality education in the pandemic years will have large-scale impacts on the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs of children and will immensely affect learning outcomes for a vast majority of our population.

The inequalities in access to education will most likely translate into long-term income losses and a decline in a skilled workforce. It will further impact intergenerational mobility, with disadvantaged groups having even fewer educational opportunities than their peers.


FORWARD PATH

The outbreak of COVID-19 has taught us that change is inevitable. It has worked as a catalyst for educational institutions to grow and opt for platforms with technologies, which have not been used before. The education sector has been fighting to survive the crises with a different approach and digitizing the challenges to wash away the threat of the pandemic. However, the challenges are far from over.

With schools demanding fees, most of the families are finding it difficult to pay school fees because of the pandemic. In our country, the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota exists in private schools for families having income less than Rs. 1 lakh per annum, however, due to the pandemic, families having incomes more than Rs. 1 lakh per annum are not eligible for the reservation.

The unfortunate reality is that the families having income barely over Rs. 1 lakh per annum are unable to get reservations under the EWS category and hence are forced to pull their children out from the low-budget private schools and enrol them in government schools.

Furthermore, due to the pandemic, tax collection has been at an all-time low. Due to low tax collection implications on government-sponsored education, which depends on tax money have been seriously impacted.

Education is an area in which all governments intervene to fund, direct or regulate the provision of services. Due to the pandemic, there is no guarantee that private institutions will provide equitable access to educational opportunities, government funding of educational services is needed to ensure that education is not beyond the reach of some underprivileged members of our society.

To overcome the drastic gap in education between the haves and the have nots, the priority should be on the safe reopening of the schools with effective planning by the authorities.

Further, even if the COVID-19 crisis stretches longer, there is an urgent need to take efforts on maximum utilization of online platforms so that students not only surpass their current education levels but also get ready for the future digital-oriented environment. The government should ensure that children can pursue quality learning while teachers work on enhancing the learning levels.

Priority should be given for vaccination of school teachers after the frontline workers. The teachers should be also be trained and equipped to reach out to the children from remote regions, marginalized and minority groups with limited or no access to technology through a combination of mobile devices / audio-video aids and offline classes for effective delivery of education.

For example, in Luxembourg, the government set up a new support system for students and parents to support homeschooling. In Mexico, a telephone line “Your Teacher Online” has been activated to offer to mentor students.

The government should invest in pre-primary and foundational literacy and numeracy education efforts. Many countries like Australia and Canada have launched Education Relief Packages and Emergency Student Benefits to provide financial support to post-secondary students and recent high school graduates who are unable to find work due to COVID-19 over the summer months and to help them gain new skills in life, which would help them eventually in their careers.

After schools reopen, months or perhaps the entire year must be spent on recovering lost learning. Schools should be given information on all the scholarships and schemes available that provide economic support to the children and their families for continuing their education.

The scholarship amount should be raised and govt should ensure that entitlements reach each child. The state governments need to leverage existing schemes to design interventions to bring the children from the marginalized social groups to the education.

An integrated approach to nutrition at the individual, household, and community levels along with Covid management will serve to tackle the problem of mal and undernutrition at the ground level besides building awareness and accelerating the implementation of clean and safe living strategies.

Furthermore, the government also needs to undertake a detailed statistical study to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the education system of India to further introduce changes in the current education system.

(Views are personal)

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