On 23 March 2020, a nationwide lockdown was instituted to contain the spread of the deadly Covid-19 in India. At one stroke, almost in a baptism by fire, all educational institutions were closed and so, more than 1.2 billion children around the world were abruptly out of school. Schools and universities were pushed into conceding to online learning for as good as 90% of the world’s students.
Even in India, the government invested in coherent plans for fleshing out digital learning. To rectify the threat of potential learning loss for school goers, online resources were made available on a spectrum of platforms; like for remote areas, educational programmes were broadcasted through television and radio.
However, this has not been sufficient. By the end of June 2021, there existed alarming duality among children: they were either attending virtual classes or operated in a vacuum. An overwhelming number of students have no access to even instruments necessary to access digital learning. For them, the year of COVID-19 has been nothing but a void.
A crushing majority of school goers in India are either first-generation learners or come from homes that are unable to afford the required backing for even self-study. They are falling behind largely out of school and education, presenting a critical challenge to India—the future home to the largest under-18 population by the end of the decade.
The Need Urgency Of The Status Quo
About 0.32 billion students in India have been affected by school shutdown in the pandemic as per UNESCO (2020). Of these, a sizable 84% live in rural areas where almost 70% go to government schools. By 2015, the average dropout rate across secondary schools in India was 17.06% with relatively higher proportions for rural areas. This is alarming as past evidence suggests that short-term disruptions in schooling often lead to permanent dropouts among the poor.
All the more, the temporary halt of mid-day meals and supplementary nutrition programs in the lockdown and subsequent school closures has exacerbated the “household food insecurity gap”. Thereby, having spill-over effects such as exposing children to multi-layered vulnerabilities, including gender inequalities, confirmed by increased reports of child marriage and child trafficking during the pandemic. Besides, with the increasing expenses and fewer earning opportunities for the migrants and the rural population, children are pushed into the labour market as a substitute.
Moreover, the current medium of schooling fails to guarantee that students are growing holistically while staying indoors. Attendance in virtual mode is given more importance than conceptual assessment, that it may even be counterproductive to push for longer periods of screen time even if they are provided with required digital resources. Thus, putting the overall learning outcomes to question. Moreover, investment in digital inputs may only result in significantly higher returns if the broader environment is amenable to their successful use. Such variables can only be regulated and verified in the physical platform.
In view of their mental health, protracted confinement is becoming more difficult for children to adjust to in the ‘new normal’. If this continues, the ongoing pandemic may mount negative feelings of loneliness, insecurity and anxiety due to no social contact.
While many teachers institute tutorial sessions to engage with students, it nevertheless remains impersonal and unidirectional. What they need is an informal ambience of learning of psychosocial empowerment than the prevailing stressful formal, didactic format of learning.
Epidemiological Concerns Of The Surging Third Wave
The COVID-19 pandemic is notable for the fact that children account for fewer than 2% of overall COVID-19 cases, with the majority of cases resulting in only mild sickness. Even when children with co-morbidities were found to be at risk of developing a serious illness, fatality was extremely infrequent.
In addition to ‘silent’ infections, it was shown that the majority of infections were acquired through close contact with adults in family clusters. Transmission from children to others, on the other hand, was uncommon. In another instance, despite having had long close contact with her two-year-old SARS-CoV-2 infected child, the mother was confirmed to be uninfected.
Recently, people are anxious about the possibility of a ‘third wave’ of the pandemic and children being the prime targets of it. This is because until now only the above 18 population have been vaccinated. Contrary to these rumours, the Indian Council of Medical Research notes that children’s immune systems are more primed and have fewer chemical receptors that facilitate virus entrance.
As a result, the transmission dynamics and indisposition of the Covid-19 in children are so distinctive that calibrated early reopening is indicated.
Looking At The Post-COVID-19 Pedagogy
Besides getting ready for the physical mode, pedagogical methods in digital content could focus more on outcome-based learning. This entails enhancing the scope of online learning as an alternative to classroom learning and creatively incorporating both, such as developing the next generation of flipped classrooms.
This would be an essential step even after the crisis. The government’s Production-Linked Incentive Scheme could help in funding for the same. For several years, we have been tinkering around the edges with online learning, knowing that the education models in the status quo were inadequate. It is a pivotal time when we can reinvent teaching for bringing about long term morphs in the pedagogical structure.
Furthermore, the digital gap has generated new disparities that are likely to affect children’s life prospects. In this aspect, secure support mechanisms can be fostered and given impetus to create an ecosystem—to provide digital access to online learning for all children. Thereby bridging the ‘rural-urban gap’. For this reason, the government’s prime focus should be on making its Bharat Net and ‘Wifi Access Network Interface’ up and running across the nation.
Rather than just seeing our current situation as a temporary inconvenience that we should attempt to put behind as quickly as possible in the hope to go back to a more comfortable pre-crisis past, we should explore how we might utilise this time to advance long-overdue improvements.
Let’s get started by reopening schools, resuming children’s education and making up for the lost time. With the right policies, we can succeed in both effective education and prevention of coronavirus.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.