Education during the pandemic

TULTUL BISWAS and
ARVIND SARDANA

THE Covid-19 pandemic shattered lives, disrupted markets, challenged our social fabric, and set in motion a hidden ‘mental health epidemic’, as health experts say. With prolonged disruptions for formal education activities across the world, its long-term impact has yet to be seen. Children are unable to go to school and attend classes, interact with their peers, and engage with formal academic activities. Across India they have been out of school and at home for almost eighteen months, and some continue to do so. This has impacted ‘approximately 286 million students (48% girls) from pre-primary to upper secondary education. And this is in addition to the more than six million children (48% girls) who were already out of school prior to the Covid-19 crisis.’1

As months passed in 2020 with no end in sight of the pandemic tunnel, panic set in. Many private educational institutions started considering e-learning and, since then, most of the high-end and middle-of-the-spectrum private schools conducted regular online classes. This further divided the haves and have-nots, especially in the rural stretches of the country. The lack of infrastructure in villages, much less in their own houses, for any kind of e-learning, made the already marginalized children going to government schools further deprived. Studies across the world have clearly indicated that school closures have significant negative impact on learning levels of children, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds being affected more severely.2

The following data table, shared in June 2020 by Rajya Shiksha Kendra, Bhopal, and Sustainable Action for Transforming Human Capital – a Niti Aayog initiative supporting digital learning in M.P. – reveals the dismal state of affairs when it comes to reaching out to government school students through digital media. It clearly points out that only about 29% of the parents of government school students own smartphones. Further, the actual reach/usage of the materials being sent through the Digital Learning Enhancement Programme (DigiLEP) is only about 2% of the total government school student population.

 

 

Add to this the inability of a large number of parents and other adults to support their wards in the expectations of the digital learning processes and the deprivation of government school students increases exponentially. The Unicef study quoted above reports: ‘Only 60% of students have used any remote learning resources’ leaving a gaping 40% elementary school children away from any such teaching-learning exposure. This data gets alarmingly reversed when we come to Madhya Pradesh, where only 40% students used remote learning materials since school closures; 60% did not use any remote learning materials.3 And even within the above groups, it is the girls, children in the rural areas and children of migrant families who are the worst hit.

Even among the 60% who have accessed some form of remote learning, nearly 80% children themselves report that they are learning less or significantly less than in school.4

 

 

It has also been reported that 92% of primary school children on an average have lost at least one specific language ability (e.g., describing a picture or their experiences orally; reading familiar words; reading with comprehension; writing simple sentences based on a picture) from the previous year across all classes. And 82% of children on an average have lost at least one specific mathematical ability (for instance, identifying single- and two-digit numbers; performing arithmetic operations; using basic arithmetic operations for solving problems; describing 2D/3D shapes; reading and drawing in-ferences from data) from the previous year across all classes.5

The risk of huge numbers of children dropping out of schools also looms large due to health concerns, financial constraints and as 10% of families could not afford to send children back to school and 6% needed children to help earn an income.6

 

 

The above results are hardly surprising, since education, as we know is not a one-sided process of information delivery. It is a psycho-social process of constructing knowledge through formalized and institutionalized practice of interaction between a group of students and a ‘more knowledgeable other’. It has been defined as: a serious and sustained programme of learning, for the benefit of people qua people… above the level of what people might pick up in their everyday lives.’7 And hence, especially and certainly at the early primary and primary stages, what is required is a
face to face and hands-on approach of carrying out teaching-learning processes for students of the 3 to 11 age group.

What these studies focus on is important. However, what these studies choose not to focus on is important too and that should not go unnoticed. And that is the fact that schools are not just places of ‘learning’ only of an academic nature for its students; they give much more. They give the time and space to children to get away from home, from the routine burden of household chores and sibling care. It gives them friends and friendships, a legitimate space to play, quarrel, resolve differences and bond with peers. It gives them a natural space to experience the storming, norming, forming and performing cycles of group development8 – which help build their capacities to work in groups for a lifetime.

 

 

Children going to government schools are facing a double disadvantage – the mid-day meal (MDM) that gave them one hot meal for sure as well as the long gap in any kind of formal teaching-learning exposure have both been snatched from them. Closed anganwadis will additionally also cause roadblocks to the access
for nutrition and immunization for children. Once schools reopen, teachers will be facing children who might have a compromised immunity, nutritional deficit, affected psycho-emotional state and formal learning gap. We need to think of this in a holistic manner.

For us at Eklavya, by the end of June 2020, when it was clear that the end was nowhere in sight for schools in Madhya Pradesh, India, the government state level agency – Rajya Shiksha Kendra – as well as all non-government organizations put their minds together to address this situation. By that time, Eklavya had already piloted and ground-tested a localized neighbourhood level model of Shiksha Protsahan Kendras (SPKs).

SPKs are community-based learning centres that bring formal education to the most marginalized first generation schoolgoers, provide them with the academic support that is needed to sustain them in mainstream schools. SPK centres have been a model of reaching meaningful learning experiences to children from both the labouring and landless, dalit and adivasi families in remote rural stretches.

Community ownership of the SPK is built from the start and a local village youth is selected by the parent’s committee formed to run an SPK. These village youth facilitators regularly carry out two hours of teaching-learning work in the SPKs. Further, parents of the children coming to SPK attend a monthly meeting and discuss issues such as their child’s monthly educational progress, the irregularity or late coming of some children, the functioning of the village school and schoolteacher, etc. An active cooperative relationship between the SPK in a village and the local government schoolteachers is also fostered.

 

 

Responding to Covid-19, the SPKs were adapted into Mohalla Learning Activity Centres (Mohalla LAC), a comfortable learning space in the immediate vicinity of the child to continue engagement with meaningful learning experiences scaffolded by a local youth or a young parent.

Over the year, around 700 Mohalla LACs (in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra) were held in open or well ventilated spaces within the neighbourhood or village hamlet of the child. A maximum of about fifteen children of the elementary school level attended, with shifts and batches working where numbers are bigger to maintain physical distance and safety precautions.

Building around a small mobile library (a set of books for the facilitator to refer to and give reading exposure to children), a set of few necessary teaching-learning materials (TLMs) and bare minimum stationery, the emphasis has been on developing the capacities of the facilitator towards use of everyday materials as learning engagement tools and the ideas of learning by doing, from the environment and from each other is fostered.

 

 

Our experience from the approximately 700 Mohalla LACs tells us that the most crucial and immediate need is to help children get out of their homes and meet their peers and deal with the prolonged stress that they have undergone. Children who study in government schools come from some of the most socio-economically marginalized families. Stress has been high in these families – leading to both oppressive and depressive circumstances within homes. The Mohalla LAC space allows children to get away from these stressful situations at home and be with peers, express themselves by talking, writing, and drawing their experiences of the lockdown and more. As they are conducted in the neighbourhood, parents often drop in to check what children are up to in these mohalla classes. They find their wards engaged in fun activities dealing with basic reading-writing and numeracy and are reassured.

As the school system faces prolonged closure, the Mohalla LAC effort has constructed a new social infrastructure with embedded teacher-community connect. It has created a platform for communities, not only to come together to ensure learning for elementary students, but also to learn and adopt protective measures against the pandemic and build neighbourhood/hamlet-level resilience. Eventually, based on similar ground experiences of a number of civil society organizations, the Rajya Shiksha Kendra too accepted the idea of mohalla classes and instructed teachers throughout the state to support them. They also adopted a model where teachers visited homes, spoke with children, and distributed worksheets. The response had a wide range depending on local team initiative. However, this has led to a synergy between the government school teachers and the civil society initiatives as well as the local youth.

 

 

The impact of the second wave was more serious. Rural areas that had not been affected much during the first wave, faced a disastrous spread of Covid 19 in this period. It was an emergency situation all around. There were deaths and large number of families affected. In normal circumstances, people rush to city hospitals for treatment. This avenue was closed since there were no beds, oxygen, or medicines available at city hospitals. Most rural people in Madhya Pradesh and similar states resorted to local RMPs who treated them with saline bottles and steroids. There was no guidance available for them. Most institutional mechanisms for rural areas froze as movement was restricted and there were hardly any established protocols. Teachers were later included in the disaster management teams but with little protective equipment or training. This resulted in many teachers getting infected and losing their lives. As we come out of this situation, the fear of a third wave, talk of children being the most vulnerable population, and uncertainty around this is real.

Why is there a demand for reopening schools? As per Ministry of Human Resource Development data, 65.2% (113 million) of all school students in 20 states go to government schools. The figure rises further if we add the government aided private schools. For instance, in Karnataka alone, in the 2019-20 academic year, 43.28 lakh students were enrolled in government schools, and 13.3 lakh students in government aided schools, whereas private unaided school enrolment was 46.13 lakh. The figures are not yet final for 2020-21, but there is a defnite rise in the number of children being enrolled in government schools. So far 42.5 lakh children have been admitted to government schools, 12.17 lakh students to government aided schools, and 40.57 lakh children to private unaided schools.9

 

 

Across the world, countries and governments have tried to either not close schools or reopen them as soon as possible – giving education of their children the topmost priority. However, throughout India, schools have been shut for more than a year now and the everyday routine of children is disturbed. ‘The longer children stay out of school, the more vulnerable they become, with less chances of returning to school,’ said Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, Unicef India representative.10 The decision to reopen schools is in the best interest of children and as schools reopen, they need to do so in a staggered manner and the entire education machinery – teachers and educators need to plan creatively to support them in catching up on the learning they have missed.

With instances of child labour, child marriage – especially for girls, domestic violence and sexual abuse on the rise, mental health and well-being of children is a cause for major concern. This situation can only be safely and categorically reversed if schools are reopened and psycho-social support from teachers and peers is restored.

In rural stretches of India, there are many schools with decent infrastructure and low enrolment. These are the places where the school reopening can be started. Of course, measures like calling children in batches or on alternate days, working out shifts and maintaining all Covid-19 safety protocols will have to be worked out. Agencies like Unicef, Unesco and others have already published well researched documents to guide these processes. The need of the day is to build political will in favour of India’s tomorrow, to allow them to exercise their Right to Education (RTE).

 

 

To see the long neglect of public education, we could look at a brief history of elementary schools in India for the twenty-year period preceding the pandemic. For over many decades, public investment in schools has been inadequate, thereby encouraging the unaided private school sector to fill in this gap. Manabi Majumdar describes this as reform by retreat. In the period 1995 to 2015, the share of children attending unaided private schools at an all-India level increased by 16%. For some states this shift was as much as 20 to 35%, according to a recent study by Bose et all. The most alarming aspect of the increase is the growth of low fee private schools to meet the needs of schooling of  the poor, both for urban and rural areas. These schools cater to the unmet needs and also encourage the
exit from government schools. Hence within each state you have regions of surplus and deficits and there’s no attempt to reform school administration. In a detailed study based on UDISE data we find massive gaps between what is required to fulfil commitments of RTE
and what exists today. The surplus story and closure and merger of government schools captures the imagination so much that schools with gaps and deficits have become invisible.

What are the factors that aided this process and how could they be reversed? Despite the rhetoric central and state governments have been under pressure to reduce their wage bill, not to recruit teachers or spend on expanding schools and classrooms. The demand for schooling has been increasing whereas the supply response was ignored or delayed by decades.

 

 

This neglect of the public system was clearly aided by encouraging privatization, and by deregulation as explained in a study for schools in Madhya Pradesh by Leclercq. By the time Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was launched in 2002, the exit of the upper sections from government schools had already begun. However, for the first time in many years as pointed out by Govinda and Sedwal, positive incentives appeared to bring into school marginalized groups in a big way. Infrastructure improvements on a large scale, MDM, free textbooks  and incentives for students and appoint-ment of new teachers took place. This had never happened before. Girls, marginalized groups, and many of the never enrolled, were in school.

By the time RTE was finally passed in 2009, the exit of the upper sections from government elementary schools had become a reality in many regions.  A new vicious cycle had started operating. The composition of students at the government schools had changed. They were OBC, SC & ST and girls – children from the lowermost rung of society. The teachers still largely belonged to the upper caste groups. Wherever school functionality dropped both teachers and students blamed each other for not coming to school. The school administration contributed by blaming teachers and not taking any administrative steps. The dysfunctionality of the system had taken root. The structure and responsibility of the education administration to provide viable school teams, delegating power to principals and ensuring fair distribution of teachers for under-served areas was totally overlooked. The hold of local politics over school administration as the underlying malaise was never discussed or sought to be corrected.

 

 

In the aftermath of the pandemic with schools being closed for the entire year 2020-21, government schoolteachers were relied on to reach out to the village community. Low fee private schools remained closed and online has never been a possibility in their case. Few among the larger rural private schools operated online classes. Given the adverse impact on livelihoods many families now wish to enrol their children at government schools (as described above). Although many families struggle for admission as the low fee-paying private schools appear to be demanding fees for the full year in lieu of the necessary Transfer Certificate for students.

Yet, this is an opportunity to change the perception of a helpless, dysfunctional government school to one which offers education of equitable quality for all. The loss of trust can be bridged by reversing the above trends. One, school teams need to be in place. Two, additional teachers recruited, and principals given the power to make schools run in a functional manner. Three, education bureaucracy be directed to work as per norms and shielded from entrenched local political equations. The requirements as per RTE for each school would be met and this would require a much larger education budget by the state along with state specific central grant allocations, where gaps are large.

Several studies such as by Brown et al. show that nutritional status can directly affect mental capacity and improvements in nutrient intake can influence the cognitive ability among schoolage children. Access to nutrition that incorporates protein, carbohydrates, and glucose has been shown to improve students’ cognition, concentration, and energy levels.

 

 

Clearly, education, health and nutrition should go together. Hence, while we work out the reopening of schools, it is time we redefine schools and develop them as holistic centres that take care of the education, health, and nutritional needs of students. An immediate step in this direction would be to allow admission of students in government schools without TCs and only with birth certificates. The next important step would be to supplement the mid-day meal with a healthy breakfast for students – a small step that has shown direct impact in improving cognitive readiness.

 

References

S. Bose, P. Ghosh and A. Sardana, RTE and the Resource Requirements: The Way Forward. Eklavya & NIPFP, Bhopal, 2020.

R. Govinda and M. Sedwal, ‘Introduction: Basic Education for All in India-Tracking Progress’, in R. Govinda and M. Sedwal (eds.), India Education Report: Progress of Basic Education. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2017.

Francois Leclercq, ‘The Impact of Education Policy Reforms on the School System: A Field Study of EGS and Other Primary Schools in Madhya Pradesh’, CSH Occasional Paper 5, French Research Institutes in India, Delhi, 2002.

Manabi Mazumdar, ‘Universal Elementary Education: Pursuit of Equity with Quality’, in R. Govinda and M. Sedwal (eds.), op. cit., 2017.

T. Biswas, ‘Community Supported Learning in Rural Areas’, in The Learning Curve. Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, December 2020.

M. Nigam and T. Biswas, ‘The Import of Closing Government Schools’ (in Hindi), Sarvodaya Press Service, Indore, issue 22, 1960, p. 6.

 

Footnotes:

1. Unicef, Rapid Assessment of Learning During Schools Closure, p. 3.

2. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Estimates of Learning Loss in the 2019-2020 School Year. Stanford University, 2020. https://credo.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj6481/short_brief_on_learning_loss_ final_v.3.pdf; M. Kuhfeld, J. Soland, B. Tarasawa, A. Johnson, E. Ruzek, & J. Liu, Projecting the Potential Impacts of Covid-19 School Closures on Academic Achievement. Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University, Ed Working Papers, 2020, pp. 20-226. https://doi.org/10.26300/cdrv-yw05;

3. Unicef, Rapid Assessment of Learning During Schools Closure, Madhya Pradesh State Report, p. 2

4. Unicef, Rapid Assessment of Learning During Schools Closure, p. 25

5. Azim Premji University, Loss of Learning During the Pandemic, February 2021,  p. 10.

6. Unicef, Rapid Assessment of Learning During Schools Closure,  p. 27.

7. John Wilson, ‘The Concept of Education Revisited’, Journal of Philosophy of Education,Wiley Online Library, 2003, https://www.google.comsearch?q=Wilson
+2003+education&oq=
Wilson+2003+education&aqs=chrome..
69i57.7443j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

8. Tuckman’s model of nurturing a team to high performance. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_86.htm

9. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/over-15000-govt-schools-see-rise-in-enrolment-for-2020-21/article32806774.ece

10. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/closure-of-15-million-schools-due-to-covid-19-impacted-247-million-children-in-india-unicef-study/article33981143.ece