Over a year and a half into a pandemic that has caused over 4 million fatalities globally, seemingly India is set to witness the rise of its third wave. Even so, schools are looking into reopening for yet another time, thereby underlining education as an essential requirement.
Schools for more than 168 million schoolchildren globally have been closed for almost a year. There is no doubt several have smoothly transitioned to online learning. But what about the several more that haven’t? At least 1 in 3 schoolchildren have been unable to access remote learning while their schools were closed, according to UNICEF. This only serves to highlight ever widening social and economic disparities. One of the first nations to close down all its schools, India has witnessed nothing short of such challenges as unavailability of smartphones and computers, unreliable internet connection (if at all), lack of technological skills, and lack of electricity. A survey of 23 states among school children (grades 1 to 12) conducted in April 2020 found that a significant 12.0 per cent had access to neither smartphones nor basic phones. And what of the ones who do? What started off as an exciting challenge fast led to rapid loss of motivation and worsening mental health, exacerbated by deterioration of physical health, they forget routine, they lose out on essential social interaction, and they rub their red eyes only to stare back at a screen for several hours more.
The faces on the other side of the screen haven’t fared much better. Forced to adapt to technology, teachers- several of whom also lack sufficient resources- have shifted to online teaching: a method of learning so nascent in the nation, it has left students and staff alike wondering if this new normal could ever change.
Education boards and administrative bodies took several decisions in the course of the pandemic, none of which were easy. Parents and administration rarely saw eye to eye, debating over payment of tuition and hostel fees, opening of institutions, and conduction of exams. Several deliberations ago, the School boards cut down syllabuses by varying percentages, with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) reducing 30 per cent of portions in every subject. Several deliberations later, the Central Board, the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), and several state boards cancelled the 2020 and 2021 board exams, whilst implementing a New Education Policy. Considering the uncertainty of the future of education, the latter’s timeline may be hard to follow. In addition, entrance exams and standardized testing such as Advanced Placement (AP) exams, the SAT, and the ACT, were moved online or cancelled. While several have welcomed these moves, citing reasons of safety, the other side may argue that it has made it considerably harder to get into colleges, especially outside the country, if not just out of town. While those who agree with the change believe offline examinations are not fair to students who have learned online- if it may be called learning at all- the opposition brings up the falling quality of schooling. How much of a curriculum cut is too much? Physical education is already lost.
Students argue it isn’t fair to make online exams harder, or to scrutinize every student’s every move. Staff argue that, just because it’s easier, doesn’t mean it’s fair to cheat. But just how much the spent student has truly studied, and how much the tired teacher has truly taught is tough to gauge. The pandemic has altered the paths students and teachers are taking to achieve their dreams, if not their dreams themselves.
While the school dropout rate was under 3 per cent for the first time in January 2020 in India, experts say the virus will undo the little progress made. A projection by UNESCO estimated that 24 million children in 180 nations may not return to education in 2021 due to the pandemic, the largest share being from south and west Asia. In a nation already burdened by child labour, India is and will continue to see children dropping out due to lack of funds and resources, or to help their parents who have faced their own losses at work. Again, the incidence of dropouts has been found to be higher among girls, especially those living in poverty, those with disabilities, or living in the rural regions, and the pandemic continues to widen gaps in equality.
School closures in response to the pandemic have shed light on various issues, including student debt, digital learning, homelessness, housing, health, and the internet, with higher impacts on disadvantaged children and their families, causing interrupted learning, compromised nutrition, childcare problems, and consequent economic cost to families who could not work.
There is no lack of influence the pandemic has had on people, particularly those in education, but there is also no lack of measures to steer this influence in a better direction.
In response to school closures, UNESCO recommended the use of distance learning programmes and open educational applications and platforms that schools and teachers can use to reach learners remotely and limit the disruption of education. To achieve maximum benefits from this, further guidelines include:
1. Develop rules and plan schedules: Recognizing that every student and teacher stands differently at a time like this is the first step. Accepting feedback through forms at periodic intervals, and formative questions on tests help closely monitor students’ progress. None of these should be over or underdone, to allow for reducing stress on teachers creating questions and students answering them. Breaks must be given between each class, preferably every three quarters of an hour at the maximum. Hold interventions and classes dedicated to the importance of self-studying and having other hobbies- especially physical ones, besides educating and trusting the children to be honest during their exams, emphasizing their own integrity rather than resorting to more extreme measures. All of this planning is only possible through regular discussions with stakeholders to examine the possible duration of school closures. Learning methodologies should be selected prior to the class, and taking into account students’, parents’, and teachers’ honest opinions, avoiding those more suited to face-to-face communication. Whether each class will focus on new knowledge or revising previous lessons must be decided. Open communication between parents and administration should take place, with each side being more understanding of the other’s tasks, whether taking care of schools or raising children.
2. Choose the most relevant tools based on availability of resources such as electricity and internet connections. Integrated digital learning platforms and broadcasts are just two of the available options. To ensure inclusion of those with disabilities or from low-income backgrounds, decentralize devices from computer labs to families and support them with internet connectivity. The government of India has already taken steps, including releasing a set of guidelines for online education, called "Pragyata", and ordered for the use of DIKSHA platform for all states and union territories to enable learning at home through innovative state programmes. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the education department has initiated home-based alternative learning methods by utilising channels such as the local Doordarshan. Other government social security schemes must be taken advantage of to allow engagement of every single student in their education without heavy burdens on family finances.
3. Protect data privacy and security of students and staff alike when uploading data or educational resources to web spaces, as well as when sharing them with other organisations or individuals.
4. Prioritize solutions addressing psychosocial challenges before teaching by creating communities to ensure regular human interactions even when physically isolated. Teachers, parents, and student groups may discuss any loneliness or helplessness, facilitating sharing of experience and coping strategies. Professional treatment also goes a long way. Several trained counsellors, psychologists, and psychiatrists have begun free session via telephone in certain neighbourhoods. 'Manodarpan', by the Indian Government, launched a toll-free helpline number and a website, and issued a handbook on the life skills necessary to survive a health crisis. Psycho-social support centres, called Snehi, were also set up in different parts of India, where counsellors help children and adolescents navigate the mental challenges wrought by the pandemic. Every school should look into hiring a certified counsellor, not only for the students, but for the staff and potentially the parents as well
5. Support teachers and parents and students regarding the usage of technology, to understand better what the children will be dealing with, by organising brief training or orientation sessions on basic settings and optimal internet navigation. Government schemes and local community sessions may aid in the process.
6. If schools are to be reopened, strategies such as rotating schedules, eating lunch in classrooms, and utilizing outdoor spaces are some ways to minimize close contact. Additional and essential precautions include face masks, hand sanitizer stations, rearranging classrooms to enable physical distancing, and frequent cleaning. Students even as young as those in primary grades must be taught the value of hygiene. Regarding the question of writing examinations offline, a majority of students must also agree to the same, and sufficient time be given to return to schools. Proper social distancing should be maintained. if entrance exams are delayed or cancelled, higher institutions such as colleges must be informed and modify their own methods of acceptance to allow for students to gain admission without any extra hassles, through giving enough weight on marks round the year, and extra-curriculars, instead of on a single examination.
7. The most important move to reopen schools, of course, is the vaccination of children. So far, the nation has organized successful drives for those above eighteen and above forty five, for they were considered the most vulnerable. This should not take away from the safety of schoolchildren, however, whose formative years should be spent in a classroom and as free of risk as possible.
To conclude, we have come a long way in dealing with the pandemic and yet a lot more can be done. The hazardous effect of the pandemic on the education sector will continue to reflect in the learning of children for years to come. The measures taken so far can be enhanced further to enable faster return to normalcy.
Founder & Consultant - School Serv
Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.