Earlier this month, when Sandhya began going to school again, she was thrilled: her daily routine had finally got back on track, she was seeing her friends again, and it felt, after many months, that life was getting back to some sort of normalcy. “I missed being in the classroom so much,” she says.
The petite teenager, jaunty braid over shoulder, hasn’t had a single full term of in-person classes in two years now — though her government school in Chennai opened briefly between subsequent waves of the pandemic. For most of her senior academic years, Sandhya has remained at home. Next month, the 17-year-old, who is in Class XII now, will attempt the final exams that will determine her entry to college and, by extension, her future.
Sandhya is one of nearly 25 crore students in India’s 15 lakh schools whose education has been disrupted for close to two years. Since the first stringent lockdown, announced by the Centre in March 2020, schools have barely been able to function for a complete term, much less an academic year. In the last two years, India has achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the country with the second longest COVID-19 pandemic-linked school closure in the world — next only to Uganda. According to a United Nations report, it is an estimated 82 weeks, with some intermittent classes in between.
Most parts of India reopened schools this month, following the ebbing of the third wave, but months-long closures in 2020 and 2021, have had a devastating impact: on academic learning, on the socialisation and growth of children, on their mental and physical well-being, as well as on their safety.
Even though they briefly opened between waves, it was mostly senior classes that were allowed to attend, leaving primary and kindergarten students behind. Online learning became the buzzword, as did ‘hybrid learning’, which continues to take place in many educational institutions, especially for primary classes. But this came with its own set of problems.
One of the most profound impacts of school closure has been learning losses, affecting crores of students, pushing them back months, if not years, in their academics. A study by the Azim Premji University in January 2021 of over 16,000 children across five States in Classes II to VI found that 92% of children had lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year, and 82% had lost at least one mathematical ability.
Aparna V. has experienced this first-hand. Her eight-year-old daughter, who has Kannada as a second language in school, has forgotten the alphabet. “She has forgotten how to write the letters because there is hardly any writing done during online classes. Her spellings and her reading, both in Kannada and in English, have taken a hit over the last two years,” says the Bengaluru resident.
Teachers, too, worry about this: S. Rajendran, headmaster of a government high school in Thiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu, noticed a dip in writing proficiency and conversational skills when in-person classes resumed.
Students, especially those in Classes I to V, are struggling with basic concepts, says S. Gokulakrishnan, a mathematics teacher in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district. “For average students, who are from poor families, continuity in learning is important. The school closures demotivated the children, and have made it hard to sustain their interest.”
No devices, no Internet
This apart, therapeutic care and interventions available in school to children with disabilities or special needs were disrupted. Anganwadis, serving children up to six years of age, particularly those from low-income families, too, largely remained shut. In fact, many of those entering Class I and II have never seen the inside of a classroom.
Despite the efforts by various State governments to provide learning material such as books, lessons on television and recorded videos, how much learning actually took place is the question. A Parliamentary Standing Committee report in August 2021 quoted UNICEF as saying that 40% of students had not accessed any remote learning. In this learning loss, of “critical proportions”, children had lost a tenth of their entire schooling, the report said.
The vast majority of students in India did not have, or struggled with devices and the Internet, the baseline for online education to succeed. The Standing Committee report said “about 70% of the country does not have access to Internet connectivity and available quality of connectivity is poor”, highlighting the huge digital divide between urban and rural parts of the country.
Despite working two jobs when her school was shut — as a salesperson at a clothes showroom and in a water company — Sandhya could only afford the Internet costs for two of her four online classes every day. The family did not own a smartphone: her mother, a former conservancy worker, used part of the final settlement from her job to buy a second-hand phone that had some keys broken.
But even having a device at home did not guarantee learning. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021, facilitated by educational NGO Pratham, availability of smartphones at home rose to 67.6% in 2021, from 36.5% in 2018, but at least a quarter of schoolchildren did not have access to the devices. Gokulakrishnan says that often the father would have to take the smartphone to work every morning, which meant the child was deprived of lessons throughout the week.
With schools open now, State governments must set clear priorities, says Anurag Behar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation. The syllabus from Classes I to XII must be re-configured, reducing content without compromising on core learning objectives. Teachers must be given the time and the training to recover lost learning. “The focus on finishing the syllabus must go. The priority must be to get students back to learning, and for teachers to have the appropriate material to do this,” he says.
It’s not just learning that has been affected: not going to school and not being able to see and interact with friends, and the forced isolation, have affected children in multiple ways. In a series of guidelines brought out by NIMHANS last year, the authors pointed to children becoming clingier, more attention seeking, and more dependent on their parents; there has also been an increase in gaming behaviour and significant anxiety due to postponement of exams.
K. John Vijay Sagar, professor and head, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NIMHANS, says there has been a rise in the number of children who have developed anxiety or depression, attributing it to the chronic stress and uncertainty of the last two years. Among children who already had these conditions, the pandemic has worsened the situation. Behavioural problems have risen, caused by the isolation and, possibly, due to the stressful atmosphere prevailing in many homes.
For working parents, the need to be constantly available for their children’s online classes was difficult. Shabari B., a Bengaluru resident, found 2020 challenging. Her daughter, now nine, did not take to online classes well. “She developed anxiety and this manifested in behavioural issues — she began to act out and would be rude to her teachers,” says the 44-year-old. The child missed her friends and her normal school day. Shabari’s younger child, now seven, was affected differently; the long months without seeing a single other person or going outside, affected his relationships with other people. “He used to be very vocal, but now he finds social situations very anxiety provoking,” says Shabari.
“Not being able to socialise with their peers has negatively impacted all age groups in their social, language and emotional skills, all of which are learnt through peer interaction,” says Dr. Sagar. This is especially true of children who are five and under: preschools in many parts of the country, even now, have not reopened since the initial lockdown. K.R. Maalathi, State President, Association of Early Childhood Education and Development, Tamil Nadu, says educators have observed nursery-age children in the past two years refusing to make eye contact, engage with other children their age, or converse with adults. “There is a very visible change in how this age group interacts now,” she says.
Screentime also became a matter of concern: the increased attachment of children to their gadgets, and the corresponding lack of physical activity, was made worse by the need to stay indoors. “Phone addiction is a huge problem,” says the mother of an 11-year-old in Mumbai. “Children’s ability to sit and do nothing seems to be non-existent now, they constantly need entertainment, which is always a screen. I think this has impacted their imagination and creativity — even to draw a picture, for instance, my daughter wants to Google and look at it first,” says the banking professional.
With this comes the issue of cyber safety too. Even though children have become well-versed in navigating the Internet, they often do not have the maturity to understand what they are viewing. One child who came to see him, says Shiva Prakash Srinivasan, a child psychiatrist with the Schizophrenia Research Foundation, Chennai, was bullied when he first began online lessons. Tamil Nadu last year was rocked by a series of sexual harassment and abuse allegations, some of which were by students against teachers in the course of online lessons.
Some students have expressed apprehensions about ever going back to school, and, in many cases, have put on weight due to a lack of physical activity, which has hit their self-esteem.
Over the course of 2020 and 2021, child rights activists across the country have pointed to another disturbing trend brought about partly due to school closures: children joining the workforce, the rise in child marriages, and the lack of nutritious food that thousands of children received through school meals.
The ASER report found that in 2018, pre-pandemic, only 2.5% of children aged 6-14 were not enrolled in school. In both the 2020 and 2021 surveys, that figure nearly doubled to 4.6%. A study released by Campaign Against Child Labour in March last year revealed that the proportion of working children among vulnerable communities increased by nearly 280% in Tamil Nadu compared to the pre-COVID-19 years. Childline, the country’s national helpline for children in distress, reported a spike in the number of calls it received about child marriage.
Karthik had to drop out of school, temporarily, when the lockdown hit. Now in Class IX, he began working as a helper at a mattress company near his home in Chennai to support his family. “When school re-opened this month, I was incredibly happy,” says the 14-year-old. He’d missed out on weeks of online classes, but teachers and friends helped him catch up. “Just to be able to meet my friends and play in school again — it’s the best,” he says.
“In vulnerable communities, many older children went to work to support their families due to the economic distress caused by the lockdown,” says R. Vidyasagar, a child rights activist based in Chennai. Some families, says Vidyasagar, encouraged the children to go back to schools when it reopened, but in others, where parents were facing severe poverty, a working teenager or a married daughter, was one more source of income, and one less mouth to feed. “Now that schools are open,” he said, “there must be an emphasis on getting all of the children back.”
The urgent need now is for schools to remain open, with safety protocols in place and to make up for learning losses. Experience and data have shown, says Rukmini Banerjee, CEO of Pratham, that teaching at the right level — from where the child is at, not what the curriculum dictates — can swiftly help children get back on track. “The thrust has to be on fundamentals, in line with what the National Education Policy 2020 recommends. We have an opportunity now to restructure our education system to focus on this.”
In fact, says K. Srinath Reddy, president, Public Health Foundation of India, school closures went on for too long in the country. “Global experience shows that children, even if infected, do not suffer severe consequences, except for a very small number. Even if transmission rates go up again, I do not believe schools should close. The cost of school closures — in children’s education, growth and development — is too high compared to any benefit they may serve.”
Sandhya’s study spot at home is a chair by the window of her housing board tenement. It isn’t always quiet, so she wakes up very early to study. Sandhya wants to become a lawyer. All she needs now, for her dream to be realised, is for school to stay open.
(Some names have been changed)