Squaring up to India’s education emergency

Students are on their way to school in Shimla on August 9, 2021 after schools were re-opened for senior classes.

Students are on their way to school in Shimla on August 9, 2021 after schools were re-opened for senior classes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic , India enforced among the strictest, most generalised and continuous school and university closures creating in the process the largest education emergency in the world. Federal countries such as the United States and Brazil implemented a variety of school closures and remote/in-person education policies in different jurisdictions. Not so in India, where all States, irrespective of the pattern of evolution of the novel coronavirus disease, followed a uniform policy, with fewer variations.

Policy and indicators

The global Stringency Index, created by the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker , has tracked the closure of educational institutions across all countries since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic. This indicator is one of eight “containment and closure” indicators and a health information indicator used to calculate the index. Indicators are coded according to the level of strictness of the policy.

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In India, the school closure indicator shows that of the 503 days, between March 5, 2020 and July 20, 2021, 404 days were characterised as being at the most severe policy response (requiring closure of all types of educational institutions); 62 at level 2 (with closure of some types of institutions) and only 37 days at level 1 (when closure was either only recommended or school opening was allowed with precautions). As a result, about 265 million schoolchildren have been taught exclusively through so-called “remote learning”, the largest number in any country for the longest period of time.

This approach contrasted with the response in many other countries. Within a few months of the first lockdown of schools in March 2020, pandemic-hit Europe began resuming in-person schooling for certain groups of children or certain localities. Evidence was mounting of the harm caused to children and young adolescents — learning losses as well as socio-emotional stress — by prolonged school closures and of the ineffectiveness and inequalities of remote learning, even in technologically sophisticated environments.

The Oxford Stringency Index shows that less affluent countries such as Uruguay and Vietnam, also took a more measured approach, imposing the severest policy responses in education only for 140 and 212 days, respectively. ( Table 1 ). India’s education policy response was similar to that of Brazil — surprisingly so, as the severity of the pandemic outbreak was much less here during 2020 than in Brazil.

Schooling strategies

When “hybrid” schooling models (i.e., a combination of in-person and remote teaching) were introduced, countries prioritised children of younger ages, of essential workers and those with special needs, for in-person learning. When the school closure policy was relaxed in a few Indian States during January-March 2021, only high schools were allowed to function to conduct public exams.

By March 2021, 51 countries had resumed in-person education. In another 90 countries, including many in Africa, multiple modalities, rotation of children for in-person classes and part remote/part in-person options were being offered. Similar strategies were not systematically tried in India, even when relaxations were made for public gatherings at festivals and elections, prior to the second wave of the pandemic. India is, therefore, less prepared for school re-openings than many other countries. The trauma of the second wave has generated even more fears of schools becoming the epicentre of the next wave, though the recommendations of the Indian Council of Medical Research to reopen primary schools from July 20, 2021 and the gestures of some of the States now are promising.


The Indian experience

During these hundreds of days of almost continuous lockout, the youngest and the poorest among Indian children — Dalits, tribals and others, and lacking devices and electricity — struggled with online classes. Attendance’ data are neither available nor ‘defined. Many have just given up — especially those who had learnt little in schools. Existing education inequalities will increase.

The national Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) portal of teacher resources claims that usage increased to 3.17 billion “learning sessions” and 37.85 billion “learning minutes”, by the end of May 2021. The educational significance of these metrics is not clear. Meanwhile, many studies and reports from the field by numerous non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individuals engaged with the recently formed National Coalition on the Education Emergency indicate that teachers, unprepared for remote teaching, forward social media links to their hapless students. Children are expected to submit homework and assessments also through WhatsApp or text.

Kerala provided basic access to remote learning by June 2020 to its four million students through the KITE VICTERs educational TV channel, which broadcast classes for all subjects in each grade. It was made clear that such ‘digital classes’ are not an alternative to regular classes, but to bridge the academic gap. It mandated further continuous follow-ups by teachers. The State leveraged investments made over the last two decades in information technology for schools, including capacity building of teachers and teacher developed digital content. Nevertheless, the universal switch to ‘online’ mode has proved challenging.

The Brazilian State of Sao Paulo gives some clues about the possible impacts of remote learning on India’s locked out children. A recent study published by the Inter-American Development Bank concludes that students in the State “had learned only 27% of the in-person equivalent under remote learning”. The risk of dropout increased by a factor of 2.5. Significantly, however, even a partial reopening of some high schools to allow in-person classes for a few weeks increased students’ test scores by 20%, relative to a control group.

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Tragically, for tens of millions of Indian children, the difficulties of remote learning may be the least of their troubles. With families ravaged by disease and job losses, teenagers are caring for the sick and younger siblings, or working for pay.

Interruptions in child health services, early nutrition and mid-day meals have affected the growth and development of young children. Ironically, closed schools are seen as a commitment to children’s safety, while the higher risk of disease transmission by working children or the increase in malnutrition is ignored.

As schools reopen, offering a few standardised “bridge” courses and “remedial classes” may seem like a facile antidote to the months of lost formal learning. Resuming the teaching of “the syllabus” — even a watered down version — and pushing children through to the next grade means kicking the can down the road. In designing appropriate programmes, the experiences of stakeholders will be invaluable.


A complete change is needed

India’s education emergency demands action on the education, health and livelihood fronts. It requires focusing on every child as an individual. Each school should prepare a safe school opening and child support plan, and should receive technical help for this. Teachers must be prioritised for vaccinations. Local adaptations and flexibility are essential. An ‘Education Emergency Room’ should be set up in every district to coordinate, implement and monitor local plans. Many activities have to be coordinated: develop health and sanitation measures in schools and protocols for public transportation; encourage children who were not engaged with schools over the last year to come back; develop tools to help teachers make quick diagnoses of students’ learning gaps; train teachers to use this as a guide to support children’s recovery; offer additional classes or activities; implement school health and nutrition; develop tools to accompany the educational trajectory of each student. Technology should be deployed safely for such purposes that identify and respond to children’s needs.

After months of lockout, will India’s children now luck out?

Sajitha Bashir is former Adviser and Manager in the World Bank’s Global Education Practice. She is part of the National Coalition on Education Emergency. Anvar Sadath is CEO of Kerala Infrastructure & Technology for Education (KITE), Government of Kerala. The views expressed are personal

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