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. Much has been said, written and published about the impact of school closure on learning loss. However, there has been very limited discourse on why — in spite of scientific evidence to support re-opening — Indian States continued to remain reluctant to reopen schools. Analysing the root causes of school closure in India is an urgent need to derive lessons and to guide future policy interventions.
The bane of misinformation
To start with, one of the biggest reasons for continued school closure has been widespread misinformation. Unsubstantiated statements such as ‘the third wave would affect children’ and ‘let’s wait for vaccination of kids before reopening schools’ were made by influential individuals and amplified on social media. These scared parents and (incorrectly) linked school reopening with COVID-19 vaccination of children. Occasional reports of children being hospitalised in different parts of the world were on loop on television channels, sensationalising the matter; while it boosted their target rating point (TRP), it harmed hapless children.
Two, the opinion of a small section of privileged parents and self-proclaimed representatives of their association — often not fully understanding the complexity of the issues — dominated and prevailed in the mainstream discourse. Though surveys had indicated that poor and middle class parents — no matter which part of the country they were from — wanted schools to be open, they were largely ignored in decision making, which was also influenced by ‘sensational’ newspaper reports and high-pitched TV debates. Many ‘experts-on-everything’ appeared on television channels with the argument ‘lets err on the side of caution’, as if epidemiological and scientific evidence were of no value. Every time privileged parents or an ‘expert on everything’ spoke, they deprived children from poor and marginalised backgrounds of their opportunity of and right to education. It needs no reiteration that, in the last two years, already wide educational inequities have only widened further.
Three, the Government’s response, at all levels, to the misinformation was delayed and arguably insufficient. Though science communication increased over a period of time, it did not match the pace of misinformation. Politicians in most States played to the gallery and used the opposition (by a small group of the mostly privileged) to re-open schools as an excuse to delay school reopening.
Gaps to have minded
Four, the lived experience of citizens from the second COVID-19 wave in India — in which people had to fend for themselves — dented the trust of the average citizen in the Government and its institutions. Alongside, the widespread misinformation not countered by the Government and not engaging with stakeholders for regaining trust, compounded the challenge. Evidence informed and COVID-19 data based public communication could have helped. However, throughout the pandemic, the availability of COVID-19 data in the public domain remained sub-optimal and science communication, almost always delayed.
Five, for many months after the initial closure of schools, there was almost no planning and discussion on the need for objective criteria to reopen schools. In early January 2021, India had almost declared victory over the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there was very little discussion and urgency to reopen schools.
The delay in school reopening has revealed societal aspects as well.
First, it is not a given that those with the influence and voices would speak on behalf of the poor and the voiceless. Second, school closure has had the worst impact on children who were already at a disadvantage. Third, the learnings during the novel coronavirus pandemic have been (wrongly) equated with completion of the syllabus. Parents have started to believe that learning loss can be addressed by having their wards attend extra classes or through online EdTech solutions.
In the Union Budget 2022-23, while acknowledging learning loss due to the pandemic, the Government has proposed, under the ‘one class, one TV channel’ programme of the Pradhan Mantri eVidya, or PM eVIDYA, scheme, to expand 12 television channels to a total of 200 channels, in order to “impart supplementary teaching”. This has inadvertently ended up equating learning with syllabus completion. The School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey in India has shown that the TV-based education programmes are completely ineffective.
In the weeks ahead, schools are likely to reopen in more States and for additional classes/grades; however, it will be unfair to our children if we simply move on without sufficient measures to ensure that schools start functioning at full capacity. It is possible through a structured approach of P-E-R-I: Prepare; Engage; Reimagine and Innovate.
Prepare for the continuity of school education. The necessary planning and everyone developing a perspective on the risk of COVID-19 is absolutely essential. Even when the pandemic winds down, COVID-19 cases will continue to be reported. Occasionally, there could be a rise in coronavirus cases in various settings. Therefore, every State needs to develop a road map, strategies and plan ahead to prevent avoidable disruptions. The objective criteria for school closure — if at all — needs to be developed and such a decision or decisions should be implemented in a decentralised manner at the block or the district level. All of us need to develop a perspective about the impact of COVID-19 on children. As an example, in many settings, the risk of hospitalisation of children due to dengue, malaria or diarrhoea is far greater than with COVID-19. If we do not close schools for those conditions, why do so for COVID-19?
Engage with key stakeholders including parents and raise awareness about the importance of in-person education and the concept of holistic child development. There is a need for the continued engagement of all key stakeholders — parents, community members, schools, public health experts and the local governments — to counter any misinformation in the course of things and bring learning on track. Learning (as well as nutrition) loss has been the maximum for younger children. However, anganwadi. pre-nursery and nursery schools in most States and primary schools in many States continue to remain closed, which should be opened urgently and immediately.
Reimagine every facet of school functioning such as improved ventilation and blended learning methods. More importantly, there are reports that children from many poor and marginalised communities have already dropped out of schools and may not return to the education system, i.e. children pulled into child labour and other paid and unpaid work. The task clearly would be only half done when schools open. Special initiatives — socio-political engagement and discourse — need to be started so that every single child who is in need of education can return to in-person learning. It is also an opportunity to revive school health services in Indian States, and institutionalise regular counselling and mental health services for school-age children, especially for adolescents.
Innovate for compensating for learning loss and make schools place for holistic child development. Schools are far more than a place to complete the syllabus. A child meeting and interacting with other children in real life and in school contributes to the emotional, social, cognitive, communication, and language development. There is a lot of focus on compensating for learning loss and the months before the next academic session starts are being suggested to be used for catching up on missed lessons. It would be a narrow approach and this period is far too short.
There is a need for every government to prepare a mid- to long-term plan to compensate for the learning loss, with a sufficient focus on overall child development. There is a need for strategic and innovative thinking and lasting solutions.
Education as hope
For the majority of the poor and lower- and middle-income families, quality education is the only hope to come out from the vicious cycle of poverty and think of a bright future. The widening educational inequities now mean that the pandemic has deprived the poor and the most vulnerable in society of this opportunity. Continued school closure and a hesitation in reopening academic institutions are the symptoms of a deeper malady in India’s education system as well as a reflection of the value decision makers attach to school education. It is our socio-political responsibility that everything needed to ensure the safe return of every child in the country to the school is done. It is not a matter of choice but what we, as a responsible society, must do urgently.
Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya is a physician-epidemiologist and Founder-Director of the Foundation for People-centric Health Systems, New Delhi (He acknowledges the inputs of Professor Jean Drèze in an earlier version of this article).
- Though surveys had indicated that poor and middle class parents — no matter which part of the country they were from — wanted schools to be open, they were largely ignored in decision making.
- The learnings during the novel coronavirus pandemic have been (wrongly) equated with completion of the syllabus.
- Continued school closure and a hesitation in reopening academic institutions are the symptoms of a deeper malady in India’s education system.