The challenge of going back to school

Guidelines on re-opening schools focus more on health measures than on addressing learning difficulties

October 06, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 08:42 pm IST

Gurugram: Students undergo thermal screening after authorities allowed schools to conduct classes for students of 1st to 5th standard as part of easing of COVID-19 induced restrictions, in Gurugram, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI10_05_2021_000022B)

Gurugram: Students undergo thermal screening after authorities allowed schools to conduct classes for students of 1st to 5th standard as part of easing of COVID-19 induced restrictions, in Gurugram, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI10_05_2021_000022B)

After one and a half years of being shut, schools are re-opening in most States. A majority of the children enrolled in school before the pandemic have most likely had limited or no structured learning opportunities during this period. That reality is all the more jarring because the more privileged sections, representing a minority, were able to ensure continuity of education through online classes provided by schools, support from family, and increased spending on tuition and tutoring apps.

Leaving no child behind

Despite the scale of the shock to the education system, a review of the State governments’ Standard Operating Procedures/guidelines on school re-opening shows that the emphasis is on health and sanitation measures. There is very little discussion on the practical approaches required to ensure that every child returns to school and to address the learning difficulties that children will face.

Across the world, guidance on school re-opening centres around certain principles. The first is a strong focus on equity. Special efforts must be made for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who were disconnected during the pandemic, so that they can return to school in an environment that fosters belonging. The second is effective and regular communication with parents. The third is to support student’s socio-emotional development. The fourth is to re-organise the curriculum to reinforce core academic skills, focusing on language learning and mathematics, especially in the elementary years. The fifth is to extend learning time and hire additional teachers where needed. The sixth is to enhance training and regular support for teachers. And finally, to secure additional funding to address the crisis.

Let us start with the issue of additional funding for education. A recent study by the World Bank and UNESCO shows that, for a sample of 29 high-income, lower-middle-income and low-income countries across the world, the average annual education budgets not only increased post-COVID-19 but increased at a higher rate than before COVID-19 (4% post-COVID-19 compared to 1.1 % before the pandemic). In the group of 14 lower-middle-income countries to which India belongs, five countries (Bangladesh, Morocco, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Ukraine) increased their spending substantially. Three countries (Egypt, Pakistan and Tanzania) held their spending constant or reduced it marginally. Four countries (Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Myanmar and Nepal) reduced their spending by between 1% and 6%. India reduced its spending by over 9 %, along with Uzbekistan. This comes on top of a 2% decline in education spending in India in the previous year. The share of spending on education in the overall budget also declined to 2.6%, while most countries either maintained or increased this share. It is difficult to envisage how an emergency of the scale and depth seen in India can be addressed with fewer resources.

Even the task of bringing every child back to school in India is a herculean one and requires detailed planning. First, millions of migrant children saw their education disrupted. Their numbers are not known – how many went back to their home States, how many rejoined schools there, or how many returned. Many of these children may now be working to support families who have lost their livelihoods. Second, close to 40% of school students in India are in private schools. Most of them are in ‘low-cost’ schools for the poor, which have been buffeted by the crisis. Over 60% of government and private school principals in India stated that their schools suffered from dropouts and face financial challenges, according to a recent survey (Global School Leaders and Alokit, report forthcoming). The School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey covering 15 States and Union Territories, conducted in August 2021, revealed that over 25% of children who had previously been enrolled in private schools had switched to government schools. If this ratio is approximately correct for the country, we might expect a transfer of about 20 million children from private to government schools.

On the academic front, many States have announced short ‘bridge courses’, sometimes as short as 45 days. The goal is to resume the textbook-based syllabus of the current grade of the child as soon as possible. Examination timetables are being drawn up, as if nothing happened. These unrealistic expectations are being framed in the face of overwhelming evidence of the devastating learning losses suffered by children, especially disadvantaged groups (see research brief of the National Coalition on Education Emergency, for example). The SCHOOL survey showed that 42% of students in grades 3-5 in villages and urban bastis could only read a few letters. Only 55% of students in grades 6-8 could fluently read a simple conversational sentence. The required knowledge of academic language in the upper primary/lower secondary grades would be all but lacking.

Language learning, especially reading with comprehension, is critical for ensuring progress in all subjects. While children are struggling to read in their native language, in many States, the majority of children are studying in English-medium schools, both government and private. Learning in a second language is difficult in the best of circumstances. In the majority of the English-medium schools, teachers are not proficient in English and the students have no home exposure to the language. Research from the U.S. during the early stages of the pandemic showed that the proportion of ‘English language learners’ (i.e., those with limited proficiency in English) obtaining ‘failing grades’ increased dramatically within just a few months of school closures and despite the provision of structured online learning. Imagine the situation for tens of millions of children in India who had limited or no exposure to English – their language of instruction – for months.

The loss in mathematics skills can be even more precipitous. Studies from other countries show that learning losses over the summer break of about two months are more severe in mathematics compared to reading (in the native language). Over such short periods, the loss may involve forgetting mathematics procedures rather than general concepts. But much deeper losses in conceptual understanding can be expected after a loss of structured instruction over a 18-month period.

Support for teachers

The guidance and support to teachers and schools, especially in elementary education, has to be to focus on language learning, core mathematical competences and socio-emotional learning. Teaching should not be driven by the sequence of chapters in the textbooks or the subjects in the syllabus. It would be necessary to restructure the ‘daily timetable’ to focus on these areas and provide additional instructional time. Support to teachers must be practical and regular, adopting a ‘coaching’ model, instead of mass teacher training programmes. This support must include additional learning materials and formative assessment tools and techniques. It may be necessary to mobilise retired teachers and volunteers also. All this requires long-term commitment, resources and organisational effort.

Sajitha Bashir, former Adviser and Manager in the World Bank’s Global Education Practice, is part of the National Coalition on Education Emergency

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