During a recent trip to Jhajjar, Haryana, I met a young girl selling fresh guavas on the roadside. We were in a village and famished; and there was no dhaba in sight. The girl picked out the best lot from her cane basket. We bought half a dozen guavas -- that was lunch. As we were leaving, I asked her about school. She told us she had dropped out. “Corona,” she said, lowering her eyes. The family did not have a smartphone to spare. She was reluctant to elaborate. Her sad eyes told the story of millions of children across the country.
As India continues to struggle with the health and humanitarian impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also increasingly evident that we are possibly facing a catastrophic education emergency as well, with school closures, disrupted learning and millions of children left out of the loop as a result of the acute digital divide in the country.
Online education has certainly helped many children, but the pandemic has also exposed the glaring fault lines in our Digital India narrative. There is mounting evidence that addressing the education crisis must be an immediate priority.
“Almost 60 per cent children can’t access online learning opportunities,” notes “Myths of Online Education”, a study by Azim Premji University. The reasons include the absence of a smartphone, multiple siblings sharing a smartphone, difficulty in using the various apps for online learning, etc, according to the report.
The issue of access is further exacerbated for children with disabilities. Among teachers of children with disabilities in their regular classes, more than nine per cent found them unable to participate in online classes, notes the study, based on field research.
Another report by Dr Amanda Gilbertson, Joyeeta Dey, Dr Andrew Deuchar and Prof. Nathan Grills, scholars at the University of Melbourne, point out that: “The proportion of students who cannot access online learning is particularly high among children from low-income and low-caste families.”
Several state governments have now taken a decision to start in-person classes in a graded way after the parliamentary standing committee on education, women, children, youth and sports in a recent report flagged the severe learning loss that could impair the cognitive capabilities of students. The learning loss of more than a year would necessarily have dented the foundational knowledge of students, especially in subjects like mathematics, sciences and languages, it noted. This has long-term debilitating implications, especially for children from impoverished backgrounds, rural communities and marginalised groups who might have been unable to connect to any form of digital education during the pandemic.
“This needs to be addressed and immediate remedial steps required to be taken," the report said. It also noted that school closures have put not only children's learning, but also nutrition, mental health and overall development at risk, and some students, particularly girls, are at risk of never returning to school.
That the severity of the problem on the ground is now being recognised is good news. However, challenges remain, and many misconceptions need to be addressed.
Many health experts are pointing out that the public debate around the reopening of schools has been unnecessarily linked to the question of vaccinating children. “It’s not necessary to vaccinate children before reopening schools,” says Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, an epidemiologist and public health expert.
In a series of commentary pieces and interviews for the media in India, Dr Lahariya has sought to dispel doubts and misunderstandings. “The difference between the start of the pandemic and now, 17 months later, is that now we understand Covid-19 enough to reopen schools. Children, even when confined to home, developed the coronavirus/SARS CoV2 infection at nearly the same rate as adults,” he pointed out in a recent opinion piece for the NDTV education portal.
Dr Lahariya argues that infection alone is not of concern but moderate to moderate to severe disease is. “We now know that the risk of children developing moderate to severe disease is extremely low -- hundreds, thousands of times lower than in adults -- but they pay dearly for school closures in learning and nutrition loss.”
Having said that, Dr Lahariya also stresses that “school reopening is a process”. He told me: “This means we have to prepare parents, school authorities, governments. It also means having local solutions to local problems. If Covid-19 cases suddenly increase in a particular area, one should temporarily close the schools in that place.”
In a recent newspaper commentary, two other public health experts, Dr T. Jacob John and Dr M.S. Seshadri, pointed out that “countries with high levels of two-dose vaccination cover (called full vaccination, for convenience) have started reopening educational institutions cautiously. The UK, the first country to roll out vaccines, has had no major problems with school reopening. The United States, with uneven proportions of fully vaccinated adults in different states, recorded surges of infections on school reopening in Texas and Florida, states with a low vaccination cover.”
In the Indian context, Dr John and Dr Seshadri said that “states have different levels of vaccination coverage. Sero-prevalence studies show wide variations of infection-induced immunity as well”. Therefore, “individual states should make their own district-wise decisions regarding school reopening depending on the ground realities.
However, some broad principles can be enunciated. States with very high sero-prevalence and/or vaccination cover, say 60 per cent or more, districts with high population immunity, and those with an excellent track record of epidemic management, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, can boldly begin planning to reopen schools”.
India is not the only country that suffers from a digital divide and a learning crisis in the wake of the pandemic. “With every day that goes by, children unable to access in-person schooling fall further and further behind, with the most marginalised paying the heaviest price,” says Unicef’s executive director Henrietta Fore.
Reopening schools is a must and will have to be accompanied by many changes attuned to pandemic realities. Every school will need to make the key structural modifications required for proper ventilation and spacing inside classrooms, as public health experts like Dr Lahariya point out. Conducting classes outdoors, in shaded spaces, should be considered. And of course, regular sensitisation of staff, students and parents in Covid-appropriate behaviour is an integral part of resuming in-person teaching and learning.
The message is clear -- schools must reopen, gradually, and the process must factor in local ground realities. Our children’s future is at stake.