The Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented in its spatial extent, has hit every aspect of human life across the world. Political and geographic boundaries have lost their meaning, and even the remoteness of islands have not deterred it from marching ahead.
As long as the fury of the calamity lasts, unabated and unchallenged, its effect will keep rattling all mankind.
While the divide based on income differentials will continue to determine the gravity of its impact on individuals, however temporary that impact may be in some cases, young children all over are turning out to be the worst sufferers, as recent reports suggest.
According to a Unicef report released in June 2020, there are 28 million children in India, who otherwise could have gone to anganwadis but for their closure due to the pandemic health risk and have been at home for the past six months.
These children, in general, belong to the economically disadvantaged sections of society, but it’s also true that those enrolled in private institutions, mostly in urban and semi-urban areas, such as nursery or KG schools, are not better off either.
What early childhood education intends to impart is to develop social and emotional skills of compatibility and conflict, which won’t happen except in the company of other children. Instead of technology-leveraged remote learning, it requires a physical environment which grooms listening, speaking and interacting for the healthy mental growth of a child.
Digital accessibility and affordability, to some extent, can compensate for proficiency in literacy and numeracy but the overall growth of a child happens best in the company of peers.
Why early childhood learning is so important in the growth of children and its effect on lifestyles has been documented in various studies and reports that show that it is directly linked to a child’s seamless and confident migration to primary school and further transition to secondary education, a reduced probability of being school dropouts and attaining life skills and higher education.
That’s the reason why deprivation of early childhood development carries a risk on the lives and future of children cutting across the economic divide or digital divide.
On the extent of deprivation of early childhood care and education, another Unicef report says that worldwide nearly 40 million children, of which 22 million are from South Asia alone, have missed out on learning in the critical pre-primary school year as Covid-19 has shuttered all early education facilities.
The new National Education Policy document that was released last month, amid the pandemic crisis, undoubtedly emphasises the government’s resolve to give renewed focus to this critical aspect of child development.
Though the report candidly admits that crores of children, and more so those belonging to socio-economically disadvantaged sections, are deprived of quality early childhood care, it provides a roadmap on curriculum design, infrastructure development, technology use and capacity infusion.
But these are long-term solutions with primary focus on achieving sustainable development goal SDG 4.2, which is about a commitment to ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood education so that they are ready for Class 1 as a stepping stone for primary education.
Every species survives because it cares for its offspring. This is true for human beings as well. A solution to the obstruction posed by the current pandemic is not easy to find. The strategy, therefore, must be on mitigating the effects of this obstruction.
On the education front, countries across the globe are grappling with back-to-school plans. Many in Western countries are seriously considering it as a viable choice as they are worried about the loss to society due to missing childhood.
In a vast country like India, one solution may not fit all. There will be different solutions for rural areas, urban areas and metropolises for the purpose of restoring early childhood learning. In rural areas, where open spaces are available, active community support will help in organising small groups of neighbourhood children to keep them engaged with day-to-day activities like listening, speaking and learning while maintaining a safe distance.
Home-based technology tools such as smartphones, radio, television and cable networks can be used, depending upon digital accessibility and affordability.
In urban and metro setups where open spaces are hard to find, the neighbourhood grooming of one or two children by an older person can be adopted for this purpose. Though group activities may be difficult to perform, such grooming will keep children engaged and save them from neglect due to the closure of pre-schools.
Like all other pandemics in the past, Covid-19 will also become history one day, thanks to human ingenuity. But young children who have lost their formative years of learning should not become victims. This needs to be pre-empted by early action.
Anything done too late will be too little. The lack of finance should not be allowed to come in the way.
A study by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in Economics and an expert in the economics of human development, shows that investment in early childhood yields better returns and offers a cost-effective strategy even during a budget deficit....