Irrespective of the epidemiology of Covid-19 that varied from one place to the other, our education system was shut across the nation under a uniform policy, since March 2020 to almost September of 2021. This has no doubt created a sort of educational emergency in the country.
During the closure, some schools have, of course, offered on-line teaching. There are also reports indicating significant number of on-line “learning-sessions” (3-17 bn) and “learning-minutes” (37.85 bn) during the closure. But as the studies carried out by private organizations/NGOs reveal that most of the teachers are unprepared for remote teaching, one is forced to wonder if these metrics really mean anything.
Over it, the youngest and the poorest students were to struggle a lot to catch up with the online classes owing to lack of devices or lack of knowledge-support from the family to handle these gadgets to catch up with the lessons, to submit the homework and to write the tests. In the process, no wonder, if many children from such families had given up learning.
The woes of these children, if examined dispassionately, are not just limited to availability/ non-availability of gadgets alone. With the pandemic-induced lockdown causing job-losses or the death of the breadwinner caused by the novel coronavirus made many children from lower strata either ending up in caring for the sick/younger siblings or work for pay. The net result of the loss of formal learning for more than a year is: further widening up of educational inequalities in the society.
Tragically, this is not the end of the woes of millions of children hailing from the poorer sections. Due to this lengthy closure of schools, these children were to forego their midday meals. This had resulted in malnutrition which is sure to impair their cognitive abilities. And this is bound to reflect on their future learning prospects.
Paradoxically, even teachers are reported to have faced many problems with on-line teaching. For, they were asked to suddenly shift from conventional pedagogy to the online mechanism that required of them to veer their pedagogy with no training inputs from parent bodies. Adopting technology within a short time, particularly for senior educationists, for online teaching and conducting tests had become a big challenge. Many institutes made faculty use open-source platforms for online teaching and conducting tests even that further worsened the teachers’ plight. Over all these problems, teachers found it difficult to manage students in remote teaching, particularly those who are tech-savvy, for they could tease teachers, taking advantage of the anonymity offered by technology, with all kinds of nuisance. The net result is: poor teaching-learning ecosystem.
Against this backdrop, a group of 56 experts—academicians and doctors and intellectuals from other professions—requested the government to consider reopening of schools and resume in-person classes for, “younger children are least at risk.” Their contention is that vaccination of children should not be considered as a prerequisite for reopening schools, since children are at a relatively low risk of severe or fatal Covid-19. And that is after all what the vaccination too is affording: prevent severe illness and death. So, they urge the governments to strike a balance of risks, which in their opinion, indeed favors opening of schools.
Thus, governments have finally started reopening schools, colleges and universities across the country. In a way it sounds pretty encouraging. Simultaneously, it also rings alarm bells for, there are multiple challenges—known and unknown—likely to emerge that call for effective management. A pointer in this direction is: a press report about 60 Covid cases from a residential school in Karnataka and 30 MBBS students from Mumbai’s KEM testing positive for Covid-19. Challenges are thus likely to be many.
First things first: observing Covid-19 appropriate behaviour in the schools. Each school must prepare and implement a support plan to ensure safety of children. Testing temperature of children at the time of entering the school, enforcing wearing of mask, maintaining distance and proper ventilation in the classrooms, disinfecting school environment, particularly areas that are frequently touched and ensuring availability of hand hygiene facilities are the minimum requirements that schools, particularly government schools must cater to.
As a uniform policy, students were promoted to next grade, though syllabus was not fully covered, merely based on their class-tests, etc., and hence there arises a need for offering a kind of ‘bridge-courses’ to students to cover-up the learning losses. In the same vein, schools that offered on-line teaching may have to offer a sort of ‘remedial-courses’ to such students who could not avail the on-line offerings owing to lack of infrastructural support. How geared up our schools are first to identify such gaps, then structure bridge-courses with appropriate syllabus and offer support coaching to impart learning is a big question mark. But the danger of pushing up students through to the next grade without offering such learning being obvious, this gap needs to be addressed with due diligence.
When it comes to higher educational institutes, practicals were the worst hit. In the absence of hands-on experience, particularly students from medical and engineering streams are likely to suffer more. This commands rectification in the time left out with alacrity and effectively too. It’s a big challenge to the teaching fraternity. But they have no choice, have to live up to the nobility of their profession, for the future of the country squarely rests on them.
Finally, let us take a look at the health support system available for the students. Although children are said to be less prone for severe or fatal Covid-19, should contrary happen, its broader impacts on society as a whole will be catastrophic. The experience of the US that had opened schools recently, particularly with Delta variant, appears to be different from common expectations. Also, we do not know the long-term effects of the disease on children, particularly children with malnutrition and other comorbidities.
In the light of these threats, public health support system must gear-up to ensure that students—children, adolescents and young people—have easy and quick access to Covid-19 testing, quarantine and treatment facilities. Specially equipped hospitals with appropriately trained medical staff for treating young patients—isolated from parents—of Covid-19 are to be created and schools/parents to be kept informed of such centers to avail their facilities, should a need arise without loss of time in running from hospital to hospital.
But the big question is: Are we ready to manage the unintended consequences?