India's Education Emergency!

India | Education | Emergency | 16th August 2021 | Virtual Wire

Federal countries such as the United States and Brazil implemented a variety of school closures and remote/in-person education policies in different jurisdictions.

In contrast, most generalised and continuous school and university closures were imposed in India. All States, irrespective of the pattern of evolution of the novel coronavirus disease, followed a uniform policy, with fewer variations.

This has given rise to the largest education emergency in the world. There is growing evidence of the harm caused to children and young adolescents in terms of learning losses as well as socio-emotional stress caused by prolonged school closures and of the ineffectiveness and inequalities of remote learning, even in technologically sophisticated environments.

The Oxford Stringency Index’s school closure indicator shows that 404 days in India between March 5, 2020, and July 20, 2021, were characterised as being at the most severe policy response (requiring the closure of all types of educational institutions).

As a result, about 265 million schoolchildren have been taught exclusively through so-called “remote learning”, the largest number in any country for the longest period of time. This approach contrasted with the response in many other countries. Within a few months of the first lockdown of schools, Europe began resuming in-person schooling for certain groups of children or certain localities.

By March 2021, 51 countries had resumed in-person education. In 90 other countries, including many in Africa, multiple modalities, rotation of children for in-person classes and part remote/part in-person options were being offered.

In the hybrid schooling models (combination of in-person and remote teaching), countries prioritised children of younger ages, essential workers and those with special needs, for in-person learning.

But in India, even as relaxations were made for public gatherings at festivals and elections, prior to the second wave, strategies for schooling were not systematically applied. When the school closure policy was relaxed in a few Indian States in 2021, only high schools were allowed to function to conduct public exams.

The fear that the second wave generated has created apprehensions about schools becoming the epicentre of the next wave. Therefore, India is less prepared for school re-openings than many other countries.

During these hundreds of days of almost continuous lockout, the youngest and the poorest among Indian children, the Dalits, tribals and others, and lacking devices and electricity have struggled with online classes. Attendance data are neither available nor defined. Existing education inequalities are likely to increase.

The national Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) portal of teacher resources claims that usage increased. However, the educational significance of these metrics is not clear.

Studies and reports from the field by NGOs and individuals engaged with the National Coalition on the Education Emergency indicate that teachers, unprepared for remote teaching, forward social media links to their hapless students.

Kerala provided basic access to remote learning by June 2020 to its four million students through a TV channel, which broadcast classes for all subjects in each grade. The State leveraged investments made over the last two decades in information technology for schools, including capacity building of teachers and teacher developed digital content.

However, the universal switch to ‘online’ mode has proved challenging. Besides issues on the education and learning front, families have been ravaged by disease and job losses, teenagers are caring for the sick and younger siblings, or working for pay. Interruptions in child health services, early nutrition and mid-day meals have affected the growth and development of young children.

While closed schools are seen as a commitment to children’s safety, the higher risk of disease transmission by working children or the increase in malnutrition is ignored. As schools reopen, offering a few standardised bridge courses and remedial classes may not make up for months of lost formal learning. India’s education emergency demands action on the education, health and livelihood fronts.

Each school should prepare a safe school opening and child support plan and should receive technical help for this. Teachers must be prioritised for vaccinations. Local adaptations and flexibility are essential. An ‘Education Emergency Room’ should be set up in every district to coordinate, implement and monitor local plans.

Coordination is necessary to Develop health and sanitation measures in schools. Ensure protocols are followed in public transportation. Encouraging children who were not engaged with schools over the last year and develop tools to help teachers make quick diagnoses of students’ learning gaps.

Implement school health and nutrition. Develop tools to accompany the educational trajectory of each student. Technology should be deployed safely for such purposes that identify and respond to children’s needs.

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