Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the education sector. It has been almost a year and a half since schools closed. According to UNICEF, 1.6 billion children are out of school across the globe. It estimates that the potential loss of education will result in a loss of about $10 trillion in future income for such students. As per UDISE 2019-20, there were 15.1 lakh schools in India at the time of closure. This has caused deprivation of school experience to 2.64 crore students. Although classes are conducted through a remote learning system, the reality is that it does not reach all children. A joint study by UNICEF, the World Bank, World Food Programme and UNHCR found that girls were the biggest victims of remote learning. Studies have shown that the Covid period was a time of distress for girl students around the world, such as premature marriage, early pregnancy, the pressure to go to work along with their parents, stress due to domestic chores, and the rise of domestic violence. Similarly, the remote learning system has deepened the marginalisation of already vulnerable students belonging to poor socio-economic and geographical backwardness. Schools may vow that online classes are going on uninterruptedly. But students, teachers and parents would find it as just a pacifier.
There are straws in the wind of some glad tidings after the availability of vaccination. Subsequently, UNESCO has brought out a framework for reopening schools after Covid closure. In India, many states including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh opened schools. However, there is no doubt that the school closure for so long has created the greatest learning deficit in the history of our generation.
Schooling is a critical period that plays a vital role in the acquisition of many basic skills by students. International organisations have found that the preschool level is the best way to address school dropouts. The NEP 2020 also has emphasised the role of pre-primary schools in dealing with the dropout ratio. In addition, this phase of schooling lays the foundation for the intellectual, emotional and social development of students through play-based pedagogy. Preschools also have a great responsibility to acclimatise students to the quintessential practices of educational institutions. All of this has been denied during Covid closure.
An LKG student at the time of closure would now be placed in Class 1. Therefore, when these students arrive at primary schools, the teaching and learning process should compensate for the lost experiences at pre-primary level. If primary education and teaching activities are not restructured to accommodate this, it would not only be a loss for the kids, but for the future society as well.
In the primary level, students make significant progress in reading, writing and acquiring basic mathematical skills. Class 11 and 12 students grasp essential skills for entering higher education programmes at this level. All of this has been disrupted due to school closure. Imagine a student entering Class 11 in 2020 coming out with a Class 12 certificate without even going to school for a single day! Although classes are conducted online, the school experiences of this period are of great help to students in setting their dreams for the future. In addition, school experiences during adolescence play an important role in helping students develop the skills needed to achieve social and emotional health and essential life skills as well as job readiness.
The current student generation is sandwiched between pre-Covid and post-Covid ones with definite disadvantages due to deprived school experiences. Thorough studies are needed to figure out how this crisis will affect their academic, emotional and social abilities. However, it is great that many states reopened schools. It should not be overlooked that the decision to reopen schools is a huge responsibility when the spread of the disease is not fully under control. But did we do enough homework before reopening? The authorities would answer yes by citing the orders related to Covid protocol to be followed in schools. The question here is about the educational protocol to be followed. None of the states that reopened schools have one.
New enrolment drive: It is time to implement the new enrolment drive across the nation. A large section of already enrolled students who could not attend schools during the Covid period, especially those from socially, economically and geographically backward areas, may not return to schools due to many reasons. A new educational campaign to return them to school is imperative. A new post-Covid enrolment drive focusing especially on such students is critical to avoid massive dropout from schools in the near future. The interest for regular schooling needs to be revived in students who were unconnected during remote learning. Of course, parents also need to be covered as an important target group in this drive, without which it will not meet success.
Bridge courses: Children are expected to attend classes after a long gap of about one-and-a-half years. Therefore, there should be a clear plan of how to ensure students get used to the regular schooling process again. Starting regular classes directly would have a devastating impact for the future. Therefore, it is important to facilitate a rapport between teachers and students, to allow them time to get to know each other and share their experiences during the closure, assessing (through impromptu objective and subjective means) how well each student has acquired the concepts taught online. A bridge course of sorts should be put in place to help students and teachers traverse the subjects taught online. Implementing such a project requires a large amount of pedagogical and intellectual intervention as well as technical and financial assistance. Chances for counterproductive results cannot be ruled out unless well-thought-out plans are implemented. It is, therefore, imperative that schools be provided with the financial, technical, intellectual, emotional and scientific assistance required. Unfortunately no such announcements have been heard from any state.
We are already late in planning out the preparations to be undertaken for welcoming our students to schools. How can it be implemented in a way that makes schooling attractive for students? What are the resources needed to do that? How long does it take to prepare all of this? What preparations need to be made to deal with potential problems after reopening? Unfortunately, such questions are not rife in the air. Better late than never!
Amruth G Kumar, Head, School of Education, Central University of Kerala (firstname.lastname@example.org)