Covid effects on education in the changing world
As the second wave of Covid -19 grips the country, we witness a more intense and rapid spike in the active cases per day leading to new problems posing threat to human life and education. Exactly around a year back, on March 24, 2020, when lockdown was announced in India, all schools, colleges, and educational institutions were shut down. Closure of about 1.5 million schools imparting primary and secondary education affected 286 million children, and closing of 993 universities, 39,931 colleges, and 10,725 stand alone educational institutions affected 37.4 million students.
Initially the critical situation was supposed to be brought under control within a short time. Though the first phase of lockdown was declared for 21 days, the general lockdown had to be extended until May 31, and the unlocking started from June 1, but this could not be implemented for general resumption of classes until recently. Even while educational institutions gradually start to reopen, there seems to be a carelessness among the public towards the safety guidelines and this extends to the institutions too where it becomes absolutely impossible to monitor each single person regarding wearing masks, hand sanitising or social distancing.
Many educationalists opine that it’s a lifelong disruption for students in particular and the nation’s progress in general, for students are the future of a country. However the other school of thought strongly advises that the life and health of students has to be given more importance as the schools or exam centres can become hotspots of virus spread. The strong réitération of the fact, that exposing the students to high risk of infection while conducting physical classes or offline exams is certainly not a good idea and can’t be ignored. However, all experts agree on the major aspect that putting the students back on track without potential danger to their health would need great efforts and special plan, which is unfortunately still not a priority.
The announcement of the lockdown came at a time when school students were waiting either for their final exams, results, or very much enthusiastic about joining a new session. But the sudden closure of schools, bookshops, and stationers kept them away from gaining guidance of teachers and study materials. Also the uncertainty or lack of clarity and the anxiety of having to write exams in the midst of virus scare might have seriously affected the quality of output.
Booksellers and stationers were allowed to reopen in the first phase of unlocking from June 1. But it did not help the majority of school students due to a range of other problems which included impoverishment of guardians and parents and transport restrictions still in place. It was exam time for students of higher classes, and all the exams were postponed indefinitely. Lack of access to reading and writing material along with postponement of all sorts of academic and competitive exams hampered not only their academic skills but also preparations for their career.
In the meantime, the government and many private institutions came forward with the idea of online classes and exams. However, this could not be availed by a major section of students because of many issues including non-availability of mobile phones or computers, poor quality of internet access, lack of availability of power, and shortage of money in the household to purchase the essential items at affordable price.
Moreover, for a long time the electronic shops were also shut down making the purchase impossible. Even e-commerce delivery services were shut down. At the time when they were allowed to open, they could deliver only in urban areas. That explains why only urban students were benefited, though marginally depending on other restrictions in movement. Though the digital mode of education, which was hitherto peripheral in India’s education system, came to the centre-stage to fill the void left by classroom teaching, by and large it proved ineffective to even fully cover the urban areas, and the rural areas were almost left behind.
It is saddening to note that the situation has not improved even after one year. A recent UNICEF study has estimated that about 7 million school students in India will become permanent dropouts. There is no chance for them to return to schools. Almost half of them would be girls in primary education. Dropout rates of girls in secondary and higher education was already much higher which the outbreak of pandemic and closure of the educational institutions have worsened. Many of the girls in poor families are being hastily married off without education.
In comparison with the boys, girls’ education in India has become more challenging due to the Covid effect. The pattern is the same in higher education sector too. Indian education system had already been plagued with too many issues even before the lockdown, such as school dropouts, learning deficiencies, absenteeism or unavailability of teachers, unacceptable level of low teacher-student ratio, gender disparity, lack of educational infrastructure and material etc. Introduction of digital education have added the new issue of digital divide, between the urban and rural, and between the boy and girl students.
Surveys show that even in the national capital territory, attendance for online classes could be reached only between 25 and 30 per cent during lockdowns. It is an easy guess about what is going on in other states and in the remote areas without quality electricity, internet, and electronic sets in the households. Unfortunately, we are just not prepared to impart digital education effectively to our students in an emergency situation like this, which needs to be changed.
New Education Policy released in July 2020 has emphasized the importance of online education and specified that it should be blended with the traditional mode. It is of course a good idea, but difficult to be implemented until the government provides necessary facilities. A global education network Quacquarelli Symonds has noted in its recent report that Indian internet infrastructure is still far from ready to support the shift.
Just before the outbreak of the pandemic, India had only 24 per cent households with internet access, and for rural India it was only 4 per cent. A World Bank report has tried to quantify the loss to India due to closure of schools and put it at $440 billion.
Educational institutions are slowly reopening now but the recent spike in infection is hinting towards a new wave of the pandemic, closures, and containment measures. The parents and students are expressing great anxiety and deep concern over the possible danger to students on having to attend classes or exams physically in this serious situation. It is a known fact that the safety protocols laid down are not easy to be met with when the students have to reach the centres or classrooms in large numbers, however hard the establishments may try.
There are also several other issues connected to education, like deteriorating level of nutrition among school children because of unavailability of mid-day meals from schools, psychological problems cropping up due to disruption in education or no contact with peers, job and financial loss of teachers and institutions, or infection in the households, making the issues complex. We therefore need a new comprehensive plan and implementation mechanism to strengthen the infrastructure and resources so as to be better equipped to provide efficient digital education as well as conduct foolproof exams online, enabling the students to secure their future without compromising on health or education in the changing conditions of the world.
(The author is chairperson CSA, Director TGL, Sr Director FWO, Editor The Intl Journal)