A safe return to the school: School interruption means a massive learning loss

January 18, 2021 4:15 AM

Decisions as to whether students should return to school in person must be tailored to fit each specific community, district, and even grade within a school.

This has also increased the risk of dropping out of school for children belonging to those groups of the population whose employment prospects have been extinguished altogether or have been greatly diminished post-pandemic.This has also increased the risk of dropping out of school for children belonging to those groups of the population whose employment prospects have been extinguished altogether or have been greatly diminished post-pandemic.

By Anirudh Khaitan

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, and in India it has affected the education of nearly 290 million children. Already, there were 6 million children out of school. This number threatens to go up due to the economic insecurity in their families due to Covid-19, causing many children to leave studies.

The ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) has stated that there is a sharp jump in out-of-school children in the 6-10 age-group, gone up from 1.8% (in 2018) to 5.3% (in 2020), and among all children up to 16 years from 4% to 5.5%. One of the reasons may be that the admissions process may still not be complete due to Covid-19. But primarily it could be that parents have decided to keep their kids at home. However, closing of schools has other downsides as well.

Schools are not only places of learning, these also provide social protection, nutrition, health and emotional support to students. Schools have been shut since March 2020, and despite attempts at remote learning it has been observed that learning, especially for the poor, is virtually at a standstill. Poorer children have been affected significantly more because they have not been able to access remote learning, and their home environment cannot provide the support they need to maintain or improve their learning levels.

This has also increased the risk of dropping out of school for children belonging to those groups of the population whose employment prospects have been extinguished altogether or have been greatly diminished post-pandemic.

School closures can prove to be particularly damaging for younger children who are trying to pick up foundational skills like reading. The longer the school interruption, the larger will be the learning loss. Hence, the earlier schools reopen, the lesser risk of long-term damage to millions of children. Prolonged school closures will exacerbate inequalities, deepen the learning crisis and expose the most vulnerable children to a heightened risk of exploitation.

So, what can be done?

Decisions as to whether students should return to school in person must be tailored to fit each specific community, district, and even grade within a school.

There is a lot of scientific data to suggest that even our youngest children have already lost academic and social readiness during the Covid-19 slump. This is truer for children from underserved communities. Decisions about whether and how to reopen schools require a delicate balance of dynamic factors.

While health risks are real, they must be balanced with the scientific consensus that children must be around other people. If we empower decision makers with the scientific evidence and update them as it accumulates, we can make informed decisions about how to keep our children safe while also feeding them the psychological nutrients to develop healthily.

Nearly 80% of countries have weighed these risks and decided to reopen schools, and 59 countries including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, France and New Zealand had opened schools as of August 2020.

The following are our recommendations for India’s school systems:

—Open schools for voluntary attendance to start with, which will allow those that are less comfortable to opt out, but at the same time allow those that have the most need to opt-in;
—Prioritise reopening of primary grades: These are the most critical developmental years, and children who fall behind early are at increased risk of never catching up or dropping out of school;
—Focus on building foundational skills of children instead of completing or starting at grade level curriculum. This would help recover some of the learning loss, prepare children to take up grade-level study, and strengthen the ability of our system to focus on these skills.

—Mitigate risks of reopening: Several resources and guidelines are available on making a return to school safer. The guidelines generally stress on social distancing by staggering school timings or shifts, wearing of masks, ensuring ventilation or increasing the time spent outdoors, frequent sanitisation, and standard protocols around health checks and quarantine.

Given the massive negative impact of continuing school closure on children, particularly those from poor backgrounds, we must actively prioritise a safe return to the school that can reverse this impact, while attempting to mitigate the risks involved.

The author is treasurer, FICCI ARISE, and vice-chairman, Khaitan Public School

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