The pandemic has thrown a host of challenges at school education, which, if not resolved comprehensively, will jeopardise the future of crores of students from the most vulnerable sections of the population. Long periods of school closures, as are expected till Covid-19 wanes, affect students’ learning levels. This is not just because there is no new learning happening, but previously acquired learning is not exercised enough to be retained for the long-term. Indeed, as Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation, points out in an article in Indian Express, students who were already struggling with learning are at the greatest disadvantage. She cites the findings of the 2018-19 Grade Learning Programme, an intervention mounted by the Uttar Pradesh government and Pratham that assessed children in January, late-April and August 2019.
The learning loss because of summer vacations, in terms of reading ability, was less than 10 percentage points for students who had cleared Grade III/IV and could read a Grade II level text; that is, those who could read an easy story with fluency—from a Grade II level text—were less likely to slip back compared to classmates whose reading skills were not as developed. Juxtapose this with ASER 2018 reporting that just over a fifth in Grade III and close to 45% in Grade V in government schools being able to read from a Grade II text. For a large chunk of school students, the prolonged closure of schools is going to be disastrous unless existing gaps are bridged urgently and there is innovation on education delivery for Covid-times.
The problem is worsened by the fact that falling household incomes may even offset the gains made in terms of enrolment over the years. Banerji voices worry about keeping enrolment and attendance up post-Covid-19. Indeed, if children are driven into labour to supplement household income or made to do unpaid housework—girls will likely be more vulnerable on this front—or household expenditure on education is slashed, the enrolment figure might even fall. With school attendance already a problem in the poorer states, economic implications of Covid-19 could cause a drastic dwindling of presence in classrooms. Online classes, even though with drastically reduced curricula, are a powerful solution. Indeed, many private schools have rolled out digital and video-aided teaching; the Union government and states like Kerala and Maharashtra, for their part, have tried to do this for government schools, through dedicated television channels, providing television-sets and satellite TV connections.
However, the rural-urban digital divide is quite wide, and threatens to translate into an educational divide. The NSO’s Household Social Consumption on Education survey shows that just 4% of rural households had, between June 2017 and June 2018, access to computers, compared with 23% of urban households. And, just 15% of rural households had internet access as compared to 42% of urban households.
This shows a reliance on online, without ensuring access to digital devices and internet, means the bulk of rural students will get left behind, with urban students less so (though still in significant numbers). The government needs to subsidise low-cost devices and roll out BharatNet in full steam. But, that too will address only a part of the problem. Research on learning outcomes ties students’ backgrounds to their actual learning levels. Parents’ education levels, how digital-savvy they are, etc, will play an important role in how well a student adapts to online/digital learning.
The government—both the Centre and the states—will need to quickly roll out solutions to these challenges. Else, Covid-19 may not just mean a lost year for crores of students, it could mean lost years, which would eventually translate into another generation from the vulnerable section of the population trapped in poverty.