Reopening raises infection risks. The government—both Centre and the states—have to pull out all stops to provide students with devices (smartphones, tablets, etc) while training them on use for online education.
The yawning digital access/ease-of-use gap between students of government schools and those of private schools—as highlighted in the latest ASER report—makes a strong case for reopening schools. But, the cases of infection-spurts linked to schools in the past couple of weeks also need to be considered before restarting classes, even with the many restrictions that have been prescribed. Last month, Mizoram had to shut schools within ten days of reopening after students started testing positive. In Andhra Pradesh, over 829 teachers and 575 students have tested positive since schools reopened on November 2. And, it is not just India—school reopening in the US and Israel, apart from a clutch of other nations, has been tied to infection spurts. The need now is to ensure that schools remaining shut doesn’t automatically translate into education remaining suspended, especially for the poor—the latest ASER finds that only little over a fifth of the total households surveyed could access videos/recorded-lectures and just a tenth could access online classes. Children in private schools (assumed to be relatively better off economically) were twice as likely to access online resources as their government school peers. Government school enrolments were rising since 2018; with the pandemic having impacted household income in the economically weaker sections, it is likely that this will continue, even surge, this year and in the near future. But, intermittent reopening—shutting every time infections rise—is a poor solution since it would distract from meaningful efforts on improving digital access to education.
The government—both Centre and the states—have to pull out all stops to provide students with devices (smartphones, tablets, etc) while training them on use for online education. But, this will likely take time to get implemented uniformly. In the interim, states will need to plan for providing access through common facilities while trying to keep infection at bay. Local government infrastructure, including school buildings, can be redesigned as round-the-clock points of access with the digital infrastructure provided as kiosks. Radio and TV—‘broadcast for education’ that the Centre and many states have talked about—also need to be roped in on a war footing. Learning ‘packets’ can be made available through ASHA and Anganwadi workers. Education has to be reimagined as a mix of both digital and physical classrooms. Kerala can serve as an example in this regard. It has become the first state to install hi-tech classrooms and provide broadband internet connectivity in all schools. That is a promising step forward from the ASER’s 2018 finding that just 22% of schools in the country had computer facilities. As states work on improving digital access, there will be a concurrent need for pedagogy to evolve as well—that will need teacher training at an unprecedented scale. States and the Centre need to expand their education budgets drastically if they are to ensure that a chunk of school-goers today are not permanently disadvantaged compared to their peers because of the digital divide.