Schools staying shut will worsen gap between underprivileged students and those better-off; focus on vaccine-for-children
With a new minister at the helm, the Union education ministry, along with the states, must chart a path out of the pandemic-inflicted crisis in school education. As this newspaper has repeatedly highlighted earlier, while online classes have, to an extent, substituted in-person classrooms for students from the better-off households, closure of schools clearly has left the larger lot of students—beneficiaries of government education who are likely to be from the poor households—in the lurch. As a result, the already significant gaps in learning outcomes between government and private school students, which ASER findings have highlighted year after year, are likely to have worsened. Anu Aga, Vijay Kelkar and Raghunath Mashelkar, trustees of the Pune International Centre, recently wrote in Mint how the disadvantage of students of poor households could prove very hard to overcome if schools continue to stay shut; citing the TeachForIndia initiative’s experience over the past one-and-half years, they say, even with devices funded, dedicated WhatsApp groups, upskilling of teachers, distribution of material learning packets, etc, online learning hasn’t worked for the majority of underprivileged children.
UNESCO estimates that each month of school shut-down has meant 2 months of learning loss—which means underprivileged children are already behind by close to two years in terms of learning outcomes. More troubling, ASER 2020 Wave 1 reports a larger proportion of children in the school-going-age (6-16 years) cohort being out-of-school in 2020 compared to 2018. A sharp decline was reported for the 6-10 years cohort; with early years lost, chances of such children entering the school system later on declines. As things stand, India’s high enrolment in schools hasn’t meant much in terms of development of human potential—only a quarter of the students who enter the school system make it to the college level, as per AISHE 2019-20. Also, teachers, as an Azim Premji University report pointed out last year, too have struggled, with brick& mortar classrooms shut. The impact of this on pedagogy only increases the chances of poor learning outcomes for a large chunk of students in the country.
Experts hold the likelihood of spread among children as being not significantly different from that for other age-cohorts, and that school reopening may not have too large an impact on population-wide transmission rates. Aga et al back starting schools by allowing, perhaps based on a roster, 25% of the overall strength on any given day. That could be a start, but the longer-term approach has to be centred on expanding vaccination cover. While teachers need to be prioritised for vaccination, the government needs to prod developers of approved vaccines on conducting trials and rolling out vaccines for the school-age population. A trial of Covaxin on children aged 2-18 years, as per news reports, has only just completed recruitment. A good way to energise companies on such trials is to offer incentives—the Centre has exhorted vaccine-makers to take advantage of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations’ programme for generating complementary clinical trial data for vaccines, but the government should have already been aiding companies in doing this.