Schooling at risk: The SCHOOL survey shows how badly ‘online’ is failing for some

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September 15, 2021 6:00 AM

The lack of access to devices and data, among other factors, has been damaging; of 1,362 students in grades 1-8 from underprivileged families across 15 states, only 24% and 8% in urban and rural areas, respectively, have been studying online regularly.

Children from the lower grades were not included in the final results as almost two-thirds of them could not read. (Representative image)

Findings of the recent School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey, discussed in a report titled Locked Out, show how urgent it is for the government—states and the Centre—to re-start brick&mortar classrooms. The lack of access to devices and data, among other factors, has been damaging; of 1,362 students in grades 1-8 from underprivileged families across 15 states, only 24% and 8% in urban and rural areas, respectively, have been studying online regularly.

The shortage of digital studying materials, lack of awareness on the part of parents and difficulties in concentrating faced by young children, have made matters worse. Thes worst-affected are tribal and dalit children—only 4% and 15%, respectively, were studying online regularly. Some even faced open discrimination from their teachers.

This newspaper has long argued that the pivot to online teaching—what should have been organic has been forced by Covid and the need for distancing—will exacerbate the divide on learning outcomes between students with means and the have-nots, and perpetuate poverty for the latter group in the coming years. While multiple studies since the outbreak of Covid-19 in India—including ASER and one by the Azim Premji University—bear this out, the problem goes beyond just access to digital learning (devices, data and digital savvy); the lack of adequate outreach by the schools, as per Locked Out, has also turned out to be deeply concerning.

While some teachers initiated innovative measures such as conducting classes in small groups either in their homes or that of a student, 51% and 58% students in urban and rural areas respectively had not seen their teachers in the past 30 days; 43% of rural students said the school wasn’t sending ‘online material’. Little was done to reach out and keep checks on students, and even the symbolic communication between parents and teachers (like sending links to educational videos) was sporadic.

Sadly, some students, especially the younger ones, couldn’t t even read a simple sentence fluently; 35% and 42% students from grades 3–5 in rural and urban areas, respectively, were only able to read a few letters of the sentence “Jab se corona mahamari chal rahi hai tab se school bandh hai”. Children from the lower grades were not included in the final results as almost two-thirds of them could not read.

This is a serious problem that must be addressed immediately. Several other problems such as high dropout rates from private schools owing to economic difficulties and the lack of support after the discontinuation of midday meals are highlighted, but ultimately, the online schooling system seems to have failed these children. With schools set to reopen to ‘business as usual’, the report cautions that due to all the aforementioned shortcomings and their promotions to higher grades in spite of them, a disaster is imminent. It concludes that it will take almost two years to repair all the damage and schools should instead prepare for bettering the psychological and academic well-being of their students.

While the Centre must organise vaccines for children and states must work on getting school personnel vaccinated, the hit to education will need intensive efforts from both, right from rethinking pedagogy to bridging the corona-induced (and, indeed, earlier) learning gaps to increasing targeted investment that allows students from underprivileged families to catch up with their better-off peers if a digital-offline hybrid classroom is the way ahead for school education in the country. Else, the after-shocks of Covid will be felt for a long time to come.

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