As the govt deliberates reopening schools, the most vulnerable children in rural India must be given top priority
By Safeena Husain
As lockdown 5.0 comes to a close at end- June, schools are likely to reopen in a staggered manner. Thus, the conversation now is mainly around how to cram all the learning into a truncated academic year using distance learning. Or failing that, dramatically reducing the curriculum content. Everyone is trying to see which remote learning methodology might work best, from mobile-based apps to TV. But, the possibility of implementation of these measures in a rural setting with poor infrastructure is a major challenge. Let us delve into the top-four challenges, and the ways these can be mitigated with an all-inclusive approach.
Hunger: Schools need to double down on the mid-day meal programme or take-home rations, possibly extending it to include breakfast. They will also have to plan extra resources for rural areas where migrant children have returned, to ensure enough food for an expanded school population. Tracking and monitoring of this scheme will now be more critical as it is relied upon by over 9.78 million children, across 1.1 million schools.
Safety: It is important to ensure sustained efforts over the next 1-2 years that focus on young and adolescent girls. These include creating mass awareness across communities on the need for children to be back in school and activating community mobilisation to make this sustainable. School administration needs to take up an expanded role and Panchayati Raj Institutions/School Management Committees need to engage more on attendance. Now, is also the time for micro-planning and increased investments in bridge camps—both residential and non-residential. Also, there is a need for increased capacities at Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas and tribal hostels, and in some communities, cash transfers can be used to attract and keep vulnerable children like adolescent girls in school.
Emotional well-being: Given the crisis, children will feel significant emotional stress and anxiety, and this will hamper their ability to grow as emotionally healthy individuals.
While Manodarpan, a psychosocial support initiative has been launched, it is imperative that this is seen as an absolute priority in the planning for schools post-lockdown. We need to reduce stress and the pressures put on the children to complete the “course”, and help them reengage with the full school experience and overcome the trauma of the pandemic.
Children need to have a platform to connect, express and share. Schools can play a huge role in this by altering their normal teaching methods to have more activities that build connection, and as part of the planning, using remote training to ensure all teachers are trained and certified in supporting children’s well-being.
Learning: This is a year when learning levels of children will dip. Perhaps, we just have to embrace that…
Digital learning, apps and an increase in TV airtime for educational content will help. However, this will necessarily favour higher income children, and despite an intention to build inclusion into the policies, remote, rural children will undeniably miss out. India faces a huge digital divide with merely 4% of rural households having access to computers and less than 14% having access to the internet. Governments, NGOs and other public-private organisations should try to alleviate this digital divide through appropriate technology partnerships. Also, with an enhanced focus on teaching at the right level once children are back in school, we will likely achieve far more than through distance learning. Efforts are also needed to promote social volunteering trainings at the rural last-mile.
As we come together to react to this unprecedented emergency and plan for schools in a new normal, let us ensure that all these strategies receive proper budgetary allocation that reflects on transformative grassroots improvements. Let us not forget the very real threat is that parents may not re-enrol their children. While we have made huge strides towards universal access, but in the Covid-19 world, we need to be intentional about access, or too many children will lose both their education and their future.
The author is Founder, Educate Girls , Views are personal