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Covid-19 has hit poor children and their education very hard

Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 07:59 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 07:59 IST

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We are collectively witnessing a crisis that has turned the world upside down. The Covid-19 pandemic has infected nearly 12 million people worldwide and taken the lives of around 5,50,000. As I finish writing this article, that number may be inaccurate.

We are in the midst of a global health crisis unlike any of our generation has seen. It is catalysing what many economists describe as the greatest economic downturn since the great depression of the 1920s. And, according to the World Health Organization, it is expected to ‘stalk the human race for a very long time.’

To the naked eye, the virus has been indiscriminate. It has affected the young and old. Wealthy and impoverished. Urban and rural. It is even impacted the world’s richest countries first. And hit them hard. For every human being, it has brought life to a halt.

A darker reality, however, has simultaneously emerged. It is one that has always lurked in the background: it is the poorest citizens of India, the ones who already face the brunt of India’s massive inequalities, that are going to suffer the most from this pandemic’s lasting effects.

Those citizens are indeed the migrant workers whose plight has brought us harrowing stories. But they are also the daily-wage earners, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters, cooks, carpenters, and more.

These families comprise 85% of India’s economy. Many of them are out of business or have lost their jobs; and they have no social safety net.

India has the world’s fastest-growing population. As much as 320 million citizens are below the age of 18 years. Yet, two decades of studies have inundated us with data pointing in an unsettling direction: less than 25% of the country’s students graduate from 10th standard; less than 10% make it to college.

For India’s most privileged students – the top 10% - will experience a temporary blimp. High-income schools across the country have already mobilised networks and resources to respond with agility and care. Virtual classes began months ago. Parents are tutoring children - and paying for private classes - at home.

For India’s most impoverished children – the vast majority of the country’s youth – the four walls of a classroom are their only pathway to a better life. It is also their safe heaven. For some, it is a space to seek reprieve from the chaos and abuse of life at home. The current crisis deeply threatens that safe heaven. It is also cutting off access to nutrition and basic supplies.

School closures are further taking one of society’s greatest equalisers - the promise of an excellent education - and rendering it moot. India’s children are losing valuable learning time which, for them, is needed to succeed. Given their lack of network connectivity and literate family members, school is their only access to effective instruction.

Some experts are predicting that India’s children will face the brunt of this lost time for years to come. They will spend the majority of their time back playing ‘catch-up’. For children who are already entering school years behind their high-income peers, ‘catch-up’ is a game that can be brutal.

To get ahead of this, we will need to get creative. As a country, we will have to bend the rules that have long been governed by bureaucracy. We will need to invest. As we divert our attention to the much-needed global health response, it is imperative that we avoid worsening another crisis that has been unfolding for decades.

There are a few ideas, circulating around the world, that we should be considering too:

Embrace Blended Learning: Policymakers and educators have been trying, for years, to prototype and scale technology in the classroom. While technology will never be able to replace teachers, it can undoubtedly augment in-person instruction.

As schools remain shut, educators must quickly embrace basic technology. Local governments should simultaneously start investing in hardware - like tablets and phones - for classrooms. They may be our new textbooks. At Teach For India, our Fellows are prototyping Google Classroom and other applications to facilitate virtual instruction. We have to ensure that learning doesn’t stop.

Tough decisions

Extend the School Day and Even the Year: When we return, educators will be forced to make some tough decisions. How should they prioritise content? Do they pass kids who are already far behind?

To make those choices, our schools and governments should strongly consider extending both the day and the year. We should explore summer remediation camps. Global research heavily supports extended learning time as a critical enabler for students from low-income communities.

Invest in People and Leadership: We are learning, hourly, just how valuable leadership is in these times. All of the solutions above, in fact, demand excellent teachers at the forefront. At Teach For India, several of our Fellows are leading and coordinating relief efforts.

They are establishing hotlines – and holding space – for children and families to process trauma. They are migrating online rapidly. We need, now more than ever, excellent teachers and leaders working with children. We need people who can innovate. As a country, it is imperative that we invest in leadership. Our children need and deserve our best.

This pandemic has put the world into a frenzy. It has made us panic. And it has made us rethink our priorities. Much of that rethinking and panic has been justified. We are witnessing a crisis rooted in proportions not seen in over a generation.

As we respond, though, let us remember that decades of insufficient investments are exacerbating this crisis for today’s adults. Let us not forget that the children of India are our future. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes.

(The writer is Chief of City Operations, Teach For India, a not-for-profit organisation)

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Published 12 July 2020, 20:04 IST

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