The manner in which schools are reopened will lay the foundation for classroom learning in a post-Covid era. Important lessons from around the world can help governments address the unprecedented impacts of school closures on children in India. The aftermath of the Ebola crisis in West Africa revealed significantly decreased attendance in schools, while studies conducted after Hurricane Katrina and the Rwandan genocide have shown that extended school closures can have long-term effects on the cognitive capabilities and socio-emotional well-being of children. Learning from these experiences, measures must be taken to ameliorate negative outcomes concerning four key elements -- increased dropouts, a disproportionate impact on girls, socio-emotional wellbeing, and learning.
The shock of lost wages and unemployment kept many children out of school after the Ebola crisis as they were forced to contribute economically. Several ground reports indicate that there will be similar repercussions in India, with child labour having increased exponentially during the lockdown. One way to address the problem of dropouts is to provide economic incentives to school-going children. As temporary measures, midday meals could be augmented with take-home rations or direct cash transfers, girls could be given sanitary napkins and tablets for common deficiencies such as anaemia, and so on. Such approaches will have to be tailored according to local needs and preferences and may help prevent poorer households from making their children partake in underage labour to supplement family incomes.
It is important to recognise that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on girls. Field surveys in India conducted by Pratham Foundation and the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies have shown that girls face limitations even with access to online education due to deeply embedded patriarchal norms. Instances of girl children being married off have also risen sharply during the lockdown. These consequences are in line with a historical trend of many more girls dropping out of school in order to take on additional domestic responsibilities. In the absence of substantive measures, this trend is likely to worsen.
Devising flexible strategies for girls to stay in schools is one of the most important factors in advancing the social and economic progress of India. Prof Shantha Sinha, an eminent anti-child labour activist and the first chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, has recommended that sex-disaggregated data be collected from school attendance registers to identify which children have dropped out. Panchayats, school management committees and child protection committees can be mobilised to track, support and counsel families to send their children back to school. Parent networks already engaged with not-for-profit organisations must be tapped into to play the role of influencers in their communities, and schemes for scholarships and conditional cash transfers for education must be launched, particularly for girl children.
The next priority is to adopt a compassionate approach while receiving children in schools, as learning is intrinsically linked to the psychological state of mind. Teachers must be sensitised to the fact that children coming from an atmosphere of gloom and insecurity will be in no mood to learn and so it is best to dedicate the first few weeks to building a positive environment conducive to learning. This is also an opportune moment to make school counsellors an integral part of the system, as envisioned by the New Education Policy. This can be especially helpful for vulnerable children in the long-run -- according to a 2015 Harvard research study, having at least one stable, supportive relationship with an adult can help create a buffer against developmental disruptions and build resilience against adversity. Governments should partner with NGOs working in the space of mentoring disadvantaged children to extend reach and strengthen the cause of psychological well-being, an aspect that is being increasingly recognised as critical for the development of good human beings.
Finally, schools will have to bring the focus back on learning. Conversations about the digital divide have been extensive throughout the lockdown, as only 24% of households in India have access to the internet. Wave 1 of Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 exposed the disparities in remote learning amongst school-going children, with the most disadvantaged students having no access to remote learning opportunities at all. As such, children will return to schools at different learning levels, thereby exacerbating a longstanding problem. Formal assessments must be put on hold and replaced by one-on-one oral assessments, a practice that will help teachers reconnect with each child, as well as understand the distribution of learning levels in the class. This is crucial as the key to learning recovery will be to align instruction according to individual learning trajectories. Further, governments should prioritise resources for catch-up programmes for early grades in order to first close the gap in foundational skills -- for one must learn to read, to read to learn. These steps will be vital in ensuring that schools support learning and learning recovery.
The reopening of schools has been much anticipated and must be celebrated through gender-sensitive awareness campaigns. With the right approaches, it is possible to use this juncture to institutionalise practices that will strengthen our education system as a whole. For instance, continuing to support the relationship between teachers, parents, students, civil society, education technology and the government that was established during the lockdown, while introducing school counsellors as an important stakeholder in the education landscape. Reopening schools after almost a whole academic year is a critical moment for our education system, which must begin adopting responsive approaches -- ones that create curious, lifelong learners and compassionate human beings. While the New Education Policy lays down aspirational goals to achieve over the next decade, the test of its implementation begins with how we reopen our schools today.
(The writer is a public policy researcher)