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Pandemic Causes Glaring Disruption in School Education

Teachers are unanimous that the two-year-long school closure has damaged students and online teaching cannot be a substitute for classrooms.
online Education

Kolkata: The prolonged pandemic-induced school shutdown has considerably damaged the progress of students. Parents and guardians have demanded the reopening of schools with student organisations, particularly the CPI(M)-aligned Students Federation of India and the Congress’ Chhatra Parishad hitting the streets demanding early restart of physical classes.

Teachers are unanimous that the two-year-long school closure has proved to be extremely damaging for students and online teaching—not affordable for several families—cannot be a substitute for classrooms. Besides, the non-availability of teaching materials and the discontinuation of the Mid Day has forced several students to quit school.

Surajit C Mukhopadhyay, a sociology professor at the Amity University at Raipur, Chhattisgarh, feels that teaching and learning taken together is a face-to-face conversational exercise. “It is not one-dimensional wherein the teacher speaks and the student listens. While delivering a lecture, a teacher simultaneously assesses how students are receiving it. If he/she feels that the students are not receiving it well, the teacher modifies and finetunes it to make it easy for them to grasp,” he said.

In online classes, there is an undesirable “level playing field” as far as good and less-than-average students are concerned, Mukhopadhyay said adding that “slackness on the part of teachers is also an issue”.

Parthib Basu, a zoology professor at the Ballygunge Science College Campus of Calcutta University, said the long school closure has affected students psychologically. “We have received reports that several have become forgetful. Well-coordinated massive voluntary mentoring could help such students. Senior students receiving higher education in science, medical and other disciplines for which laboratory learning is a crucial part severely suffered. In effect, their education will be half-baked,” said, Basu, who is also the president of Calcutta University Teachers Association. “Overall, teacher-student disengagement has caused demotivation on both sides.”

According to Kesab Bhattacharya, president of All India Federation of   College and University Teachers Organisations, a large number of students had to quit school after their parents lost jobs during the pandemic. “This is a serious socio-economic fallout of the pandemic. It is a challenge for governments and social service organisations, including NGOs, to persuade parents to resend their children to schools without offering them financial support,” he said.

As for online classes, Bhattacharya is convinced that they are devoid of serious learning. “Examinations are not monitored and, therefore, success is taken for granted.” He concurred with Basu that laboratory learning is the worst casualty. “Things, however, will be somewhat better if study material according to course structure is available online.”

plight of school students in Jharkhand

The plight of school students in Jharkhand was recently brought to the notice of chief minister (CM) Hemant Soren by well-known development economist Jean Drèze, who is a visiting professor at Ranchi University. In a letter sent to Soren, Drèze mentioned the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning’s September 2021 survey ‘Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education’. The worst aspect of the crisis attributable to the prolonged closure “is not the economic crisis or even the health crisis. It is the schooling crisis ... The prolonged exclusion from the schooling system has led to a revival of mass illiteracy among children”, he wrote.

“At the time of the 2011 Census, the literacy rate in the 8-12 year age group was close to 90%. By 2020, most children in that age group should have been literate. But today, when we survey children of that age group among poor Adivasi and Dalit families of rural Jharkhand, we find that a majority of them have lost the ability to read a simple sentence,” the letter read.

A small minority of privileged children have been able to continue studying online during this period but online education does not work for poor children, Drèze further wrote. “When the pandemic subsidies, the economy is likely to pick up and adults will return relatively soon to their normal lives. But children may pay the price for their entire life.”

Drèze urged Soren to plan a massive two-year literacy campaign for primary schoolchildren in addition to taking other measures. He suggested that Jharkhand take “inspiration” from Tamil Nadu’s Illam Thedi Kalvi (ITK)—which translates to education at doorstep—scheme and mobilise youngsters, especially women, Adivasis and Dalits, to implement it. They would be able to reach every village at a relatively low cost and the scheme would be a source of some income for them,” Drèze, who is a member Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin’s State Economic Advisory Council, wrote.

Tamil Nadu’s ITK scheme

A brainchild of Stalin, the scheme was rolled out in 12 districts on December 1, 2021, to compensate for the learning loss when schools were shut. By the first week of January, all the 38 districts were covered, according to the officer on special duty for the scheme K Elambagavat.

Giving details, Elambagavat said that the programme, meant for students of classes one to eight, is being implemented by engaging volunteers in the ratio of one volunteer for a maximum of 20 students.

An estimated 28 lakh students and 1.47 lakh volunteers are trained for three days before they take classes which are held for one-and-a-half hours starting at 5 pm at available public places in villages for a minimum of six hours a week. Many highly educated persons and even housewives comprise the force of volunteers, who are paid Rs 1,000 per month, Elambagavat added.

Economic Survey draws upon NGO’s findings

In a rare departure from its practice of not making inconvenient figures and survey findings public, the Narendra Modi regime has admitted to the lack of data to study the adverse effects of COVID-19 on education and learning. The Economic Survey 2021-22 observed: “It is difficult to gauge the real-time impact of repeated lockdowns on [the] education sector because the latest available comprehensive official data dates back to 2019-20. This provides the longer time pre-Covid trends but does not tell us how the trend may have been impacted by Covid-19 induced restrictions”.

The survey made a particular reference to 25 crore schoolchildren who have not attended a class for almost two years. The Centre had to draw upon the survey undertaken by NGO Pratham and compiled in its Annual Status of Education Report 2021 though tough the Economic Survey incorporated a note of caution that such non-governmental data has a limitation.

Pratham’s key findings were: enrolment and learning both suffered; the number of children in the 6-14 age group not enrolled in schools rose to 4.6% in 2021 from 2.5% in 2018; there was a noticeable shift to government schools from private ones as parent/families had to bear with the financial strain resulting from several factors, including reverse migration. The NGO’s survey also showed that about 60% of students in rural areas had to go without any educational activity and learning materials.

The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.

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