COVID-19 batters education sector in India

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has hit almost all sectors in India, especially the country’s education sector. Ever since the disease started to spread last year, schools and educational institutions across India were the first to shut down in a bid to protect children.

However, as the pandemic continues, the impact on the country’s educational system is worrying and the consequences have been alarming.

CLOSED SCHOOLS AND MISSING MIDDAY MEALS

The prolonged closure of schools and educational institutions has badly impacted students, especially those from rural and poor families.

Several months into the first wave, the Indian government came up with the idea of online classes. It sounded like a good idea initially, but the fact is many students cannot access the Internet due to lack of equipment and facilities.

Gadgets like mobile phones and laptops are not a given in the country. For students who cannot afford them, waiting for schools to reopen is the only option.

Children with educated parents can enjoy studying at home with family support throughout the pandemic, but those from illiterate families are being left behind.

In many parts of India, midday meals used to be a special attraction for students attending schools. Officials said India’s midday meal scheme over the years had significantly increased school enrollment and helped many children get adequate nutrition.

School closures in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown had badly hit the economy and livelihoods of many people, thus leaving many students without proper nutrition.

“I used to sell tea on my handcart to make ends meet. After the lockdown, my livelihood was badly impacted. During the initial months, I supported my family with my savings, but as the situation continued, I took out loans and had to rely on alms from friends and some charity groups,” said Pawan Kumar, a migrant worker from India’s northern state of Bihar.

“My children were going to government-run schools and after their closure, they are now staying home. Where can I afford smartphones for my three children and then pay to recharge them on a monthly basis?” Kumar said.

COMMUNITY EDUCATION SUFFERS

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected public schools, but also hit low-budget community institutions.

Nasir Ahmad, a post-graduate, was running a low-budget middle school in Indian-controlled Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Families with medium and low incomes had their children enrolled in Ahmad’s school.

Following the pandemic, the school was closed on government instructions, and as the virus continued to rage, students failed to pay their monthly school fees. With economic pressure to pay the monthly salaries of his 15-member faculty, he had to move classes online for the children.

“Last year it started in March and went on like this until October. At the end of the academic session, when I called the parents urging them to pay fees, almost all the parents cited their inability to pay because of financial constraints. So more than 10 staff members quit after I couldn’t pay them,” said Ahmad.

“This year I was hopeful that things would become better, but again in the wake of the devastating second wave, the situation turned grim,” he said.

Speaking of most of the students failing to turn up for Ahmad’s online classes, he said they may drop out or get admitted to government schools.

“In a nutshell, now I don’t see I will be able to run the school for a handful of students,” he said. Ahmad’s school used to have over 250 students.

“Teachers who used to teach at my school have now switched to some other jobs, and frankly speaking I am, too, looking for a job,” he said.

CATASTROPHIC CONSEQUENCES

A majority of Indian states have resumed in-person classes for secondary students as the second wave of COVID-19 abated, but it is unclear when younger children will be able to return to classrooms.

A report based on a survey of nearly 1,400 schoolchildren showed “catastrophic consequences” of online education for underprivileged children.

“The results of a simple reading test are particularly alarming: Nearly half of the children in the sample were unable to read more than a few words,” the report said.

“Most parents feel that their child’s reading and writing abilities have gone down during the lockdown. They are desperately waiting for schools to reopen. Indeed, for many of them, school education is the only hope that their children will have a better life than their own,” it said.

The survey showed only 8 percent of children regularly study via online classes in rural India, and 37 percent of children do not study at all.

One primary cause of this is that many households simply have no access to smartphones, the report said.

“Even among households with a smartphone, the proportion of children who are studying online regularly is just 31 percent in urban areas and 15 percent in rural areas,” the report added.

The report said that the states of Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh have “virtually” done nothing to ensure the continuity of students’ education during the closure of schools, warning that those children will find themselves “thrice removed” from the curriculum when schools reopen.

CALL FOR REMEDIAL MEASURES

P. Chidambaram, India’s former finance minister and senior opposition Congress party leader, described the impact of COVID-19 on the education sector as “a greater catastrophe.”

“There has been a lot of debate on the availability of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, medicines, ambulances, space at burial/cremation grounds and vaccines. Courts stepped in to prod governments to do more. Many governments were alarmed and actually did more,” he wrote in a newspaper column.

“Unfortunately, however, there has been little debate countrywide, and less action, on the learning gaps of children and remedial measures,” he noted.

“The Prime Minister wants to make the education system ‘globally competitive and the youth future-ready.’ These are undoubtedly splendid goals and the intention is noble, but should we not first get the children ‘reading- and arithmetic-ready’?” Chidambaram said.

“The immediate need is remedial education. Teachers must be incentivized to work longer hours and children must be helped to overcome learning gaps. No expenditure is too high to ensure that every child gets a complete school education,” he said. 

by Peerzada Arshad Hamid