The future is at stake

The Covid-19-induced school closure, which began in March 2020 and continued till August-September 2021, has led to “catastrophic consequences” for underprivileged students, reveals a new report, Locked Out: Emergency Report On School Education. The survey, supervised by economists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera, and researcher Vipul Paikra, was conducted in August and covered 1,400 students, from classes 1 to 8, across 15 states and Union Territories. About 60% of the sample households reside in rural areas, and close to 60% belong to Dalit or tribal communities. Only 8% of students in rural areas and 24% are studying online regularly, and 19% of children in urban areas and 37% in rural areas are not studying at all. Ninety per cent of parents in urban areas and 97% in rural areas want schools to reopen. This is understandable: Only 23% of urban parents and 8% of rural parents feel that their children have adequate online access. Both sets (76% in urban and 75% in rural areas) said that their children’s reading abilities have declined during the lockdown. The results of a simple reading test conducted during the survey confirm the assessment. Nearly half of all children in the sample could not read more than a few words.

The pandemic also affected teachers; while many tried to help students, most were out of touch with them. The pandemic-sparked job losses, which resulted in a severe drop in incomes of parents, also meant that a quarter of students, who were in private schools, have moved to government schools. The impact has not been restricted only to education. The suspension of mid-day meals has affected students, and put their nutritional development, mental health, and overall development at risk. While 80% reported receiving some food as a substitute, there have been frequent complaints of not receiving the entitled amount.

In August, a parliamentary committee report noted that the pandemic-induced learning loss has “weakened the foundational knowledge of the students especially in mathematics, sciences and languages at school level”, which is likely to impair their cognitive capabilities. These reports show that India is facing nothing short of an education emergency, and it will take years to repair the damage. With schools reopening, governments need to evaluate the nature and scale of learning loss, improve the quality of State-run schools, retrain teachers, formulate bridging courses, and invest in the psychological, social, and nutritional well-being of students. The future is at stake.

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