The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which took the world by storm has literally had a catastrophic effect on the education systems across the globe and India is no exception.
The closure of schools forced education to move online worldwide, although not without its own set of challenges.
Nonetheless the situation arising out of such closure, according to a United Nations report, is said to have affected 94 per cent of the world’s student population and up to 99 per cent of students in low and lower-middle-income countries.
According to a World Bank assessment, in general, as children age, the opportunity cost of staying in school increases. This may make it harder for households to justify sending older children back to school after a forced interruption, especially if households are under financial stress.
Now there is some good news. Yes, schools in India are to reopen soon and an in-principle approval has been accorded by the Union Government.
The main takeaways of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India on 30 September 2020, with specific reference to re-opening of schools after 15 October 2020, has put the onus of State/UT Governments to take decisions in a graded manner besides prepare their own standard operating procedure (SOP) on health and safety precautions. Although the reopening of schools would depend on an assessment of the local situation, online/distance learning shall continue.
So, students can choose between online classes or attend classes at school. However, students attending school need to obtain written consent from their parents. Schools cannot enforce attendance and they have to mandatorily follow the SOP issued by the Education Department of the respective State/UTs.
Among others, reopening of our schools will benefit over 120 million children in terms of provision of hot mid-day meals, intended to address child malnutrition.
Which is better and more impactful - classroom learning or virtual learning? The debates seem to continue.
Those in favour of classroom learning are quick to list out the enormous advantages of having students in classrooms and at the same time denounce virtual learning.
Further, it has been argued that prolonged reliance on virtual learning alone may not only disrupt a child’s educational and social development but can seldom deliver all of the services and benefits of schools when compared to a remote learning situation.
Proponents of virtual learning cite that study materials can be accessed anytime from anywhere. A topic or lecture can be watched multiple times and also it saves the trouble of taking down notes as is required in classroom learning.
Of course in our country, which is said to be the home to the largest and most complex education system globally, the burden of digital inequality cannot be ignored. A majority of our children do not have access to smartphones, let alone laptops, or the internet.
Likewise, virtual classes was alien to many teachers. But despite handicaps, to ensure learning continuity during the pandemic, many government school teachers had come up with innovative and low-cost ideas.
Such success stories from several parts of the country speak volumes of personal interest undertaken by many of our dedicated teachers. In Jharkhand, a teacher put up loudspeakers so that children could learn sitting outside their homes. A maths teacher in rural Sikkim visited homes of students in her village to ensure they did not lose touch with the subject. In Karnataka, many teachers used community and open spaces for teaching.
For a moment let’s have a look at the statistics. We have over 15 lakh schools (which includes about 93000 of them with single teachers) and a majority of them located in rural areas. Then there are 92 lakh teachers with three quarters of them based in rural locations. Total student enrolments are over 25 crore. Notably 12 crore students attend private schools and this sector contributes nearly Rs 1.75 crore annually to our economy. Though rural areas are mainly served by government schools, private schools have more students as well as more teachers per school compared to government schools.
Reportedly, suspension of physical classes has had an adverse impact on several small-budget schools, which charge less than Rs 1000 as monthly fee. The financial condition of such schools is said to have dwindled following dip in fee collection even though they have been claiming to be paying salaries to their teachers/staff besides settling other recurring overheads like rent and electricity bills during and after the lockdown.
Across developed countries, although schools have already begun reopening, opinion seems to be divided as to whether students should be physically present in classrooms.
Case studies from many countries, including the United States seem to indicate that many school children tested positive for COVID-19 within 2 weeks of school reopening. Germany too reported children or teachers getting infected after schools reopened. The World Health Organisation has recommended that schools can open only if fewer than 5 per cent of those tested for the virus over a two-week period are positive.
Denmark's way of handling COVID-19 is a success story. Once its schools reopened on 15 April after a month-long nationwide lockdown, initially, only the youngest children in classes between 1 and 5, were allowed to attend school. A class room was limited to just 10-12 students and one teacher throughout the day. Notably, seats/desks were separated by at least 2 metres which was later reduced to 1 metre. Masks were never mandatory for children or teachers, however, face coverings were recommended for children who were feeling sick and for those travelling to school by public transport. Students initially had to wash their hands every 90 minutes, especially before and after eating and after using the toilet, it was relaxed after some children developed extreme eczema. While parents weren’t allowed into schools except under special circumstances, the entry times to students were staggered and different entry and exits used when possible. Intermingling of student on playgrounds was not permitted. Whenever possible classes were held outside and public parks were reserved for conducting classes. Also hotels, libraries, museums and conference centres were made available to schools. It is stated that no significant increase in the growth rate of COVID-19 cases was witnessed in Denmark’s schools.
Well, once our schools reopen and we return back to classroom learning what will be possible scenario?
One guiding principle ought to be borne in mind by those in the higher echelons of power that reopening of schools and putting in place appropriate safety precautions must go hand in hand.
Yes, with no vaccine available at the moment and no cure for COVID-19 as of now, prevention is the only way out. Necessarily, masks need to be worn by students, teachers and non-teaching staff at all times. Use of thermal scanners to check the temperature of students, possible segregation for entry and exit, besides social distancing, shift system, regular sanitisation of class rooms etc., are some of the preventive measures that merit serious consideration to keep COVID-19 under check.
While there is an imperative need to re-imagine classroom learning, there can be no room for any complacency.