CMs should stop dragging their feet on school opening

Not only must re-opening schools be a top priority, we need a well thought out strategy to help students make up for 500 days of almost no learning.

Covid has been both a health and educational disaster. All schools were closed without debate when Covid struck. Cautious re-opening has begun at higher school levels but primary and upper primary schools have remained closed for over 500 days. Economists have shown that human capital — skilling, starting with schooling — is more important than financial capital. Yet even as India attracts billions of dollars into stock markets and start-ups, its human capital has been eroded by school closure.

Young children have not just failed to learn for 500 days but forgotten what they knew earlier, and many have lapsed into illiteracy. The problem is worse for the poor, in rural areas, Dalits, and tribals. The well-off have managed with private tutors and online help. This has worsened disparities and robbed the masses of gaining the ability to rise. A new survey report titled ‘Locked out — Emergency Report of School Education’ by Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera, Nirali Bakhla and Vipul Paikra, shows that 97% of parents in rural households want school re-opening, not to mention educators and economists. Yet chief ministers have dragged their feet.

School re-opening must be a top priority. Children below 12 are very unlikely to fall seriously ill with Covid. Teachers and other staff are vulnerable but should all have been vaccinated by now. With safety guidelines, all schools should open, aiding not just learning but nutrition and the social benefits of children of all castes and religions going to school together. Maintenance and repairs of school buildings and equipment should have been done already, but have they?

Private schools tried to survive by switching to online education and raising their fees. This led 26% of poorer students enrolled in higher-quality private schools to switch to lower quality (and often moribund) government schools. 

School closure also meant the end of school mid-day meals. State governments were ere supposed to offer free food and cash to make up for this. But 20% of urban and 14% of rural families said they had received nothing. This could be due partly to free food being given quarterly. Some families may get their arrears soon.

Covid has worsened a problem already flagged by many educators: automatic promotion without exams. It makes little sense to promote those who can barely read to a higher class: they will fall further and further behind, and eventually, drop out. The research study says automatic promotion means students are being promoted from Class 4 to 5 when school closure has eroded their skills to the Class 3 level. Those in Class 1 who cannot read at all because of school closure will nevertheless be promoted to Class 2 and be expected to understand textbooks in English! Learning English is no doubt an important skill much neglected by state governments in the past. But it must be preceded by a firm grounding in reading ability in the mother tongue . Otherwise, students will just be bewildered by a new, difficult language.

The researchers surveyed almost 1,362 children in classes 1-8. School closure drove many students to alternatives like tuition, online education, videos, or help from parents and friends. Some motivated teachers innovated small-group teaching in the open or in private homes, sometimes even the teacher’s home. But such individual heroics cannot make up for mass closure. The researchers found that only 47% of urban and 28% of rural students were studying regularly, while 19% and 37% respectively did not study at all. Just 42% of urban students and 48% of rural ones can read more than a few words. 

Only 8% of rural parents and 23% of urban ones felt their children had adequate access to online education, which schools are supposed to offer to compensate for school closure.

Many children had no access to smartphones, data, or understanding of how to use online facilities. Of those not studying regularly despite having smartphones, 43% of rural and 14% of urban students said they got no online material at all from their schools. As many as 57% of urban and 65% of rural online users complained of connectivity problems, showing how weak the broadband infrastructure is.

The researchers highlighted the need for an extended transition to help teachers and students overcome the scars of Covid. A “business as usual” approach risks dooming entire age groups to functional illiteracy. School opening is a must but should be followed by a completely new transitional approach to help students make up for the 500 lost days. This is new ground with no precedents. It requires careful planning, ample funding and flexibility to adjust to difficulties that arise.

This article was originally published in The Times of India on 11 September 2021.

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