School shut, digital divide: How Covid upended education


Rohan Sharma, a Class 9 student, has returned to his school in east Delhi after 11 months. The 13-year-old has been witnessing several changes in the way his school used to operate in the pre-Covid times. Sharma is among hundreds of thousands of students who were forced to attend online classes ever since the education institutions were forced to shut across the country in view of the Covid-enforced lockdown, and are now struggling to adjust back to face-to-face classes.

As schools started reopening in several states in a staggered manner after 10-11 months, stakeholders including principals, teachers, students and parents said that the education system has been changed “forever”.

“It feels so different to be in school now. I used to attend online classes sitting in my room with no one around for the last 10 months. Now, I am not feeling as confident as I would earlier during classes. Besides, I completely lost my writing practice after using the keyboard for so long. I don’t think we will completely resume the traditional classroom set-up now. Many students, like me, have now started feeling more comfortable in online classes,” he said.

Officials at several schools said that the ripple effect of the pandemic on the education sector is likely to be felt for years. Ameeta Mulla Wattal, principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, said: “Learning turned 360 degrees on its head in the last few months. The only way to reach children was through technology. But now as the schools resume offline classes, the biggest challenge is to bring back children to schools. Once they are back, the next task will be to take efforts to make them understand the humanising element of learning. If we just call them back to school and start teaching on smart boards the way we were doing while they were sitting at home… In the last year, the cognitive development of the way of using pen or pencil has gone. It’s become a task to make them sit down and write.”

RP Singh, principal of Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya (RPVV) in Surajmal Vihar, said, “Technology will now become an integral part of the education system now. But, at the same time, there is a major negative change we are witnessing. Both students and their parents have started thinking that schools are there for only academic transactions. This will affect the social and emotional well-being of students.”

A recent study released by the Azim Premji University revealed that 92% of primary school children have suffered from the learning loss of at least one specific language ability during the lockdown. The study also found that 82% of children have lost at least one specific mathematics ability, including the ability to identify single and two-digit numbers, use basic arithmetic operations for solving problems, describing two-dimensional or three-dimensional shapes, and drawing inferences from data.

Jyoti Arora, principal of Mount Abu Public School, said that schools will now have to overhaul their academic calendars. “Now our challenges will be different from usual years and that’s why we will have to prepare our academic calendars differently. Now children are coming back to schools after a year with so many requirements and schools will have to fill in their emotional and social needs through interventions,” she said.

In the last year, the education sector has seen a complete upheaval. As soon as the classrooms turned virtual, a Pandora’s Box of challenges opened. Both private schools and education departments across states started training their teachers for the new task at hand. The teachers were not only trained in using technology but also learned to develop online study material. For the first time ever, a new academic session began virtually.

After waiting for over three months, many states and national education boards, including CBSE, cancelled the exams and promoted students using different methods of evaluation. The prolonged closure of schools was a double whammy for children from weaker backgrounds, who lost access to assured meals, free textbooks, and other facilities.

At the same time, the closure of educational institutions cracked open the already existing inequalities and digital divide in society. According to an Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) released in October, only one-third of India’s schoolchildren pursued online education and a smaller cohort of this 32.5% attended live online classes at a time when their schools remained physically closed.

Devendra, principal of Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya in Rouse Avenue, said: “Many students who don’t have smartphones and Internet connectivity could not attend online classes or access digital study material in the last 10 months, and are now lagging. It has become a task for teachers to bring all kids to one level of education now when physical classes have resumed. It will be even more challenging when all the students will return to school.”

Teachers at government schools also raised concerns over students who have been out of touch since March last year.

In February, HT reported that around 31,000 students enrolled in 1,030 state government schools (from kindergarten to Class 10) remain untraceable. Nearly 24 million children globally are at risk of not returning to school next year, estimated UNICEF in August.

Officials at higher education institutions said that there is a lot of “uncertainty” among students, especially final-year students and PhD scholars in terminal semesters. “Things have become very complicated for research scholars with campuses and libraries being closed for over 10 months. One can’t complete the research work sitting at home and it’s creating stress and anxiety among students. They are worried about their future since they won’t get jobs for another few months or years since their PhDs are pending,” said Moushumi Basu, an associate professor at JNU.

“Besides, for first-year students it has been a very isolated kind of situation. They have not met their teachers and classmates as of now. It will be a challenge for them to adjust once they return to the campus,” she added.

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