Do you know that 1/3rd of the world’s children were unable to access remote learning during school closures caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic? This is just one of the many startling facts that highlight the plight of school children during the on-going public health emergency caused due to the pandemic. To bring this and other similar challenges to the fore, JagranJosh and UNICEF held an interactive dialogue on the various issues related to the impact of COVID-19 on children including Digital Divide, Learning during Lockdown and Reopening of Schools.
The discussion was moderated by Mr Parikshit Bhardwaj – Head Content Ops, Jagranjosh.com. The dialogue saw exchange of ideas and insights between Dr Yasmin Ali Haque - UNICEF representative in India and Dr DhirJhingran, Founder-Director of Language and Learning Foundation.The purpose of this important policy discourse was to focus on the issues related to the rights of children and highlight the need for a collaborative effort in addressing the urgency of investing in child rights.
Check out the key highlights of this discussion to find out the impact of the pandemic on the children and what we can do to create a safer environment for them in the post-COVID19 world.
Extracts from the Dialogue
Impact of School Closure on Children
In her initial remarks, Dr Yasmin Ali Haque - UNICEF representative in India, thanked Jagranjosh.com for bringing to the fore the challenges faced by school children during the COVID-19 pandemic. DrHaquealso added that although COVID-19 started as a public health emergency, it quickly also transformed itself into an emergency surrounding children’s rights. She also added that the pandemic has deeply disrupted the regular routine of children, be it in terms of regular classroom based learning or their rights to play and interact with their friends and peers.
Dr Haque also shared that over 15 lakh schools across the country have been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic. This translates into nearly 30 crore school children who are missing out on their regular studies and learning. Therefore, it is important that we find a solution to this problem soon and ensure that these students are able to continue their studies despite the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. She also said that while online learning and virtual learning have come to the rescue of many students, due to the limitations of the platform and technology, it has not been able to reach each and every student in the country.
Impact of Digital Divide on Retention of Earlier Learning
Talking about the challenge of digital divide and how well school children have retained the learning acquired during the pre-pandemic period; Dr DhirJhingran, Founder-Director of Language and Learning Foundation, and an Ex-IAS officer, said that digital divide is a very real and significant problem in India. He shared that his organization held a survey to understand the challenge of digital divide and found that on an average; only 15 to 50% students had seamless access to digital tools, technology and gadgets to continue their studies online.
On similar lines, another survey done by Language and Learning Foundation found that due to school closures and consequent digital divide, the retention of learning done prior to the pandemic among students also fell by nearly 20 to 25%. He also added for students who come from marginalized families and communities, where familial support is unavailable, this problem is far worse. Based on the findings of these two surveys, Dr Jhingran called for urgent and decisive action to ensure that education reaches to all the school children, especially those coming from marginalized families.
DrJhingran also highlighted another challenge that will arise after schools reopen and that is the challenge of disparity between learning levels of the students. During the pandemic, some students had access to the necessary digital tools and continued their remote learning, while many others didn’t; this has created disparity between the learning standards or level among different students. After schools reopen, educators will have to address this disparity and make efforts to restore parity and ensure that no student is left behind.
He also added that after the reopening of schools, it would be important for teachers to not only complete the syllabus for the current academic year, but also help students revise and revisit learning from the previous year as well. Because, as found in their survey, due to school closure and break in the learning process, retention among the students from the pre-pandemic period has fallen by nearly 25%.
Best Learning Approach during Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen educators try out different approaches to remote learning, starting from digital, broadcast, no-tech and blended. Talking about the efficacy of different modes of learning that have been tried by educators during the pandemic, DrJhingran says that the current situation doesn’t provide for a ‘one size fits all’ formula, when it comes to the teaching approaches. Therefore, he advocates that teachers should try and diversify and see which approach works the best for different type of learning modules. However, irrespective of the approach, it is important to reach out to every student and ensure that they are able to continue their learning during the pandemic.
Dr Jhingran also presses on the need of study materials and the role they play in the remote learning model that has been adopted due to the pandemic. He added that the agencies working in this domain should ensure that students have the necessary study material including work-books, text books and additional reading material that can help students continue their self-learning. This initiative can then also be backed by tele-classes that can be held by teachers over a phone call or through weekly home visits or scattered classes in open spaces.
He also adds that NGOs and volunteers can play a very critical role in this initiative similar to their role in the National Literacy Mission that was launched in 1990s. So, it is important for both government and civil society to come tougher and realize the urgency of the matter and take immediate steps to address the challenge of learning of rights of children during the pandemic.
Preparation for Schools Reopening
Looking at the possibilities after reopening of schools, Dr Jhingransaid that educators should start planning their approach for academic continuity and learning post reopening of schools right away. After schools reopen this year, teachers and students would be left with very limited time in which they will have to make-up for the lost time. This pressure may lead to deterioration of quality of education. Therefore, it is important for educators to start planning for reopening of schools right away. He also added that as part of the reopening process, it is important for teachers to help students revise the learning from the pre-pandemic session and also pick and choose only those topics or chapters from the current year’s syllabus which are important from long term learning perspective.
School Reopening Debate
With Unlock 4.0 Guidelines, Central Govt allowed partial reopening of states, which has led to an intense debate with different views in which some prioritize education while others advocate for the health and safety of students. Shedding light on this matter, Dr Yasmin Ali Haquesaid that UNICEF believes that school is the place where students belong, where they learn, play and are able to build a holistic personality. However, during the pandemic, it is important that schools should be allowed to reopen only after it is safe for children to go to schools. Therefore, Dr Haqueasserted that at this point, it is not the right time to reopen schools in India.
But to ensure a safe environment at schools so that they can reopen, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Education and Ministry for Safe Water and Sanitation to promote good hand hygiene among students by spreading awareness among them. UNICEF is also running awareness drive with teachers, parents and other stakeholders to sensitize students towards the importance of hand washing, especially during the pandemic. In addition to this, necessary infrastructure including setting up of hand washing stations, following of COVID-19 precautions and guidelines is also being followed by UNICEF.
Dr Haquealso added that in the last 6 months, school children have been confined to their homes, wherein many Indian families live in a single room set-up. Such confinement and strict rules about meeting, greeting and interacting with others, especially where they are away from their friends, can cause stress to the students, which may lead to long term psycho-social effects on them. To avoid this, it is important to help school children return back to schools in a close to normal environment, where they can be eased back into their learning routine.
Learning Approach if Schools Don’t Reopen This Year
With the pandemic still raging on in India and rising number of COVID infections being detected every day, several educationists feel that schools may not reopen this year at all. In such a scenario, Dr Haquesays that the biggest challenge before India would be to reach out to each and every student, even to those who reside in remote, tribal areas of the country and ensure that their learning continues. If schools don’t reopen, parents, NGOs, civil society and volunteers will have a critical role to play in ensuring continued learning for the students.
In such scenario, Dr Haqueadded, Continued Learning for School Children will have to be transformed into a social movement wherein different approaches, modes and styles will have to be experimented. Within one state or even at the district level, different models and ideas to ensure continued learning of students should be tried out. Local administration and people understand their challenges the best; therefore it is important to take ideas from them and support those ideas with necessary infrastructure and materials. She also recommends building a network among different agencies for knowledge sharing that can help identify the best possible alternative for challenges that we face today.
Learning from Pandemic for School Education System
Answering a question about the key learning and takeaways from the pandemic for School Education System, Dr Jhingransaid that the first important revelation that the pandemic has brought out is the limited schools days and schools hours in several states. This has led to the demand of increase in the number of instructional days and hours in schools. This can be done by doing away with many school holidays and extending the schooling hours beyond the current prescribed limit.
Foundational Skills among school children be it related to language, math, literacy etc., which were already under stress even during the pre-pandemic period; have seen further degradation during the period of school closures. Therefore, it is important for educators to focus on these foundational skills and strengthen them. NEP 2020 also focuses on these Foundational Skills under the banner of Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Mission.
Dr Jhingran also adds that language plays a pivotal role when it comes to foundational education of students, i.e., from 1st to 4th Class. Therefore, it is important to ensure that foundation-level education to school students is available in their mother-tongue. Even during the pandemic, volunteers have been successful in ensuring continued learning for students in their foundational year in the language that was being spoken at their homes.
Another learning from the pandemic has been that Schools and Community have to be more connected than they were previously, says Dr Jhingran. Teachers and educators will now have to regularly interact with parents and guardians and ensure that they are aware of the child’s progress. This has been done during the pandemic, as remote learning had forced teachers and parents to connect regularly. However, this bond has to continue even after schools reopen and infact it should be strengthened further.
Dr Haquenotes that the pandemic has shown the power and efficacy of remote learning. This can be exploited further, to reach out to students who are unable to join formal schooling systems in the post-pandemic world. For such students, blended learning approach should be developed that can be an amalgamation of digital solutions and learning methodologies, that will help reach even the last of the students and ensure their continued learning. Therefore, governmental agencies as well as the civil society should think about investing in this Blended model.
She also added that the financial compulsions presented by the pandemic have forced many students to quit their studies and instead join workforce early, even before completing their education. The situation is far worse for girl students, who are being married off early, even before they attain the legal age of 18 years. This is another problem that needs to be addressed on an urgent basis. Therefore, it is important for the government to involve parents and guardians in a dialogue and present them with a solution to allow their children to continue their education without any financial constraints.
Stay tuned to jagranjosh.com for the forthcoming webinars where similar debates will be held to provide a platform for the voices that need to be heard and to discuss issues that matter to the world.