In the Kumtu tribal hamlet of Jharkhand, eight-year-old Suman, who would now be in Class 3, has not gone to school in nearly two years, owing to the coronavirus-induced lockdown in the country, imposed in March last year. Before the lockdown, when the local government school in her village would open sporadically, Suman was doing well in her class, managing to learn some English.
But in the two years that she was almost entirely cut off from education, she can barely even read a few words in Hindi.
Suman is one of many children in Kumtu who have lost the progress they had made in school, according to data from a Road Scholarz, a volunteer research group that surveyed villages in Jharkhand.
But this isn’t an isolated case. The closure of primary and upper-primary schools during the pandemic and the shift to virtual education has had a devastating impact on children in India’s underprivileged households, a report titled Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education has found. The report, which was released today, was prepared by IIT economics professor Reetika Khera, economist Jean Drèze, and researcher Vipul Paikra, with the help of nearly 100 volunteers.
Earlier in July, Unicef and Unesco had underlined similar concerns, stating that the “reopening schools for in-person learning cannot wait.” Their statement noted that the shutting of primary and secondary schools in 19 countries had affected over 156 million students. Some of the losses that children will incur as a result of this would never be recouped, the statement said, from learning loss and mental distress to missed meals and reduced development of social skills.
The Locked Out report underlined similar concerns. Spread across 15 states and union territories and nearly 1,400 households, 60 percent of which are underprivileged, it revealed the “catastrophic” consequences of prolonged school closure.
On whether children in their formative years, who have lost nearly two years of education, will be able to make up for what they’ve lost, Khera, one of the authors of the report, said, “If we acknowledge the problem and do something about it, there’s definitely a chance. But at the moment we are pretending that the big gap didn't occur.”
Online education out of reach
The report found that only eight percent of children in rural areas and 24 percent in urban areas were studying online “regularly”. One of the main reasons for this, the report said, is that nearly half of the households surveyed in rural areas did not have access to a smartphone.
Even for those that did have access, it wasn’t that simple. The proportion of children who were studying online regularly was just 31 percent in urban areas and 15 percent in rural areas. Smartphones in rural households are often used by earning or working members of the family, which means that they may or may not be available to children wanting to attend online classes. Additionally, having an internet connection or data pack is an added expense and, even if there is internet access, connectivity in remote areas is another hurdle.
The report noted another basic obstacle that made the reach of online education limited in underprivileged households: parents surveyed said that schools were not sending online material. If these materials were available, the parents were not aware of it. Moreover, some children, particularly younger children, lacked understanding of online study or found it difficult to concentrate.
As for the fate of those without smartphones, the survey found little evidence that they were studying regularly at home. “In rural areas, nearly half of the offline children were not studying at all at the time of the survey,” it stated.
What did the authorities in different states do to facilitate some form of offline study in the lockdown? The survey found that many states, including Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, did “virtually nothing”. In states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan, some efforts were made, for instance by giving “worksheets” to children offline or by instructing teachers to visit parents’ homes from time to time for advice.
But in these cases too, the report found that the implementation of most of these efforts was far from satisfactory, based not only on the testimonies of parents and children but also borrowing from the finding that reading and writing abilities of children in the lockdown were in “freefall”.
In pre-lockdown times, going to school for children and parents, in rural and semi-urban India, in a large proportion of cases meant that at least two square meals a day were ensured to children by way of the midday meal programme. The closing of schools has changed this.
“At least in some states, dry ration was distributed in place of midday meals, but it’s really not the same, right,” Khera told Newslaundry, adding that the absence of such meals is not just an added expense for households. “Yes, the earnings of these parents are likely to have declined due to the lockdown; in any case they were not very well off. But mid-day meals also have socialization, health and nutritional benefits.”
The survey stated that mid-day meals had been discontinued in all the states sampled. Among parents with a child enrolled in a government school, the report noted that about 80 percent said they received some ration like rice or wheat as a substitute for their child’s midday meals during the three months preceding the survey. And in cases where households did receive some ration, “there were frequent complaints or indications” that the parents received less than what they were entitled to get. By and large, the survey found that the distribution of midday meal substitutes seemed “quite sporadic” and “haphazard”.
Another fairly long-term impact of the period in which children were out of touch with education is the depletion of basic reading abilities. The survey included a basic reading test where children had to read a simple sentence in a large font. The findings were alarming: about half of the children currently enrolled in Classes 3 to 5 were unable to read more than a few words. In rural areas, 42 percent were unable to read a single word. At the upper-primary level too, just over half of children in Classes 6 to 8 were able to read fluently in both rural and urban areas.
Khera said that even in pre-lockdown times, teaching activities were sub-par in many schools. “In normal times as well, the learning outcomes of such children were below par,” she said, “and now that schools have been closed for a very long time, instead of gaining reading/writng skills, they have lost much of what they had.”
In many states, children are being promoted to the next class without appearing for examinations which, according to the report, will lead to children finding themselves “thrice removed” from their grade’s curriculum.
Parents also realised the impact of this gap, both in rural and urban areas. The report found that 97 percent of the parents surveyed in rural areas supported the reopening of schools. One of the respondents, when asked if they wanted schools to restart, put it this way: “Yeh bhi koi poochne wali baat hai?” Do you even need to ask this?