This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong.
With the COVID-19 pandemic onslaught across the globe, the closure of schools continues to ensure tremendous learning loss across the world. The UNESCO states that the education of nearly 1.6 billion pupils in 190 countries has so far been affected – which means roughly around 90% of the world’s school-age children! A recent World Bank report estimates that sans any drastic remedial action, there could be losses of $10 trillion in earnings overtime for this present generation of students. The report also stated that the impact of the pandemic could lead to countries being driven away from achieving their learning poverty goals. Closer home, the report states that South Asia alone could have close to 5.5 million students drop out of school! These statistics do not in any way unearth the ordeal and distress that young people across the country have faced and continue to face since the first lockdown on March 24, 2020.
This COVID year (ominous as that may sound, there is no getting away from calling it anything but that!), the protracted school closures have ensured learning loss and rising dropouts. School closures also meant zero social interaction with peers and no access to mid-day meals for many. The struggle to take care of themselves is real and they have transitioned into having to fend for themselves and their survival. The digital divide has further exacerbated these widening inequalities. A recent survey in the 2020 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020 Wave 1) report states that only one-third of the children had access to online learning, while a mere 11% had access to live online classes. The survey also claimed that around 24.3% of children had not received learning material because they didn’t have a smartphone! Distress from digital inequality and the emotional upheaval from being left behind now looms large over children across the country!
Young people are facing high levels of uncertainty and anxieties surrounding exams, reopening of schools, friends, and the opportunity to play. For the majority of our children, learning has come to a standstill. In fact, for many, this lack of connection with their old normal and lack of access to digital devices has resulted in them wanting to drop out of school. Many have had to resort to work to support their families. The impact of school closures can also be felt among low-cost private schools that are currently struggling financially with non-payment of school fees since March 2020. Unfortunately, the continuation of education unhindered was not considered as ‘essential services’ which further underlines the systemic importance and emphasis given to learning. From a disaster management standpoint, it is pertinent to ask if there is a plan in place to ensure the uninterrupted right to education in uncertain times.
Perhaps this disruption is exactly what we needed to move away from our business as usual approach to rethink the way we educate and ask difficult questions on what is the purpose of education. This is the time for us to relook, re-energize, and reimagine how we as a society can ensure no one is left behind and ensure thriving for all children. While the opportunities are massive, the path ahead will be forged only if we approach all the systemic issues with empathy and compassion.
While the pandemic has thrown the spotlight on our systemic inequities, we need to make humane choices and ensure that the voices of our young people can support and guide us in fixing all that limits our education ecosystems. This also means we need to ourselves unlearn the way we perceive education, which will mean that policies so framed needs to address these widening and seemingly burgeoning gaps within our education system.
Blended learning has been seen as one such solution to ensure continued teaching and learning even if schools are shut. We need to accept the problem of access to digital infrastructure. When schools reopen, there is a definite requirement for the systems to acknowledge the trauma that young people have faced in the last eight months. Our response towards the healing of this trauma would mean that the focus on well-being will supersede that of the curriculum. We need to work on mindset shifts to intentionally move away from the pervasive systemic barriers attached to archaic notions of what success means. We need to also let go of this outdated education system and reimagine education where life skills take center stage, which will then empower our young people to tackle all the obstacles that hold them back. We need to also work on building an enabling environment that allows children to be resilient, responsible, and happy! Sometimes it is as simple as that- we need to promote thriving as being the purpose of education!
About the Author
Suchetha Bhat is CEO, Dream a Dream, an organization working towards empowering young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and flourish in a fast-changing world using a creative life skills approach.