Education during Covid times

Schools all over India have remain closed since mid-March 2020. There have been a lot of discussion about reopening schools during the last 10 months but only now a decision has been taken to open the schools for just class 10 and 12 students. Still there is little sign of reopening of schools for the other class students.

Children playing in the grounds of various closed schools

In the meantime the elite private schools have been offering classes over video conference. Tamilnadu Government has been broadcasting lessons for all classes over the Cable TV network. During all this time the teachers in the government and government aided schools catering to the poor have been doing very little in the schools towards education of the students.

The pandemic itself has been surging and waning without a clear end in sight. Vaccination should be available for most of the Indian in the second half of 2021. The hope is that this finally brings to end this pandemic.

In this article I have put together my opinions on the decisions taken by the government and discuss some of the alternatives. A valid criticism may be that hind-sight is 20-20 and it is easy for me to criticise now about the decisions taken when a lot less was known about the pandemic. My response would be,

  1. It is not just hind-sight. We acted on this understanding starting from June and July 2020.
  2. The pandemic closures are still not over. There is still space and time for rethinking some of the policy decisions and act on it now.

What is the state of education during Covid?

Here is a report from Pratham’s ASER about the status of education under Covid in rural India. Technology driven education with video conferencing and sharing assignments through WhatsApp etc. is not reaching more than 20% of the school going children! In my personal interactions with the 20% who are receiving that education, they are facing lots of difficulties. Most primary and middle school children receive at most 1.5 hrs of instruction. With bad network connection and the challenges imposed by the medium itself, they find it very difficult to understand what the teachers are teaching. Children with educated and motivated parents tend to do well. But they would have done well irrespective of the quality of education given by the schools.

Tamilnadu government has launched the Kalvi Television channel to broadcast lessons for all classes. The quality of these videos are quite good. However for a young child to be motivated on his or her own to watch and learn from these without clear guidance from a teacher or parent will be impossible. There is very little happening in the schools to provide worksheets or activities for the children and relate that to what they would watch in the Kalvi Television channel.

While the school children are not allowed to come to the schools, the teachers have been asked to come to school for a small fraction of the time. This is about the only productive use of their time. Here too they do some administrative work, like distributing textbooks, handling the enrollment of the children in the school, etc. They have also been tasked with some education for the illiterate adults in the area.

Transactional View of Education

It is important to understand this transactional view of education to understand my primary criticism of the government’s actions. The most common view of education is that of a ladder of certifications. A child completes certain requirements to earn the badges of class 1, class 2 and so on. Then during the key classes of 10 and 12 and at the end of the college degrees, this certification is taken very seriously in the form of a board exam as this certification then determines the suitability of the student for the different options present at the next stage. This is essentially what I am referring to as the transactional view of education. Children put effort for which they are given various certifications which yields them different goodies from the society.

From an individual’s point of view (may be a student or his/her parents), this model imposed by the society makes it vitally important to get the best certification possible with their ability to maximise what they get from the society during their life. From a society’s point of view also this is probably the simplest way to incentivize the individuals put effort that benefits the society the most and also provide a way for selecting the most suitable individuals for different needs of the society. I am not here questioning the need for such a certification ladder or tree.

However it is important to not confuse that this certification process itself is the goal of education. Education is fundamentally about learning. The children are learning and the society is also learning. While the ladder is important for sorting which streams various children are going to, it is even more important for the society that its members are learning things. In a fundamental sense this is also extremely important for the individual.

Is education at some levels more important than others?

Under the transactional model of education clearly the stages where we have board exams and where we transition to another stage are the most important. Education during other years, even if missed can be caught up during these “important” years. This is clearly all that seems to be in the minds of our policy makers.

However, what about learning? Clearly learning doesn’t happen just during these years. Every year of learning is important. In fact learning during younger years is much more critical than during later years. When our brain is still developing, we learn a lot. Many of the things we learn at a very young age are much more difficult to learn as you grow older. Many of the basic language skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills etc. cannot easily be acquired after you are older. By the age of 5, they say many children can learn and fluently speak many different languages. Learning these at a later age will be very difficult. Similarly things that involve fine motor skills like playing a violin or painting, gross motor skills like dancing or football are much easier when you are younger. Even basic notions of Shruthi and Raga are better acquired at a younger age and they are much more difficult to acquire when you are older..

A break in education for one year when you are say 15 or 20 years old can be bridged much more easily than a break in education at the age of 5. The children may be permanently handicapped for the rest of their lives.

The idea that education at 10th or 12th standard is more important is because of this fixation with this man made transactional model of education which has little bearing on how learning actually occurs in children. We are condeming a generation of our children to reduced levels of learning.

There is a somewhat valid counter-argument to this. A lot of the learning at younger ages occur outside of the school and have not really been affected. I do agree with this. A lot of the fine and gross motor skills and even language skills are acquired by children outside of the school. But what happens inside the school is also very important. The writing skills, exposure to English (a language other than their mother tongue), exposure to structured play and even exposure to peer interactions are all things that occur in a school and are extremely important in shaping up the lives of these children.

What about the spread of Covid?

Schools were closed for a good reason – to arrest or reduce the spread of Covid. Isnt this a valid reason for keeping the schools closed? And isnt protecting our youngest ones even more important?

Research has found that younger children are less susceptible to getting infected by Covid-19. Further, even if they are infected, they are less likely to become seriously ill requiring hospitalisation. Research has also found that opening of schools have not caused any major outbreaks (unlike colleges which do cause outbreaks)!

Add to these some understanding of how our schools are geographically situated. By our laws government has to provide a primary school within a Kilometre of every habitation (with I think a minimum of 500 families). Within 2 Kms for middle schools and within 4 Kms for high and higher-secondary schools. This means that primary schools in particular are very small and very local. The mean size of rural primary schools will be something like 50 to 60 and the median even smaller! All the children attending a govt. run primary school tend to already belong to the same social bubble meaning they are anyway mixing with each other and opening of the school will not expand the circle of people from whom they can get infected by much. The only new people they will get exposed to additionally will be the teacher.

What about the risk to the teachers? Teachers indeed come from outside the village for most part and they will be getting exposed to several new people (in particular the children). In the early days of lock-down, when only the police, health-care workers and conservancy staff were working, this argument would have made sense. Now so many people are working and due to their work, they are having to face a higher risk of Covid infection. Bus drivers, shop-keepers, people working in bigger offices (incl. govt ones), etc. etc. Why should the teachers alone be treated differently? Also as mentioned in the previously referred article, children are less susceptible to get infected also also to infect others.

Use of Teachers’ Time

Private school teachers have either lost their jobs or they receive less pay or they have had to work their full time learning online tools and using them to teach the children. This has not been the case for government teachers. They have worked very little during the last 10 months and have received their full pay. They have no incentive to change the situation. There is so much that could have been done by the governments to utilise their time to some how or the other deliver education to children as discussed by the section on “What else can be done?”. But this has not been done. It is a colossal waste of public money, our teachers’ times and the potential of our society.

Consequence 1 – Huge Setback for Education

The calculation has all along been that the impact will be much more for children appearing for board exam. They wouldnt be learning all the things they would have otherwise learnt in their 12th or 10th standard which severely impacts how the board exams are to be conducted. For the rest of the classes things can be caught up over the next few years. Impact will be more for classes closer to these board exam classes. As some of the things taught in 9th std were not taught this year, we may have to reduce a little bit of the syllabus next year as well. We will be able to catch up better for the 8th standard because we have more than a year to catch up and so on.

But you get a totally different picture if you look at it from the point of view of learning. Since children didn’t learn what they should in 1st std, they will be held back in 2nd standard. Some of the things they would have learnt in 1st standard will become more difficult for them to learn in 2nd standard. This will hold back their development going to higher classes. The impact of this lack of one year of education for the younger classes will permanently depress their learning for the rest of their lives. Here is an article from the Economist that talks about the consequences of school closures.

Consequence 2 – Rising Inequality

School closures disproportionately affect the already disadvantaged children. Poorer children with illiterate parents and who do not have access to Smartphones and/or Internet are affected much more than children who have educated parents and have a device to access the Internet and further attends a private school which is continuing to teach their children through the Internet. This is also described in the Economist article referred to in the previous section.

Poorer children are also much more likely to be sent for child labour which takes them out of the education system and ensures that the cycle of poverty continues.

Consequence 3 – Return of Social Evils

One of the benign consequences of compulsory free education for children was that many of the social evils like child labour and child marriages were prevented. Studies have shown that more than explicit laws banning child labour, compulsory free education along with a rising value for education in the eyes of the people has done more for reducing child labour.

Child-labour takes various forms

With these school closures, the gains we have made in these areas are at risk of being lost. As the children are anyway not engaged at schools, they are being engaged in informal labour everywhere. Children are once again working with their parents in household industries like matchbox making, they are working in the neighbourhood mechanic shops and provision shops. Girls are being engaged in household chores and to take care of the younger ones in the family. Girls as young as 13 are being married off. Here are a couple of newspaper articles show the social evils like child trafficking, child labour, and underage marriages.

The longer these children are kept out of the schooling system, the more difficult it is going to become for them to return back to the education system. We keep seeing 2nd standard children who have forgotten the alphabet, 4th std children who forgot how to write their names, 6th standard children who have forgotten the 4 operations (+, -, x and ÷). The children will not be keen to forego the freedom they are experiencing now to come back to the schools. The parents who need the extra money may not be interested in getting them back to school.

Besides these the school system was also the vehicle through which malnourishment and some basic preventive health care were addressed in India, through its midday meal programme, and periodic checks of various health parameters. Distribution of things like deworming tablets etc. are all done through the school system. Thus school closures also very directly affects the nutrition and health of the children. There is concern that malnourishment which is already shamefully high in India, is rising further due to this pandemic.

What else can be done?

As I have been arguing through this article, the primary and middle schools could have been kept open or opened as soon as the relaxations of the lockdown started. Even now along with the opening of the school for 10th and 12th standard, primary and middle schools should also be opened.

In fact given the penetration of the primary and middle schools into every corner of the country, they could have used the primary school infrastructure to also give some assistance to higher classes like distributing worksheets, having periodic sessions to answer the doubts of the students etc. All this is now water under the bridge.

Even with a very conservative view of health and safety, one could have engaged the teachers to create worksheets for all classes/lessons and distribute them to the students, talk to them over phone. They could have created WhatsApp groups to distribute good videos and games related to the lesson currently going on in the Kalvi Television channel.

There were a wide variety of things that could have been done and can still be done. None of these things were done. The intention of the education departments across the country has not been to engage their teachers to do the best to keep education going under the circumstance. They have instead taken this as a convenient excuse for doing nothing. The teacher unions have also self-servingly acquiesced in this matter.

Asha’s Response

At Asha we did the best we could for helping with education during these Covid times. Here is a video that explains our mini-schools programme.

A teacher with students at an Asha Mini-school

Visit our mini-school webpage to learn more details about how our mini-schools have performed over the last 8 months.

We have also been creating a Hybrid curriculum to offer to schools which comprises of worksheets distributed to children, digital contents exchanged over WhatsApp or other medium as well as limited in-person classes where possible. This has been used at over 30 schools with some success. Here is a report on this.

We have also been enhancing the contents that we offer over the Asha Kanini platform. While some of this will be useful during these Covid times in our mini-schools and as part of our Hybrid curriculum, it will also remain a valuable product with us going forward.

2 thoughts on “Education during Covid times

  1. Very comprehensive. Thank you for putting it together.

    Given that all this has happened, what are your thoughts on giving up last year as a lost year and children starting the next academic year (2021-2022) in the class they would have been in in 2020-2021? Of course the wealthier children would not have lost this year and would not want to do this, and will want to continue with their classes. This would create a gap in the sense that the poorer children will be older in their classes. But in the long run will this help reduce learning level gaps?

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    1. Dear Melli,

      I am not sure if that would work. What would you do with the children coming in to 1st std. They will now overlap with 2nd std students. So there will be more students in just that one year and this hump that passes through the system. i.e. In 7 years, there will be double the number of students in just 8th std and so on. And in 12 years there will be twice the number of children trying for admission to college! And in 15 or 16 years double the number of students trying to get a job. 🙂

      I would say, let the certification ladder remain the way it is. The children need to be taught what they need to know. I think a little more focus on basic learning and forgetting for a few years, the rigours of the curriculum may be what is required.

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