A year of learning interrupted: So many students are safe but unschooled, observes Harini Calamur

Last week, two stories went relatively unnoticed. The first was Manipal Institute being declared a containment zone, after 50+ cases of Covid were detected. The second was over 100 students in Telangana being detected with Covid, in some schools with over a 20 per cent infection rate. Across the world, there are similar stories of campuses and schools being infected, disrupting studies once again. This impacts the education system at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels – having significant long-term consequences for society and the economy as a whole. We have the largest adolescent population in the world, and we need to find solutions to the disruption of education for the 253 million of us who fall between the ages of 10 and 19.

Almost a year ago, much of the world began locking down. The aim was to stem the growing numbers of Covid infections and fatalities. Amongst the things that came grinding to a halt were colleges and schools the world over. For students from economically vulnerable families, the impact on education has been devastating. Despite the best intentions, all over the world, the education of the most marginalised families – socially and economically – has faced massive disruption.

Learning fettered

A year later, with inoculation in full swing, the normalcy of our pre-pandemic lives still seems a long way off. And one of the biggest debates going on is the right time to get schools and universities working ‘normally’. Post-November 2020, there was a gradual reopening of educational institutes in India, but it has been an interrupted phase, with most parents choosing to keep their kids home, safe but unschooled.

In Maharashtra, for example, 32 per cent of students from Classes 5-8 went back to school, when middle schools were reopened at the end of January. At the higher education level, the UGC has come up with a list of guidelines for institutions to reopen. With last year’s placements already disrupted, and millions of students facing an uncertain future, the priority is final-year students, both from the point of view of ensuring they finish their education and find jobs.

With enough medical research suggesting that the vaccine is not a magic wand that will make Covid disappear, rather it is something that will ensure the strains that infect us aren’t that lethal, Covid is here at least in the near future. And, just as humankind learned to live with other kinds of flu, we will learn to live with this. But, in the meantime we have to plan for the ways in which our lives unfold – and one key zone is education.

Access for all

The first and most critical aspect of mass education is access. India has worked hard over the last 70+ years to ensure that there are schools in the remotest areas, and there is access to higher education. But till now, all the measures have been around physical access. The pandemic, with its in-built need for physical distancing, ensures that this is a problem. And, access now means stable broadband, and a device that will allow students to receive video lessons. This could be a medium range smartphone, laptop, or tablet. And this is where the problem begins.

According to the NSSO, figures - 4.4 per cent or rural and 23.4 per cent of urban households had a computer. And 14.9 per cent of rural and 42 per cent of urban households have Internet access. This was from a 2017-18 survey, and it is unlikely that the number would have approached even 50 per cent in the intervening years. If anything, with the lockdown and the economic suffering that ensured, it is likely the numbers went down.

Lost year

There are those who say, let them use smartphones. While the smartphone is a great device and in a pitch, is great to use as a substitute computer – it is not something that students can peer into for 6-8 hours, listening to a teacher, or even following notes. It is not even remotely an optimum learning experience.

An entire year has been lost by students in terms of interactions, engagement and mentoring. For first-generation entrants to the educational system, this has been a devastating year. At the extreme, we have seen young men and women die by suicide, unable to cope with the expectations of virtual learning. An expectation that assumes that everyone will have a room, electricity, and a device of their own connected to the internet, to manage their classes. An expectation that has nothing to do with real life.

For the coming academic year, the challenge is clear – how do you make sure that students from the most vulnerable backgrounds are not left behind? A starting point would be to ensure that every student has a device capable of running audio and video without issues. The second is to ensure that there is last-mile access at the village level. The third is opening up government-owned spaces for students to sit and read, or even charge their devices. If the government does not have a plan of action for this, and there is one more year of disruption of education for large swathes of students, we are looking at a lost generation. The first generation that would be possibly worse off than its parents. And that would be a tragedy.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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