With the coronavirus vaccine being finally rolled out across the country, light has appeared at the end of the pandemic tunnel that life as we knew it before the virus struck may actually return. For many of us, the pandemic has been a troublesome hiatus in the normal course of our lives. But for millions of children, the year that has passed under some form or the other of pandemic-induced restrictions has been irretrievably lost. Schools have stayed shut for virtually the entire academic year. The interactions between fellow students as well as with teachers, which is as important to the process of learning as receiving the lessons themselves, have, at best, been replaced by virtual substitutes.
While India’s great shift towards online learning will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the signal achievements during the pandemic, it has also exposed the massive digital divide between the haves and the have-nots and the urban and the rural. Globally, UNESCO has estimated that more than 320 million students lost access to education because of the pandemic.
The risk of the pandemic-induced break turning into a permanent break from education for the poor, particularly with the mid-day meal system also being disrupted, is a very real one. In this context, it is welcome that the Union education ministry has directed all States to conduct comprehensive door-to-door surveys to identify children dropping out of school and prepare necessary action plans to prevent dropouts, lower enrolments and loss of learning.
States have also been directed to relax detention policies to ensure that failure to clear a grade does not become yet another excuse for pulling children – girl children in particular – out of school. It is incumbent on the States, as well as educational authorities and schools, to ensure that the year of the coronavirus does not become a black year for education.