The pandemic has had a staggering impact on all aspects of human life worldwide, with India being one of the hardest-hit countries. The COVID-19 induced lockdown significantly disrupted access to education in India. The closure of 1.5 million schools had impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. Even though the school systems made efforts to reach students at home through various means, still the school closures had devastating consequences on children's learning and well-being.
The news of schools reopening has got a mixed response from all the stakeholders, be it the schools, teachers, parents and students. Aditya Birla Education Trust in Mumbai recently conducted a #BackToSchool Survey to gather insights from students, parents and teachers spread across the city on their readiness to get back to attending schools in the offline mode. It concluded that the hybrid model of learning to be the way forward in the education sector, with 57% of students, 48% of parents and 44% of teachers preferring a hybrid model of learning and teaching for the time being.
The survey was conducted among 1,500 respondents, including students, parents as well as teachers from Mumbai. "The pandemic put a halt to the traditional classroom-based teaching and learning, compelling the education sector to shift to digital learning platforms. Although teachers are connected to their students virtually, the essence of a face-to-face classroom collaboration can never be substituted. Blended learning and hybrid classrooms are the future in the post-pandemic era, which combines face-to-face sessions with technology-based asynchronous content," says Neerja Birla, founder & chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust.
Ready to go offline
The pandemic had disrupted the routine of children. The news of reopening brought a lot of cheers and some jeers along. With the students returning to their classrooms after a long gap, the schools are leaving no stone unturned to help them readjust and catch up on their learning and adapt to the modalities brought forth by the new normal. "We were prepared for school reopening. There was eager anticipation and much excitement in students and staff alike at the prospect of coming back to what they know to be their second home," says Radhika Sinha, Principal, Aditya Birla World Academy in Mumbai.
While some parents were relieved, for a few, the news of reopening came as a surprise. "We were not prepared at all. The colleges have not yet reopened where the students and the teachers both are vaccinated. Still, the government decided to reopen the schools first," says Sonali Kumar, who is an educator at a school in Navi Mumbai, and mother of a teenager. Kumar, who teaches in the hybrid model with a few children attending offline classes, and the remaining marking their presence online, agrees with Sinha, who adds, "We understand the value of face-to-face interaction with our students. Educators, too, need the energy and the physical bonding that a physical classroom provides. Although teachers have been well connected with their students virtually, the essence of in-person interaction can never be replaced."
Gurugram resident Gurvinder Kaur whose daughter Akrita Kaur is a Class 11 student at ITL Public School in Dwarka, New Delhi, was prepared for the school reopening. "The school was one of the last public places to open, so it wasn't such a surprise to us. I wasn't that worried as, before the reopening, the school sent a video to us about all the precautions that they were taking," says Kaur.
Parents have only one concern — the adherence to safety precautions on the premises. The schools, on their part, are taking adequate measures, including complete vaccination of the school staff, regular sanitisation of the entire premises, maintaining social distancing, encouraging hygiene among students, etc.
"We have planned to reopen in a phased manner. We are firm and particular about the protocols we have put in place. We have put together a schedule for one grade per day to attend offline classes, to keep the numbers small and also meet the necessary rules of maintaining the required distance in seating arrangements and other precautions," adds Sinha.
Mind the learning gap
The sudden shift to online learning had jolted the entire education system, which was not easy for any stakeholder. Kumar lauds the school reopening plan because it will in some measure make an effort to recover children's lost education because many were not able to access digital or avail remote learning opportunities.
The pandemic was a social crisis for the children. "For children, brief periods out of education can have a lasting and adverse effect. Many have forgotten what they had initially learned in school. Though online education has taken over, we must not forget that it still is not a viable option for many living in remote areas or not financially well-off. Not every child has the privilege of an appropriate environment meant for pursuing education from home. Such children have been the most affected, thus harming their intellectual development," observes Dr Gurudutt Bhat, Consultant Paediatrics, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan.
The transition from a traditional chalkboard approach to a wholly digital one has impacted the quality of learning, feel teachers. At the same time, the parents observe that their children lack the zest to study, motivation, and healthy competition that usually drives them to set their best foot forward, impacting the overall learning outcome.
Blended learning and hybrid classrooms are the future in the post-pandemic era, which combines face-to-face sessions with technology-based asynchronous content.
Neerja Birla, founder & chairperson, Aditya Birla Education Trust
"My daughter and I prefer the offline school as it is challenging to study online, and she constantly has to stay in front of her screen, which gives her a lot of headaches. Apart from wearing a mask everywhere, we keep a sanitiser handy and make sure to sanitise our self every time we enter or leave the house," adds Kaur.
The pandemic has led to a rise in the use of digital devices, thereby increasing screen time. With the ongoing online schooling, the 'virtual fatigue' has and will continue to be a severe challenge for many. "Students have become so dependent on Google-enabled learning that writing an assignment without the help of a computer seems like quite a task. The other day I gave some classwork to children, and to my surprise, their written work was utterly disappointing because they couldn't Google, copy and paste," complains Kumar.
The lockdown also took a toll on children's social-emotional health. "Children everywhere were not getting the same social exposure that they used to in schools. There's been a lack of playtime with their peers and interaction in class, affecting children's social skills. Paediatricians saw an increased prevalence of delayed speech and language in kids. It's been proven that past traumatic or unnatural childhood experiences have negatively impacted an individual's development," stresses Dr Bhat.
Best of both
Students would have to attend the physical classes approximately twice or thrice a week in the hybrid model. The offline and online modes come with their own challenges, and the hybrid model offers a mix of both and a viable proposition in the current state. Sinha says, "Hybrid learning has the potential to present a massive opportunity. Blended learning and hybrid classrooms, which combine face-to-face classes with technology-based asynchronous content, may become more widespread. The use of technology in the classroom has become a necessary aspect of our life as educators in the new normal.
The term 'New School' connotes forward-thinking in the era of personalised learning, where learning is not confined within the classrooms nor textbooks. Teachers' knowledge is not limited to the collection of facts or documented information required for learning. This is why hybrid school concepts and dynamic synchronous and asynchronous blended learning techniques are here to stay."
According to her, these learning models can enhance students' learning capacity by making classrooms more engaging, practical, and accessible. "Students can learn at their own pace, skip subjects they are familiar with, and go back and re-read sections that they find challenging, which helps to personalise and individualise learning," she explains.
Kumar prefers online for the sake of convenience and safety. "There is a far better utilisation of time in the online mode. But hybrid works for only those schools where the technology is advanced and the school is able to organise a tech-enabled system where the teachers can directly relay whatever is being done in the class to those students who are attending the classes from home," says the educator.
Low engagement, low interest
The learn from home scenario adversely impacted the teacher-student bond. A strong bond not only enhances the learning process but also leaves an enduring impact on the latter. Dr Bhat emphasises how children and adolescents have been the worst hit during the past one and a half years. "Lockdown brought in isolation and uncertainty. Many children don't have a healthy atmosphere at home owing to parental angst, arguments, abusive relationships, etc. It is also seen that work and family pressure causes parents not in a position to spend as much time with their children. From this, some develop feelings of isolation and loneliness, while others are distracted and inattentive," he says.
There can be technical glitches in the hybrid model because not every school may be technologically equipped to deal with the demands arising from the hybrid learning model. "My daughter has opted for study-at-home mode still because the school is far and there is no public mode of transport for her to travel to and fro daily. The school isn't technologically advanced, so she misses what the teacher covers in the class. The school doesn't record or have any support to allow the students to join the class at home. So the hybrid model fails," says Kumar.
Hybrid learning has the potential to present a massive opportunity. Blended learning and hybrid classrooms, which combine face-to-face classes with technology-based asynchronous content, may become more widespread.
Radhika Sinha, Principal, Aditya Birla World Academy, Mumbai
She adds that children who are back in school are in favour of offline classes, but surprisingly, most of them want online exams as they feel the classes had happened online, so exams should be conducted online.
Bhat has seen cases where many children had developed an unhealthy lifestyle. "Online classes disrupted the daily schedule and sleeping cycle for children and their parents. Some schools also overburdened the students with excess assignments, which has not helped. Sitting for long hours in front of a screen for classes has taken a toll on every child, with screen fatigue setting in," he states.
As the head of the school, Sinha observes how some students' emotional, social, behavioural, and intellectual growth has been impacted by remote learning. "The reopening of schools, on the other hand, may invite a new set of mental health struggles among children. During such times, parents and educators must support children with the transition process," explains Sinha.
Also, attendance in school is not compulsory. It is strictly on a consent basis and depends on the parents and students to opt for it. "Those who do not wish to attend or will not be able to attend offline lectures, online sessions will be held concurrently for them. The hybrid learning model for the students of 10th, 11th and 12th grades had been working smoothly," says Sinha.
All the stakeholders are unanimous in their core message — learning shouldn't stop, be it offline, online or hybrid, because that would be a humungous loss for our children and their future.
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