Feature: India’s schoolchildren paid a heavy price for COVID lockdowns

In the absence of physical classrooms and without the devices or internet necessary to access online school, nearly 40% of students in underprivileged households have not been studying at all.

These findings are part of the School Children’s Online and Offline Learning report, or School for short, coordinated by researchers Nirali Bakhla, Jean Drèze, Vipul Paikra, and Reetika Khera, based on a 15-state survey of nearly 1,400 households in August. About 60% of the households reside in rural India, a share slightly less than for the population as a whole, and 60% are representative of Dalit and Adivasi communities. To gauge the impact on less privileged  families, volunteers focused on households where children were likely to be enrolled in classes 1-8 in public schools, rather than private ones.

When the pandemic hit, India had about 265 million children enrolled in school, including primary and higher levels, with most of them relying on public systems.

Since March 2020, schools in India have been shut for the most part, and have only intermittently reopened for high school students. The conversation around reopening has been punctuated by worry that a potential third wave of Covid-19 will primarily impact children as they are not at present able to be vaccinated.

The report highlights India’s stark digital divide and explains why, despite fears of Covid-19, over 90% of parents surveyed want schools to reopen.

By the Indian government’s own estimates, at least 30 million schoolchildren have no access to smartphones or devices to attend school online. This number is likely far greater in reality. Unicef, for instance, estimates that only one in four children has access to a digital device and the internet.

Findings in the School report point to nearly half of the children in rural India having no means to study online. There are several other hurdles that have also stunted their education.

Schools have also been unable to extend significant support to such children, often leaving families to navigate the intricacies of the internet on their own. This is harder for families where their children are first-generation learners and no adult at home is able to assist with coursework.

Some teachers, though, were greatly invested in their students and have tried to help them overcome these barriers. “The survey uncovered an impressive range of initiatives taken by caring teachers. Some convened small-group classes in the open, or at someone’s home, or even at their own home,” the authors noted. “Others recharged the phones of children who were short of money, or lent them their own phones for online study.”

Yet, these were exceptions and not the rule. A majority of the students, especially from India’s marginalised caste or tribal communities, suffered greatly because of school closure.

Losing literacy

Using the country’s literacy rates for ages 8-12 and 10-14 from the 2011 Census as a base for comparison, the study found that children from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) families had experienced a significant drop in their ability to read even simple sentences.

According to census data, literacy level in the 10-14 group reached 91% a decade ago. However, other reports have different findings regarding literacy levels. A 2018 Annual Status of Education report noted that about half of students in class 5 could pass its tests of fundamental reading skills.

The census counts a person literate if they “can both read and write with understanding in any language.” In the School survey, a child is counted as literate if he or she was able to read a test sentence in the local language either “fluently” or “with difficulty.” (The sentence was “Since the coronavirus pandemic, schools have been closed.”) Given the survey’s more generous definition of literacy, the study author’s argue the results should not have registered a dramatic decline. But they did.

“The contrast between the School and Census figures is too stark to be plausibly explained by the underprivileged background of School children,” they add.

“To look at this another way, the ‘illiteracy rate’ in the 10-14 age group among rural SC/ST households in the School sample (39%) is more than four times as high as the average for all children aged 10-14 in the School states 10 years ago (9%),” the authors noted. “Such are the combined effects of chronic inequality and a lopsided lockout.”

This bleak scenario is considerably worsened by the fact that children are being automatically promoted to higher grades, and will only lag further behind as classes become more challenging. And many will likely end up dropping out. Courtesy Quartz India

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