Forty-one percent of our population is below 20 years of age. This makes up for a sizeable chunk of the school-going population in need of education and skills for a robust workforce in the future. Nearly 1.5 million schools were shut in India for 315 days, a significant part of 2020 and early 2021, due to the pandemic impacting about 250 million children. With the second wave now gripping the country, most schools are closed once again, with year-end exams cancelled or postponed. The pandemic has exacerbated concerns of equity and equality in several aspects of life, access to education being a significant one.
Across 190 countries, 1.7 billion students were affected by the closure of educational establishments. While the advanced nations had the means and the method to offer remote learning to their students, the low-income countries faced several challenges in offering the same. According to UNESCO, high-income countries’ digital education offerings covered 80% of the population, and in low-income countries only 50% of the student population received digital education. Erratic electricity supply and limited digital literacy coupled with the lack of devices were major impediments in access to digital education in most developing and under-developed countries.
Thus, a significant third of the world population was unable to access remote learning. In India, too, unstable internet connection and low broadband penetration in semi-urban and rural areas impacted digital learning opportunities. The adoption of digital technology was smoother among private schools in India, but government schools and the bulk of lower end schools were not able to take that digital leap seamlessly. In Brazil, for instance, 95% of the children from privileged families had computers at home, while only 14% of the students from low-income families had computers at home. In the USA, 100% of students from affluent families had computers at home, while only 25% from poor families did.
With the long gap in learning, coupled with differential access, unreliable assessment standards and inadequate checks and balance, the students are inevitably facing major learning gaps. In the UK, there was evidence of an increased ‘word gap’ among students at the transition from primary to secondary school. The Ofsted November 2020 report on the situation before the second UK lockdown highlighted that the primary school children have experienced losses across a range of subjects or were at the same level as March 2020. Vast deficits were also evident in social and communication skill, listening skills, speech, phonics and motor skills. Some students could not even hold a pencil!
A study by Azim Premji Foundation highlighted that 82% of children across 5 Indian States have lost at least one specific mathematical ability, such as identifying numbers, performing operations or problem solving, when compared to last year. Similarly, 92% of children, on an average, have lost at least one specific language ability such as oral expression, reading fluency, writing skill and reading comprehension, compared to the previous year . This is seen uniformly across all classes.
The inequity in access has also translated to disparities in learning. Students from disadvantaged groups not only struggled to gain access to remote learning but also had to struggle with achieving the desired learning outcomes. In the USA, the white students were only 1 to 3 months behind in their learning schedule, while the students of colour were 3 to 5 months behind in their learning. A survey by ChildFund in 20 backward districts across 10 States in India revealed that 64% of students in rural areas felt that they would have to drop out of school if not given additional support. While the specific data for deficits observed in learning outcomes for the marginalised groups in India is still not available, circumstantial evidence suggests that the digital divide and socio-economic backwardness may have severely impacted education for this group.
Apart from learning outcomes, an oft-ignored aspect in the Indian education ecosystem is mental health. With the highest rate of student suicide rates in the world, India can no longer ignore this aspect, especially with the closure of schools. The ChildFund Survey reported that a majority of the parents observed an increase in adverse behaviour in their wards, and more than 60 per cent of children themselves felt behavioural changes such as increased anger, irritability and lack of concentration. Mental health will assume an important dimension once children return to schools and deal with anxiety and separation. The emotional well-being of those cramped in small homes with no contact from their classmates and teachers needs to be particularly looked into.
Moreover, the complete disappearance of Early Childhood Care and Education in the COVID years will have large scale ramifications for the social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs of children and thereby impact learning outcomes for a vast majority in the future. The inequities in access to education will most likely translate into long term income losses and the decline in a skilled workforce. It will also impact intergenerational mobility, with disadvantaged groups having even fewer educational opportunities than normal years.
Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain are researchers at Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP), Hyderabad