COVID-19 and Education: Where do we go from here? Let’s follow goals set by Maulana Azad

By Amir Ullah Khan and Ismail Shaikh

Since 2008, 11th November has been officially recognized as the “National Education Day”, in honour of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of India. Azad took on the heroic task of taking a barely literate newly independent India and aimed at achieving full and complete literacy. Soon after becoming the Education Minister, Azad remarked that, with regards to education, he had three goals to achieve: (1) The complete democratisation of education. (2) The complete secularization of education and (3) the complete universalisation of education. It is rather unfortunate to note that, despite 75 years after Azad’s proclamations, right now we seem farther than ever to his goals.

One prominent reason for our colossal failure with regards to education has been the COVID-19 Pandemic which shook the whole world for a good two years. Almost all aspects of life and livelihood were hit, but almost none (apart from healthcare) was hit as hard as education. According to the World Bank Report, 1.7 Billion students across 190 countries were directly affected because of the massive school closures that took place throughout the Pandemic.

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In India alone, around 1.5 million schools were completely shut down for the majority of the years 2020 and 2021. This affected around 250 million children across India. In India specifically, schools often have provisions for mid-day meals for children, with the closure of schools, mid-day meals in schools have also been disbanded. This has affected the nutritional security of approximately 115 million children. Given that every second child in India suffers from at least one form of malnutrition, the absence of mid-day meals has had large scale nutritional problems for the entire country. A study by Azim Premji Foundation highlighted that 82% of children across the various Indian States have lost at least one specific mathematical ability, such as identifying numbers, performing operations or problem solving, compared to last year. Similarly, 92% of children, on 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. Dropout rates have soared throughout the Pandemic, with poorer parents removing their children from schools because of their inability to pay the school fee. All this is deeply disturbing as regards to a developing country like India which is in great need of human capital for its future development.

Given the rather desperate picture, the natural question arises, where do we go from here? For the past few days, schools have been reopening and the Pandemic seems under control. It is imperative at this stage that schools maintain strict COVID-19 protocols in their facilities. Schools should focus heavily on symptoms reports and constantly monitor their students’ health status. Since children are often grouped together in classes, irresponsibility on this part would lead to the massive spread of the virus. Furthermore, schools should genuinely try and gain the trust of the parents and allay their fears regarding virus outbreaks. In order to do this, schools must strictly follow the appropriate COVID-19 protocols mentioned above.

In all likelihood, schools alone won’t be able to manage to do all of this on their own. In this case, they desperately need the state’s help. Many schools have had to shut down during the past two years simply because they lacked the funds to continue. It is the state’s responsibility to help schools flourish and cut down dropouts. In the short term, the state can allocate education funds to schools to help them weather the storm of the Pandemic. If the state is already burdened with excessive spending on matters more important such as Healthcare, it can easily manage to fund the schools by mobilizing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds from the various Multi-National Corporation (MNCs) throughout India. Many people lost their jobs during the previous two years and hence won’t be able to allocate money towards the schooling of their children, hence it is necessary that the states take all measures to subsidize school fees for parents. The subsidy costs, however, should be not pushed on the schools, but rather taken on by the states themselves.

In this way, we can ensure that both students and schools can flourish. Learning losses that occurred during the previous two years must also be addressed by the schools. Online Learning adopted by many schools throughout the Pandemic have had their own set of serious flaws, all these flaws must be addressed and better models of e-learning need to be developed. CSR funds can be a major boon in this area as some of the more tech-intensive industries have long had an incentive to support these new teaching techniques. All this can be done in the short term as schools are slowly reopening.

However, focusing on the short term is not enough, as there have been systemic problems in the education system that have not been addressed and have been exacerbated during the Pandemic. One very well known problem is that of the poor infrastructure of India’s educational institutions. Another is that of the constantly shifting educational policy which has never been properly implemented and neither held to accountability. Both these problems severely impede the Indian educational experience and both of these should be adequately solved. One reason for the relatively poor infrastructure has been that states are usually overburdened with financing other welfare measures, such as healthcare and unemployment benefits, so much so that they have scarcely any funds left over for investing in educational infrastructure.

Here there is a great opportunity for Civil Society to step in and lend a helping hand to the state. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Public Intellectuals and News Media can play huge roles in uplifting large sections of society through helping schools. Mobilising CSR funds, developing digital infrastructure for more effective e-learning, building libraries and labs etc. are some of the most common and easiest ways for Civil Society to step in and provide quality education for all.

We may not have fulfilled Maulana Azad’s three aims as of now, but if we keep at it and try hard, we may very well achieve them in the near future.

Amir Ullah Khan and Ismail Shaikh are researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice, Hyderabad

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