Digital Divide

Impact of Pandemic on Education

Anusha Paul

The global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the whole world with the twin shocks of a health emergency and an economic recession. The pandemic has affected all parts of the world and the responses to the situation have disproportionally affected the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of society.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on the Indian economy. The macroeconomic effects can be listed as follows:

Ø Economic Contraction: Due to the combined effects of the demand shock and supply disrup-tions following the lockdown, the growth rate projections for the Indian economy for 2020-21 have been repeatedly lowered from 1.9% (in April 2020) to 1.2% (in May 2020). In October 2020, the IMF projected a 10.3% con-traction for the Indian economy in 2020.For the first time in 40 years India has had a negative growth rate.

Ø Rising Unemployment: Unem-ployment has been growing since January 2020 when the first cases of coronavirus were detected. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, India’s unemployment rate peaked on 16 May 2020, staggeringly high at nearly 24 percent (26% in urban and 23% in rural areas) but fell in November to just under 7%. Close to 122 million Indians had lost their jobs in April 2020 alone. Of these, 91.3 million were small traders and labourers. A significant number of salaried workers (17.8 million) and self-employed people (18.2 million) also lost work.

Ø Agriculture: Employs more than half of India’s workforce and has been badly hit by COVID-19. Farmers and agri-cultural workers have faced major disruptions due to the non-availability of migrant labour interrupting harvesting activities, and disruptions in supply chains due to border closures and quarantine, as well as disruptions in markets, supply chains and trade. With over 70 percent of the female workforce employed in agriculture, women farmers had to bear the brunt of loss of livelihoods and incomes.

India has the world’s second-largest school system, after China.Shutting schools to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis was the most logical solution to avoid community transmission in the initial response to COVID-19, given uncertainty over transmission rates among school-aged children and the potential impact of the virus. After the first Indian citizen tested positive for COVID-19 on 27 January 2020,a lockdown was imposed by the government on March 24, which prohibited all students from physically attending schools.

Starting in mid-October 2020, schools slowly reopened in most states. However, this largely applied to students enrolled in grades 8 to 12. For students in lower grades, remote learning continued in most of the states. During these 7 months of school disruption, the number of people testing positive rose steadily and didn’t start to decline until October 2020.

The COVID-19 has led to disruption of students' learning around the world. In India alone, it has left over 286 million students from pre-primary to upper secondary school out of school since March 2020. As most schools continued to remain closed, students, parents and educators became increasingly concerned. Evidence from past prolonged school closures shows that such disruptions could set generations of children back for life. For instance, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan led to an average 14 weeks of school closures resulting in affected children being put behind in their learning by approximately, about 1.5 to 2 years compared to their peers in other areas. Losses during closures were likely to snowball after children return to school if lessons and curriculum do not match their learning level.

In India, in response to COVID-19 related school closures, a wide range of actors—the government, civil society, private companies, local communities and families—came together to support children through numerous channels. Actors, such as village panchayats and livelihoods related self-help groups, stepped in to fill gaps. Given below are the various initiatives that were taken up at Central level and implemented in localised manner by the States and Union Territories:

1.   Guidelines on the reopening of schools
2.   The facilitation of remote learning through interactive online class
3.   The maintenance of the mental health and well-being of students
4.   Sharing of digital content over WhatsApp
5.   Distribution of textbooks and calendar-based home activities

To support continuous learning while schools are closed, the Ministry of Education shared various free digital e-learning platforms in their press release (21 March 2020). The government has made a strong effort to create a repository of learning content and has implemented EdTech interventions in partnership with several NGOs such as EkStep, Khan Academy and Azim Premji Foundation. Access to the following resources is free:

Ø DIKSHA (Digital Infrastruc-ture for Knowledge Sharing): An open-source national platform for learners and teachers to enable educational autonomy. Learners can access more than 80,000 e-books in multiple languages. Teachers can undergo training on the platform, access tools to help them with their lesson plans and content explanation, as well as assessment of their students. The content can be viewed through QR code on textbooks or by downloading the app from iOS and Google Play Stores.

Ø e-PATHSHALA: In this portal, the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) has deployed 1,886 audios, 2,000 videos, 696 e-books (e-Pubs) and 504 Flip Books for Grades 1-12 in different lan-guages. A mobile app is available.

Ø Swayam: A national online education platform hosting 1,900 courses covering both school (Grades 9-12) and higher education (undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in all subjects. A unique feature of SWAYAM is that it is integrated with conventional education. Credit transfers are possible for SWAYAM courses.

Ø National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER):This portal has a total of 14,527 files including 401 collections, 2,779 documents, 1,345 interactive, 1,664 audios, 2,586 images and 6,153 videos in different languages.

The Minister of Education presented the Alternative Academic Calendar for Students (AAC) guidelines on continuing formal school education online. The AACs are a set of four documents—one each for primary, upper primary, secondary, and higher secondary schooling—that outline measures for educators to ensure continuity in curriculum learning from the safety of students’ homes through a blend of online and offline activities.

But what percentage of students have been receiving learning materials so far? Who is left out? When students have access, are they using these materials? Do they find them helpful? Which ones do they find most helpful and why? What are the barriers and enablers to remote learning tools? What kinds of support are parents and students looking for? How does all of this differ across geography, disaggregated by sex, age groups, and grade levels?

The 2020 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) survey was adapted to a phone survey format that could be conducted in multiple waves, in order to capture the effects of the pandemic on different aspects of children’s education. It explored the provision of, and access to, remote education mechanisms and materials in rural parts of the country, and the ways in which children, families and educators are engaging with these from their homes. Key findings from the ASER survey include:

Ø Access to and availability of learning materials and activities

Only 36 percent of all enrolled children received learning materials or activities from their teachers:
*  37 percent of children in higher grades (Grade 9 and above) received learning materials, compared to 31 percent of children in lower grades (Grades 1–2). These percentages were consistently higher for children in private schools compared to government schools across all grades.
*  Among those who did receive learning materials, 67 percent of government school students and 87 percent of private school students received them on WhatsApp. Government schools tended to use phone calls and personal visits more often than private schools.
*  Of the enrolled children who didn’t receive any learning materials, 68 percent of parents cited schools not sending materials, while 24 percent of households stated not owning a smartphone as the reason. This number was almost 5 percent higher for government schools than private schools.

Ø Children’s engagement with remote learning

Of the 36 percent of households which did receive learning materials during the survey week, most reported that children engaged in some kind of educational activity during that week:
*  For children in all schools, 60 percent reported using textbooks.
*  Students in higher grades were more likely to engage with online classes or video recordings than their younger counterparts. For students in Grade 9 and above, 28 percent accessed videos or recorded classes and 16 percent accessed live online classes. For students in Grades 1 and 2 the figures were 17 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
*  Recorded video lessons and online classes were more accessible for private school students, with 29 percent reporting using video recordings and 18 percent reporting using live online classes. For government school students the figures were 18 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

A report by Oxfam India indicated that children studying in government schools were hit particularly hard, with more than 80% of government school students in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh not receiving any educational materials during the lockdown. This was mostly because of families not having access to digital devices and e-learning tools. In homes that had digital access, WhatsApp was the primary mode (75%) for delivering education in both public and private schools, followed by phone calls between teachers and students (38%). But more than 75% of parents had trouble with WhatsApp lessons because of the lack of an internet connection or the inability to afford it, and sometimes poor internet speed/signal.

A survey conducted by UNICEF in six statesconcluded that most respondents feel that students are falling behind compared with where they should be, including in social skills, fitness, job prospects etc. Some 67% of parents of students aged 5-13 and 71% of students aged 14-18 state that overall progress is significantly behind or somewhat behind, compared with what it would be in school. Kerala is an exception: about 70% of parents of both younger and adolescent students believe that overall learning progress is the same or better than it would be in school. Kerala has the greatest technology access, and it has also been among the most proactive states in supporting students: it is the only state where nearly everyone who used remote learning reports that the government has provided remote learning resources, and more than 90% report that students are speaking with their teachers.

The COVID-19 crisis has meant limited or no education, or falling further behind their peers for the ones who have already experienced barriers in accessing education—children with disabilities, students in remote locations, children of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers or those whose families have lost their source of livelihood and incomes. This had forced many children to discontinue their studies even after ‘normality’ was restored.

According to a survey conducted by National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, many children with disabilities did not have access to the online services that had replaced traditional learning during this lockdown. Many of them came from families with low socio-economic profiles. Parents were also unable to help as many of these children are first-generation learners.

In government primary schools, enrolment for girls is higher than that for boys.Given the strong gender preference, this trend usually reverses in the senior grades.However, during the economic crisis, both girls and boys were discouraged from going back to school. This was becausethe girls were required to help with the domestic chores or take care of sick or infirm family members. Such girls were also forced into early marriages. Boys, on the other hand, were sent to work so that the family could afford at least one square meal a day.

For children, school is more than just about attending classes. The extracurricular activities are equally formative to a child’s growth and are not being catered for through distance learning. The school also provides some essential basic services such as the midday meals, immunization and health checks that are difficult to substitute. Time will reveal the non-academic impacts a year-long closure of schools had on the growth and development of a generation of students.

Data from the National Sample Survey Organisation suggested that economic factors are critical to children dropping out of school. The pandemic and lockdown accelerated the drop-out rates andhave affected an estimated 40 million migrant workers and others working in the informal sector (90 percent of India’s population is engaged in this sector). The migrant workers had either moved back home with their children or were unable to send remittances home this season. The move towards technology-driven distance-learning had prevented many migrant children from continuing their education during school closure. A survey across 18 states revealed 46 percent of migrant children had discontinued their education due to COVID-19. In March 2020, the governments of 27 states launched migrant portals to track the movement of migrants and their children.

Education during the current pandemic had been a massive change for everyone involved. Students, teachers and parents are still getting used to the switch from learning in classrooms to learning from home. For the teachers, the move from interacting with a classroom of around 40 students to trying to teach from their homes via mobile phones or laptops has been a learning experience fraught with challenges. From coping with the basics of internet connectivity and India’s notoriously unreliable power supply to more structural issues such as curriculum and teaching methods, educators have come under tremendous stress since India’s schools began shutting down in mid-March.
*  Distance learning has affected the teachers since most of them were teaching remotely for the first time, and have limited or no training to do so. Hence, the quality of teaching was affected.
*  A survey by ASSOCHAM and Primus Partners shows that only 17 percent of teachers in government schools reported that they were trained to conduct online classes; in private schools, this figure stood at 43.8 percent (ASSOCHAM, 2020)
*  India already faces a shortage of qualified teachers. About 14.6 percent teachers in government schools, 9.7 percent in government aided schools, 25.4 percent in private unaided schools and 58.7 percent in 15 other school categories did not have any professional qualifications (NIEPA, 2017).
*  Along with online classes, teachers are also burdened with COVID duty and this has severely impacted their health and well-being.
*  Many teachers, especially those in low fee private schools and also contractual teachers in government schools went through a period of economic uncertainty; many of them experienced irregular salaries, salary cuts or even job loss due to the pandemic.

Schools in India are very diverse in terms of the school board, management, and funding, which affects the type of guidance and autonomy schools receive. Consequently, decisions regarding the teaching and learning practices are a shared responsibility of the Ministry of Education, the Indian States, and the local bodies.

Digitalisation is highlighted in the NEP and in the COVID-19 response as a means to strengthen access to quality education, but there are multiple challenges and several reasons why it should not be the only response. These include the fact that schools perform multiple functions beyond academic learning; there is a risk of widening disparities in access to quality education due to the digital divide; and it would be extremely expensive to ensure that digital resources reach every student.

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Vol 55, No. 12, Sep 18 - 24, 2022