“Unfortunately, the digital divide is not something new but the disadvantages in communities get worse in tough times,” said Rukmini Banerji, the chief executive officer of Pratham Education Foundation, a non-profit organisation. “No one could have prepared for the prolonged school closures. For us at Pratham, right now the key is not delivering education but keeping alive the connect with children and trying to keep them involved in engaging activities.”
Schools in India shut down in March due to the pandemic but classes were resumed online by June. The Oxfam study aimed to assess the impact of the prolonged lockdown on students in multiple areas, including the supply of mid-day meals.
In government schools, the impact of COVID-19 affected not only the delivery of education but also that of additional entitlements such as the provision of learning material and mid-day meals, said the study. Despite the Supreme Court’s direction to states to ensure the supply of these essential amenities, the survey found that 35% children did not receive their mid-day meals.
Education delivery by private schools too was impacted though not to the extent reported by government schools: 59% parents with children studying in private schools reported non-delivery of education, the study found.
Upto 320 million students in India will be affected by the ongoing closure of schools that will result in missed learning opportunities, worsened food security and increased economic and social stress, a study by the NGO Dream a Dream indicated. Further, a report by the UN indicated that 24 million school children across the world are likely to drop out due to the pandemic.
The Oxfam survey mirrors such findings as 40% teachers fear that a third of students will not return to schools once they reopen. This increases the risk of child labour amongst underprivileged communities. In addition, as IndiaSpend reported in July, already low levels of learning are bound to further deepen significantly due to the disruption of study.
Although experts have expressed reservations about the efficacy of digital schooling, the prolonged curbs on movement and transport during lockdown left schools with no other alternative.
The Oxfam study found that 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 ensuring WhatsApp lessons because of the lack of an internet connection or the inability to afford it and sometimes, poor internet speed/signal. Jharkhand fared the worst in this regard--over 40% of parents said they did not have the “right” device. Parents whose children study in private schools complained mostly about poor internet speed and signal.
It was not just students and parents--84% of teachers interviewed said they faced problems with digital schooling; half of them reported issues with internet signal and data expenses. UP and Chhattisgarh reported the most number of teachers--80% and 67%, respectively--without digital devices to deliver lessons Also, fewer than 20% teachers reported being given any kind of orientation on how to teach digitally; in Bihar and Jharkhand, the figure was less than 5%.
Disrupted supply of textbooks, few non-digital initiatives
More than half the teachers surveyed were of the view that low-tech and accessible technology such as radio and non-digital learning materials including books were more effective than online classrooms. But despite indicators that textbooks are the best tool for remote learning, over 80% of children interviewed for the study said they did not receive textbooks for the new academic year, as we mentioned earlier. Odisha was the only state to report a small improvement on the average availability of textbooks--31% students had textbooks because of pre-lockdown state intervention.
The study also pointed to the absence of state initiative in starting innovative, non-digital and more inclusive methods of education in areas with low infection rates. The mohalla (community) schools of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were cited as examples of what could have been done--in these village schools, a small group of students is taught in open spaces while maintaining social distancing. This ensures that all students get to attend classes at least twice a week.
“In Haryana’s Nuh district, an estimated 70,000 students were disconnected from education since they did not have access to the internet. This is slowly changing because of mohalla classes are conducted within the community in public spaces and don’t require students to have access to the internet, a smartphone, a TV--the lack of conditions for access is what makes it effective.”
Vulnerable communities worst-hit
Some communities were more affected by the closure of schools: Recent findings suggest that 115 million children in India are at risk of malnutrition due to the pandemic. Of them, children from Adivasi and Dalit communities are most at risk due to their dependence on mid-day meals. A report funded by UNICEF stated that adolescent girls suffer more from malnutrition issues due to deprivation and less autonomy in making life choices.
These marginalised groups face additional problems due to the digital divide: Less than 15% of Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim households have access to internet, according to the Oxfam survey. Additionally, only 29% of India internet users are women. As a result, the Oxfam survey states that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to lose almost 40% of their previous year’s learnings.
The study recommended the implementation of various social protection schemes to protect at-risk children such as Bal Shramik Vidya Yojana in UP and central such as the mid-day meal programme, the Integrated Child Development Services scheme and scholarship schemes for students with disabilities, adolescent girls and minority groups.
39% parents reported fee hike
Despite government pleas to consider a fee reduction during the lockdown, 39% parents of children in private schools reported paying an increased fee for the upcoming academic year, the study said.
“The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to be felt over the next few years, particularly in terms of job cuts and a reduction in income across the board,” said the study. “This increases the urgency to regulate private schools so that they become institutions of learning rather than centres of exploitation and loot.”
To tackle the fee issue, the survey recommended the immediate issuance of a notification against hiked fees under the provisions of Section 10 (2) (1) of the Disaster Management Act till normalcy returns, better enforcement of state orders on fee hikes and setting up of a helpline for parents to report grievances.
Disrupted mid-day meals
The survey reported that 35% of children did not receive their mid-day meals despite Supreme Court orders to ensure their supply. Amongst the 65% children who received these meals, only 8% received cooked meals; 53% received dry rations and 4% received money as direct benefit transfer, the report found.
Of the five states surveyed, UP fared the worst--92% children reported not receiving mid-day meals in any form. Chhattisgarh fared the best with over 90% children receiving their meals. The study located this difference in the mode through which the meals were delivered--while Chattisgarh focused primarily on home delivery of rations, UP focused on providing a food security allowance.
97% teachers fear for student safety
School premises are currently being used as quarantine centres and ration distribution centres. The survey found schools unprepared to reopen--43% of teachers surveyed believe that their schools were not WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene)-ready enough to ensure safe hygiene practices. This means that the schools did not have sustainable, safe water supply points, hand-wash stands, sanitation facilities, fully integrated life skills education and a focus on key hygiene behaviours as per UNICEF guidelines.
Additionally, 75% of teachers carrying out field tasks during the pandemic reported that they did not get the protective equipment they needed or paid any hazard allowance. Only 10% of teachers conducting non-teaching field duties were given safety gear.
Reopening of schools
The government has declared a phase-wise unlocking of schools for students in grades IX to XII on a voluntary basis from September 21. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently released guidelines for this. Based on its study, Oxfam too has listed various measures to improve the delivery of education, protect vulnerable communities and provide a safe return to school for students.
Place rapid response team for quick resolution of grievances regarding mid-day meals and ensure safe home delivery of cooked meals/dry rations
Make adequate WASH facilities (water, soap and functional toilets) available in all schools before they reopen
Reduce over-reliance on online classes and encourage use of inclusive, low-tech mediums such as textbooks and other printed material, guided by conversations between the teacher and the students
Instruct states to recover lost instructional time by designing and delivering a 45-day accelerated learning curriculum (focused on foundational skills) that supports a smooth transition for students back to school
Free testing of all teachers before they resume teaching duties