Missing the woods for the trees

If she sees a speck of black in her food, she refuses to touch it. It’s the coronavirus in her young he­ad. Can the virus somehow ma­ke its way into her glass of milk? What about toothpaste? Isn’t it safer not to brush one’s teeth?

Two years ago, when she was going on her first outstation school trip at the age of seven, her parents warned her not to wander or go off with anyone unknown in the resort – no matter what temptation is on offer. She replied that she was tired of hearing the same things repeatedly: Her teachers had been parroting the same warnings for several weeks prior to the trip. No going off with anyone, no wandering alone anywhere at any time, don’t enter the lift with anyone alone, make sure you wear full sleeves and no mosquitos bite you. Fear, fear, fear – be fearful and you’ll stay safe is the message society doles out daily.

So for young children already drowning under the din of all the dangers that can befall them, Covid-19 has added yet another. In an environment where even breathing the air has become something best avoided, the 21st century is not a party for children.

As a society we might be failing our children and this is reflected in a rising number of suicides. In 2018, a classmate of my neighbour’s daughter hanged herself. She was all of 14 and this took place in Dehradun, a small town. Last Se­ptember, a former schoolmate’s daughter in Gurugram — all of 22 — took the extreme step and when I mentioned it to others, everyone was resigned to it, quoting other similar examples all around them. People are so accustomed to children taking their own lives today that the horror of it all has faded. Glitzy Gurugram with its soaring condominiums and rising aspirations provides the perfect nudge and opportunity, making that final leap easier. During a recent lunch with educationist Abha Adams, she held forth on the mental crisis she sees unfolding amongst elite school children with cases of self-harm on the rise. Her forthcoming book elaborates on the subject.  

As I see it, the mental well-being of children — a massive crisis is unfolding across age groups — should be a primary preoccupation of policy makers, educationists, academicians and society as a whole and even more so in the context of this latest menace.

That’s why I am aghast that some of the supposedly best academic minds in the country with Union HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal leading the pack have been busy with the most irrelevant challenges that have arisen on the education front in wake of the pandemic.

Globally, Covid-19 disrupted schools and examination schedules. On March 25, the Cambridge International cancelled the IGCSE, AS and A level examinations without much ado. The Ame­rican AP examinations were conducted online for registered students. But in India, for some inexplicable reason, the CBSE and ICSE insisted that the pending board examinations must be held in July at a time when the cases are expected to touch a peak, a matter the parents took to the Supreme Court.

I’d like to reiterate here that we in India ought to get our priorities in order.

Pokhriyal and his team and the seemingly unending webinars the virus has given birth to should focus on just two matters: one, how do we minimise the mental fallout of the crisis on our children and two, how do we ensure that the class divide between the rich and poor students is not magnified further due to constraints on the latter’s ability to access what is required to enhance learning during the pandemic.

One last word on the matter of the pending exams that in all likelihood it will be cancelled after all this drama. Besides posing a logistical nightmare on already stretched administrations, students have lost momentum. Children are human and not robots and are grappling with a new, unknown creature in their midst. The last thing these children (and their parents) need is further stress. They need support, empathy and guidance on how to face this radically new world.

Moreover, these boards and the individuals who head them need to start taking themselves less seriously. History is likely to reduce them to a footnote in due course regardless of -- more so for -- the actions they take or fail to take during this worldwide crisis.

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