Reflections on school closures and education in times of COVID-19
By Anandini Dar
On 05 March, three weeks before the national lockdown in India, the Delhi government had already announced the closure of all primary schools as a precautionary measure “to prevent the possibility of spread of COVID-19 amongst our children,” tweeted Manish Sisodia (The Economic Times 2020). To make sense of how children and families living in an informal urban settlement in Delhi are making sense of the same, I visited Pooja who lives in a small basti of about 200 households in the heart of South Delhi. Pooja and her husband moved to Delhi from Bihar, a couple of years ago, in search of better livelihoods and educational opportunities for their 2 children, Priyanka (a girl, 7 years old) and Prakash (a boy, 12 years old). As we walked into her home, I was greeted by 6 little girls and boys of about 6-9 years of age, all from the same neighborhood. The children were sprawled across one big charpai that occupies most of the space inside the one bedroom house. I noticed that amongst the 6 children on the bed, Priyanka was flipping through a short children’s book about rainfall she had brought home from her school. At my request, she began reading it out loud, and we flipped through the images together. Her Hindi reading was fairly good, I thought. On seeing Priyanka and me interacting, suddenly Pooja, asks me, “Didi, aap inki classes le lo na. Yeh, kuch nahi kartein hai subah se shyam. Aaj kal ab school bhi band ho gaya hai, kya karenge hum?” (“Sister, take some reading classes with them. They do nothing all day. What will we do now that their school has also shut down?”). This was the scenario prior to the national lockdown. Three months on, no clear plan has been shared on how the government proposes to address children’s altered realities and futures.
For the migrant parents like Pooja, living in urban slums of Delhi (who did not return to their villages), the immediate impact of COVID-19 is a concern for their children’s education. Despite the challenges within school systems and the chimerical promise of a successful future that modern education in India renders, schooling remains the only medium through which poor migrant families aspire to escape disadvantages. Within migration literature, the frame of aspiration is often associated with the desire for physical and social mobility, and education becomes the key site through which these aspirations can be forged (see, Brown et al., 2017; Boyden, 2013). Resonating these aspirations, while discussing school closures, Farida, another mother in the basti shares with me that: “Humare khaane ka toh dekh lenge, par humare bachhon ka kya hoga?” (“We will figure about our food and livelihoods, but who will take care of our children?”). A pertinent question by Farida, particularly given that modern India’s illusory obligation to the disadvantaged communities has primarily been the narrative of urban formal school education, whereby children become the vehicles for parents’ socio-economic mobility. While the schools have been closed out of a concern for “our children” as mentioned in the tweet shared above, what may be the impact of this crisis on the present and futures of children? And how does the government plan to re-think school opening and education for times of crisis? These questions structure this article.
The Crisis Setback
The UNESCO has identified that the closure of schools across the globe is impacting 1,575,021,818 learners across primary, secondary, and senior secondary school levels (UNESCO 2020). How might then children already in poverty, and in informal settlements such as the one’s where Priyanka is living, going to be affected as a result of the school closures in India? Turning to the experiences of other post colonial countries like India, with similar resources and challenges, can help offer ways to understand the impact of school closures on children further. As a result of the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic that spread rapidly in West Africa in 2014-15, schools were also suspended for an extended period of 7-9 months in the nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Drawing on lessons from the Ebola crisis, Giannini and Albrectsen (2020) write that, “at the height of the epidemic, 5 million children were affected by school closures across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, countries hardest hit by the outbreak. And poverty levels rose significantly as education was interrupted.” In fact, they point out that school closures will impact young girls the most. Similarly, in another study conducted with girls and boys between the ages of 13-17 years in Sierra Leone, it was found that there was a 65% increase in teenage pregnancies resulting from sexual violence (UNDP 2015). As a result, girls dropped out of schools, and their education, empowerment, and social mobility remains suspended. It will not be surprising to see that girls will be drawn into household labour in India too, and the strides made in sending girls to schools may take a set back as livelihood challenges plague marginalised families, yet again. Early indications of increase in child labour instances, as a result of this forced drop out of schools, are also becoming evident (Kundu 2020), and hint at a crisis induced setback for children’s well being.
As a result of school closures, marginalised children remain without access to learning and social engagements necessary for their well being. In paying attention to children’s lived experiences of school closures in West Africa, I find that many students from low socio-economic backgrounds did not appreciate this move. A study conducted by Plan International (2015) documents these experiences, wherein students as old as 10 years share that they miss their teachers and friends. They even express unhappiness at the loss of learning subjects they enjoyed in the classroom. Children and parents shared that despite the efforts of the government of Sierra Leone to reach out to them via the technology of radio, these families did not have the time nor the money to buy batteries. They prioritised their hunger. In another report, a teacher in Guinea reflects that on returning to school after several months, his students seemed to have been traumatised by this long break. When the students stayed at home, “they forgot about what they’ve learned in the past” (The World Bank, 2015). This evidence from other post-colonies’ recent past must be taken into account at such a moment in India, to plan ahead, as our shared histories of imperialism and resistance shape our contemporary geographies of childhood poverty, and the lack of preparedness of the education system.
Scholars of education have also discussed a concept of “summer reading setback,” that is, the period of the summer break when school-going students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up falling behind in their ability to read in comparison to their wealthier peers who have the access to reading materials and assistance at home (Allington & Franzen 2003). Sociologist, Annette Lareau (2003) also discusses how middle class parents in America spend more time with their children, and hence, are able to support their education and extracurricular activities at home and outside. The story is not very different in India. Children living in urban informal settlements are often first generation learners and do not have the support from their family for reading, and hence, fall behind or drop out. Parents like Pooja rely entirely on the formal schooling system, especially since the Right to Education Act (2010) made it free and compulsory for children between 6-14 years of age to access an education. With this sudden schism in their tryst with the school system, and no discussions about what it means to return to schools, children like Priyanka are facing an extended “summer reading setback” or, as I opine, a pandemic resultant -- “crisis setback.” Not only will Priyanka’s reading skills be impacted, but her physical growth and development is also being drastically affected.
The Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) claims that approximately 59 crore children are enrolled under the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (2020). Most of these children from the basti where Pooja lives, attend government schools. It was only on 20 March, two weeks after the primary school closures that, the MHRD advised states to provide mid-day meals (MDM) or food security allowances to the children enrolled in schools (AIR 2020). Post the mass exodus of migrant workers from the urban center of Delhi, the state government announced that there will be facilities arranged to provide cooked meals for those most in need, although there was no mention of school children’s mid-day meal supplement. In speaking with Shanti, the unofficial Pradhan (community leader) of the South Delhi basti, I learned that the residents did not know of any place where they can go and collect food for their children, nor had they received any information for the same. They continue to be challenged with feeding their children a nutritious meal till June, when I spoke with them last.
As per the MDMS, children between the ages of 6-14 years require at least 12-20 gms of protein in one meal, along with other essential nutrients, respective of their age. Despite the various valid critiques of the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) programme in terms of quality, distribution, and nutritional value (see Khera 2013; Shukla 2014), the children of urban government schools, and perhaps many other urban marginalised children, are denied their rightful nutritional mid-day meal, for several months now. Many continue to face malnourishment. In fact, urban poor children usually face high rates of malnutrition, specifically, Protein Energy Malnourishment (PEM) and vitamin deficiencies (Ghosh & Shah 2004). Given the gap in the plans for providing mid-day meals to children at their homes, children like Priyanka, living in informal settlements remain outside of this purview, and are most affected by such a crisis induced setback.
Re-thinking Education During the Time of Crisis
If education is about social transformation, justice, freedom (see Ambedkar, Phule, hooks) and about gaining an understanding of one’s own “involvement in the world and its future” (Rege, 2010; p. 95), then how and in what ways can the government plan for children to remain engaged in the abruptly altered today and the unfolding unpredictable future? Rather than reflecting on such a pertinent question about a fundamental right, the MHRD quickly announced a “digital initiative” for children’s learning in times of COVID-19 resultant school closures (MHRD 2020). On their website, MHRD has uploaded a guide to “free e-resources” and launched an “e-pathshala” website and application (NCERT 2020). One might assume that this online transition is a necessary alternative in times like these. Nevertheless, can such a quick shift to online education offer a productive substitute to address the nutritional and learning setback? Such a question requires us to one, reflect about the nature and challenges of online classes for a population – teachers, parents, and students – who are not equipped – financially, mentally, emotionally, physically or spatially – for this sudden switch. In other words, are there gendered, classed, and caste based divisions that are getting reproduced here? And two, it is important to contend with the question of: what kind of education ought to be imparted at this time of a global pandemic where already challenged health care and welfare systems are ruptured by global capital? How must the education system re-imagine/ re-adapt it’s goals in light of a crisis setback?
In a conversation with a friend, Tarini, a middle class mother, I learn about her and her child’s challenges with online classes in these times. Since the lockdown, and the start of a new school term in April, she now has to assist her 6 years old son in online classes. Tarini finds this extremely difficult and stressful. In addition to cooking, cleaning, and doing work from home, she also needs to sit with her son from 10 am to 3 pm to click links that teachers send across on an online web application. Her son, who attends a public school, is not at the literacy level to read and follow links, and does not find it easy to stay glued to a computer screen. It is tough to even pretend it is a regular day at school. This was only week 1 of such classes online. If middle class parents are struggling despite their privilege, how must Pooja manage with two children and one second hand smart phone shared with her husband, and no literacy skills? What becomes evident here is that it is the women who bear the burden of the crisis and take on more unpaid labour and struggle to ensure their children’s education.
Another underlying assumption underscoring this online ferrying of classes, and the government's notice about “e-pathshala” is that technology is available to all, and that it can replace the classroom. A teacher’s role is transformed into that of a facilitator for course completion, and not an engaged practitioner who may want to address the challenges their students are facing as a result of the sudden shut down of schools. Children’s mental and emotional health has been impacted as a result of this break away from their sense of “normalcy” where they would otherwise meet their friends and teachers, physically, on a daily basis. Instead of planning ways to address these emergent and urgent issues about education during a crisis, the teachers are conducting “regular” classes, now through the medium of technology. Simultaneously, students and families are being pushed to adopt this digitisation of education, due to market demands and easy solutions that do not reflect the challenges experienced by the majority of the urban marginal population.
This push to employ technology in education is not a new move. Many parents and critical educators have pointed out the challenges of these in context of India (see, Teltumbde 2013; Taneja 2020). One of the biggest critiques of including technology in the classroom (or at the home), apart from the conspicuous issue of equitable digital access, has been that it needs to offer something different than what the teacher already provides. In other words, does ed-tech transform education and learning for children, or not? One way I address this, is by drawing on my reflections from 2017 when I had attended an “Edu-Tech Campus” organised by the Department of Biotechnology in Bangalore, where education application developers were interacting with schools and educators to prove the success of games and apps in children’s learning. After “playing” with some of the applications, I realised that the technological interventions offered by these market app developers do not add value to children’s learning experience rather, simply altered the spatial dimension. And this alteration does not contribute to an altered pedagogy. Hence, this transition to online education at a moment of crisis also shows a similar challenge. The spatial shift is not necessarily addressing the crisis children are facing right now.
As we globally continue to address this pandemic that requires people maintain physical distance (without a clear end date), the government needs to set up an expert committee to critically reflect on the implications of digitisation of education in a time of crisis. For the children in informal settlements in Delhi, digital education is absolutely impossible; and distance education through television or radio too remains a challenge as learned from the case of the Ebola crisis school closures. Hence, education departments need to re-envision the nature and form of education necessary in the absence of schooling, and for such times of emergencies that may arise again in the future. Learnings from other contexts of conflict and crises should also be taken into consideration in devising the plans, particularly as the state proposes the re-opening of schools in August.
For decades now, scholars in the emerging field of childhood studies, and child rights movements in India, have proposed that children’s voices should be included in decisions related to them. What are children’s needs right now? What are their concerns currently? How are these getting addressed as they experienced a nation wide lockdown, without their friends, or teachers? How are children like Priyanka and others making sense of their drastically altered life worlds? How do her queries about coronavirus get addressed? How are her nutritional and educational rights being met? What would be the best mechanism to reach the most marginalised children? There is an urgent need that children’s experiences of these times is documented, and their voices need to be heard. An expert committee also needs to be set up by the government to engage with such questions, and with the children’s voices, and provide an action plan and framework for a “curriculum for crisis” for school going children. This, I suggest, remains the most immediate task so as to address the impending crisis setback impacting urban marginalised children in Delhi today.
*Anandini Dar, PhD, is Faculty of Sociology and Assistant Professor at the School of Education Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, India.
Acknowledgements: Some of the research insights referred to in this paper were possible as part of my ICSSR funded project, “Displacement, Placemaking, and Wellbeing in the City.”
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