Emerging inequality in school education due to Covid-19
Covid-19 cases in India are increasing at an alarming rate with total cases having crossed one million. The rapid rise in the cases gives ample indication to suggest that non pharmaceutical interventions and other precautionary measures including quarantine and social distancing are likely to stay for quite some time and may not allow opening of the schools/colleges in the near future. This may have a far reaching impact on children’s education in general and among the children in remotely located/tribal areas in particular.
Tribals in India account for 8.6 per cent of the country’s population and they rank lowest in various indicators including education. There is therefore an urgent need to address the impact of Covid-19 on education of children particularly from remote/tribal areas. Due to sudden closure of most of the schools indefinitely from the first quarter of the current year on account of the pandemic, a number of questions pertaining to school education have arisen. Are the students particularly low income private and public school provided with necessary platform to make use of digital learning method?Are teachers fully trained and prepared for imparting education online? Do we have reliable power supply in smaller cities and uninterrupted internet connectivity to make e-learning possible particularly in smaller towns and remote tribal areas? The most important question which comes to my mind is, are there chances of widening of inequality in education among the children?
While all the above questions dominated my thought process, my interaction with few of the senior teachers employed in remote mountainous areas of Uttarakhand allowed me to have a much needed reality check. In fact one of the teachers acknowledged that she knows a number of students who come from poor families where they cannot afford even a basic mobile phone, leave alone the difficulties of uninterrupted internet and power supply connectivity. What as per her version makes it more difficult for the children from poor and remotely located places, is the fact that most of the parents in these areas are illiterate and therefore they may be in no position to support their wards in completing various assignments forwarded on phone by the school. She also mentioned that as per the study conducted by International Journal For Innovative Research In Multidisciplinary Field (IJIRMF), class I enrollment increased by 30 per cent after the midday meal scheme was launched. This makes it evident that midday meal was a big incentive for increasing student enrolment. Absence of this scheme due to closure of schools will not only affect the education, but also the nutritional health of the students dependent on it. One of the other teachers, I interacted with, however, sounded positive and mentioned that even in cases where the students do not have mobile phones, we request the nearby student to go over and allow them to write down the homework. When confronted as to how much such students will grasp without any assistance at home, the answer was evident in her long silence. Another point of view also emerged from a teacher belonging to a remote tribal area wherein he accepted that it is difficult for students to cope up with e-learning as of now. He, however, opined that some of the schools from the area are sending very positive feedback on e-learning without actual progress on the ground so as to remain aligned to the expectation of the higher authority.
Some of us may complain that the government hasn’t done much. However, Covid-19 was thrust upon us abruptly leaving no time for advance planning . Whatever makeshift arrangement to continue with the education of our children were made, were made with absolute proactiveness. It needs to be understood that 91 per cent of the students across the globe are out of school due to school closure in at least 188 countries and 1.38 billion students are impacted. E-learning in schools in India, lets accept it, is still at a nascent stage. The initiative of the government particularly ,one nation one platform facility through the prime minister’s E-Vidya platform would certainly alleviate the problem to some extent. However, we need to ensure inclusivity so that this initiative covers every nook and corner of the country and provide for education needs of remotely located and also differently abled children.
We also need to take urgent steps to train the teachers as some of them are not technologically compatible. To further aggravate the situation, as per the World Bank report, only half of India’s teachers are actually teaching on any given date because of the high absence rate. This anomaly can easily be corrected through an assertive administrative measure.
Backbone for e-learning needs to be made ready at the earliest so as to further avoid widening of the digital divide and consequential societal imbalance in the long run. Therefore, we need to create education hubs closer to these remote/tribal areas where the assistance to all school children irrespective of their background is available round the clock and this will help in narrowing the gap between the haves and have nots and this will bode well for the encouragement and future of the students from such areas.
(The writer is a retired Additional Director General of Indian Coast Guard and is presently pursuing his PhD)
Sunday, 02 August 2020 | K R Nautiyal