China Daily (Hong Kong)
India’s schoolkids confront ‘new normal’
With the pandemic disrupting curriculums in many ways, experts warn of a ‘lost generation’
The Indian state of West Bengal recorded a near perfect pass rate among tenth graders in its provincial examinations this year.
However, instead of jubilation, educators are downcast and worried. That is because, with curbs in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools were unable to hold physical examinations and students were awarded marks liberally based on internal school assessment.
This disappointing anomaly highlights a pandemic-stricken academic year leading to a grave social crisis in the making. “The results clearly demonstrate the intensity of the crisis we have found ourselves in,” said the vice-chancellor of a university, who declined to be named.
For young pupils, not going to school does not just mean loss of learning or forgetting what they learnt in their previous classes, educators said.
“It’s a loss of childhood for many young children,” said Satyam Roychowdhury, managing director of Techno India Group, which runs more than 30 public schools in India.
With COVID-19 and the consequent school closure, educational and economic disparities in India will become more pronounced than ever, said Roychowdhury. “This is a serious problem for the country.”
Indrani Ganguly, a former school principal, fears that when these children grow up, they might see themselves as a “lost generation”, whose lives will never be disconnected from a global pandemic.
The pandemic is the gravest crisis for today’s children, Ganguly said. “Since the poorest will be hardest hit by all of these effects, lockdowns are expected to widen the existing inequalities,” she said.
The lockdown may hit the children of first-generation learners, the kids whose parents are illiterate, hard, said Banani Kundu, a high school teacher in Kolkata.
“For the economically challenged, online education is a big challenge. Most homes have more than one child. Some even have three to four children sharing one room and one smartphone if they are lucky,” she said.
“Making a sense of what a teacher is saying on the phone in a crowded and, often noisy home is tough for kids. They cannot concentrate,” Kundu said.
“How can I concentrate on my class when there is something constantly happening that’s disturbing me,” said a student at a local municipality school in Delhi, who did not wish to be named.
“While their parents struggle to make ends meet, children, especially girls, share the responsibility of taking care of the family. Smartphone is something very few can even dream. This creates a psychological impact on the children,” Kundu said.
“It is impossible for my three children to share one phone in order to complete their online classes,” said a mother who declined to be identified.
Some schools have gone the extra mile to help students. Devices have been provided, and internet connections have been sponsored. “Teachers have taken extra time out to reach out to children, even on the phone,” Kundu said.
Suvarna Sen, a psychologist, said adolescence is a critical period for the development and treatment of mental health issues — and if those problems are left untreated, they may be much harder to remedy in later life.
In India, the lack of access is often worse for girls, with some research suggesting millions of girls could drop out of secondary school as a result of the pandemic. “And it is almost certain that many will never return to education because of issues such as child marriage and poverty,” said Sen. She noted how sexism, gender inequality and harassment have been increasing.
According to the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, a Bangalorebased think tank, 71 percent of girls reported doing domestic chores during the pandemic, compared to 38 percent of boys. Access to a phone was also 11 percent greater for boys.
Not only do girls face the brunt of household duties, they are also supposed to take care of children.
“Now we see girls cooking all the meals for their family and doing all household chores,” Sen said, adding that for millions of girls in India school is the place where they get relief from having to do household chores.
“For many it is also a place where they would get a free nutritious meal. With schools closed many of the girls have lost their interest in studies,” she added.
Tanisha Shome, who teaches at a high school in Bangalore in southern India, said it seems that for many girls education has taken a back seat because there is also so much more to do at home instead of studies.
“In poor households, girls are supposed to do cleaning, cooking, even looking after their younger siblings. They are hardly given any space or time to study,” said Shome.
Roychowdhury, from the Techno India Group, called for synergies between government and private stakeholders to popularize technology-driven education.
“We must move on. Technology has unlimited power to transform how people learn. As new technologies are evolving, it is the need of the hour to help equip everyone with the skills and abilities to capitalize on the new technologies,” Roychowdhury said.
“The government and private educators need to come together to create a model that will enable everyone to gain access to technology and especially internet connection along with the necessary device to help them continue with their online learning,” he said.
According to him, the speed with which hundreds of millions of students have been integrated to online education can be construed as one of the most positive upshots of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Classrooms with offline teachers in village schools and online teachers from schools in big cities can help pupils living in remote areas have access to high-quality education resources like their urban counterparts,” Roychowdhury said.
“Today, we have technologies such as speech synthesizers and voice recognition. These technologies help correct students’ mistakes in pronunciation when they are learning languages and even singing. AI and big data can be of great help as well,” he added, referring to artificial intelligence technologies.
“Data in doing homework and taking tests can be collected and analyzed by AI so that students will be assigned personalized homework, catering to areas they have difficulty in. A little more efforts and synergies are needed to make sure rural teachers have the skills to use the new technologies,” he said.
The most affected by the pandemic have been students in primary classes, and kids enrolled in government schools in rural areas. Online classes could not do much to aid the learning of these children.
“It’s important for educators to embrace the hybrid learning shift as a foundational change to be absorbed and implemented into the broader plan and vision for the future of education,” Roychowdhury said.
A whole new core of subjects is needed, focusing on the skills that will equip today’s learners for tomorrow’s world of work, he said. “These include problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration.”
Psychologist Sen agreed, but added that while problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration are the key, concerted and coordinated efforts should be directed toward addressing mental health issues for children.
She said mental health is one of the main casualties of the pandemic. “And the people who have been affected the most are probably the children,” she said.
“I call this a ‘mental claustrophobia’ — a feeling of suffocation. While the restrictions are easing, some children are very happy going out but others have fallen prey to the inertia of staying at home,” Sen said.
She cited the example of a 10-year-old girl who had become violent, disobedient and cranky.
“I found that she felt completely suffocated because she had no one to play with, share her thoughts with, or even talk to.”
With therapy, the child’s condition improved.
Sunandana Choudhury, a student in Kolkata, worries that the excitement and fun of being in school, amid friends in the known ambience of her school campus, will never return.
“They may not come back to my life ever again,” said the 14-year-old, anxiously waiting for the day when it will all be “happy and normal again”.
Choudhury has been waiting for her school to inform her when they can be back on campus.
“We regret to inform (you) that the school has decided to carry on with the online schooling.” That was the last line of the email that Choudhury had received from her school authorities, according to the young student.
That was 6 months ago, and her wait continues — making for a painful “new normal” for Choudhury and for millions of other young pupils like her across India.