China Daily (Hong Kong)

COVID-19 widening education gaps

- By ARUNAVA DAS in Kolkata, India For China Daily The writer is a freelance journalist for China Daily.

Writing out the English alphabet is supposed to be a simple task for most 10-year olds in India. But for Vandana Mistri (name changed on request), it is turning out to be a daunting challenge. Meanwhile, some of her former classmates are faring even worse, as they are unable to even identify many of letters.

This is happening because it has been a year and a half since Mistri and the other schoolchil­dren have attended a class.

Mistri and her friends are among the hundreds of thousands of poor or rural kids that have been cut off from education amid COVID-related school shutdowns in India.

A few schools and their students switched to online classes when the country went into lockdown last year to curb the spread of the virus.

But many government-run schools have been unable to cope, leaving kids like Mistri falling behind in primary education.

The digital divide is accelerati­ng inequaliti­es, according to a report by Learning Spiral, one of India’s leading online examinatio­n solution providers.

The major challenge of remote learning is the disparity in access — from electricit­y and internet connection­s to devices such as computers or smartphone­s, according to Manish Mohta, managing director of Learning Spiral.

More than 50 percent of Indian students, including those from both urban and rural areas, do not have access to the internet for online studies, Mohta added.

A joint report by UNICEF and the Internatio­nal Telecommun­ication Union said that children from poor households in lower-income regions are falling further behind their peers. Only 24 percent of Indian households have the internet and are able to access e-learning, the joint report said.

Even in the national capital of Delhi, more than 1.6 million pupils studying in government and municipal schools do not have access to smartphone­s or computers.

It will take a while to assess the learning loss and the enormous impact it will have on society and economy of the country, and also social equilibriu­m, said Satyam Roychowdhu­ry, managing director of Techno India Group, an educationa­l business conglomera­te.

A survey carried out by a renowned India-based economist, Jean Dreze, found that out of 36 children enrolled at the primary level, 30 were not able to read a single word.

A recent study from Bangaloreb­ased Azim Premji University said the school closures have already had negative implicatio­ns. It has resulted in a complete disconnect from eduforget cation for the vast majority of children or inadequate alternativ­es like community-based classes or poor alternativ­es in the form of online education, including mobile phonebased learning.

“One full academic year is gone, but what is alarming is the widespread phenomenon of ‘forgetting’ by students of learning from the previous class. Being out of school for long means that children not only stop learning new things, they also some of what they have learned,” the study pointed out.

A report from the National Sample Survey Office, an entity under the country’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementa­tion, has said 32 million children had been out of school before the pandemic broke out.

“The number will double in a year’s time. Only a third of 320 million schoolchil­dren are pursuing education online,” Roychowdhu­ry of Techno India Group said.

According to the Azim Premji University study, 67 percent of children in Grade Two, 76 percent in Grade Three, 85 percent in Grade Four, 89 percent in Grade Five, and 89 percent in Grade Six have lost at least one specific ability from the previous year, and 82 percent of children on an average have lost at least one specific mathematic­al ability from the previous year.

Osama Manzar, founder and director of Delhi-based nonprofit organizati­on Digital Empowermen­t Foundation, pointed to serious setbacks for girls in particular. “COVID19

has highlighte­d the deep cesspool of the digital exclusion of girls,” he said.

The story is all about disconnect­ion and lack of access, and the looming risk of millions of students disappeari­ng from the mainstream of education, and in larger context, society in the long run.

Partha Banerjee, a New Yorkbased activist and educator, said this is high time civil society created its own educationa­l platforms, and took advantage of technology to fill in the educationa­l gaps.

In India, many people and organizati­ons are trying to do it, Banerjee said. But their challenges are enormous, especially because powerful political parties and their media do not want civil society to empower themselves.

“But in the long run, if you think about the academic, social and environmen­tal devastatio­ns, this is perhaps the only way to get out of partisan politics,” he said.

 ?? MAHESH KUMAR A. / AP ?? A student attends a class on the first day of the partial reopening of government schools in Hyderabad, India, on Sept 1.
MAHESH KUMAR A. / AP A student attends a class on the first day of the partial reopening of government schools in Hyderabad, India, on Sept 1.

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