A few days ago, as I was walking down a street not too far from where I reside in Bangalore, I came across a sight that jarred me and yet, two years ago it would have been extremely commonplace. I was passing by a government school and the sound of children’s and teachers’ voices from inside was so shocking to me that I stood still in my tracks and craned my neck over the school wall to look inside. Like almost every other school in this country and in most parts of the world, this school in my neighbourhood had been shut since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. As I watched the students crowd around each other’s desks and walk up to their teachers to clear their doubts, these otherwise normal actions seemed unusual to me. I also noticed that, in the dimly lit, poorly ventilated and overcrowded classroom, not a single student or teacher was wearing a face mask.
Barely two months after the devastating second wave of the pandemic hit India, schools have begun reopening. While some states such as Delhi have opened schools only to 9-10th graders for practical exams or administrative work, other states, such as Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, have begun regular offline classes for students from 9-12th grade (The Indian Express, 2021). Photographs of masked students, getting their temperature checked and sitting far apart in classrooms are a sign of a slow return to (a new) normal. However, the dark cloud looming on the horizon is the impending third wave that is expected to peak in the country in October and is predicted to have a higher toll on children than on adults. Experts have warned that given the lack of paediatric healthcare facilities in the country as well as the unvaccinated population of children, the third wave could prove to be fatal for many aged below 18 (Mordani, 2021). Despite these dire warnings, why are schools reopening?
In my blog “‘Zoom’ing Across the Digital Divide”, written in early December 2020, I had outlined some of the difficulties faced by children in online modes of education. During the Zoom sessions that my host organisation conducted with marginalised school and orphan home children, I witnessed first-hand how children without access to high-quality technological resources struggled to attend classes and to retain their learning in the absence of peer support and a conducive classroom environment. In June 2021, we conducted theatre and activity-based sessions, on self-awareness and leadership, with young children in a shelter home. I noticed how much more difficult it was to impart instruction to such young children and to hold their attention through a virtual interface. We tried our best to make the most of the scenario – my project supervisor patiently instructed each child and tried to ensure that every child in the room was visible and audible to us, and similarly, each child patiently waited for their turn to line up in front of the small laptop screen to show us the drawings they had made or to clear their doubts with us. We tried practising a few theatre techniques with them and while the children were excited to try these out, one of the older girls asked us in a hopeful manner how soon we would be there in person to organise “a real skit”. As a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit, children and teachers have adapted in incredible ways to the new virtual interface, and yet, moments such as these made me realise that the lack of in-person teaching could impact an entire generation of children, in terms of their learning and also their mental and emotional health.
While the digital divide meant large-scale learning losses for children from marginalised backgrounds, reopening schools in the midst of the pandemic spells out structural inequity in a more sinister manner, by essentially asking disadvantaged children to choose between falling behind their peers or risking their lives trying to keep up with them. Schools for the more privileged have taken great pains to ensure the safety of their children through comprehensive protocols including physical distancing, classes on alternate days, regular RTPCR testing and availability of sanitisers, oximeters and even oxygen concentrators (India Today, 2021). But what of the schools that cannot afford these elaborate measures, such as the one in my neighbourhood? The solution to the learning loss caused by the pandemic simply cannot be to risk the lives of children – the most vulnerable population group in any modern society.
For us to find a way out of this seemingly impossible dilemma, the central and state governments should mobilise funds to provide the technology as well as the necessary training to use this technology, to teachers and students as soon as possible. Large-scale philanthropic initiatives, such as AIF’s Digital Equalizer programme which equips classrooms and students with the technology needed to bridge the digital divide, are a step in the right direction. On an individual level, people should donate their older/unused devices (phones, laptops, earphones etc.) that are still in working condition, to disadvantaged children such as those of their domestic help, and also offer to train these children and their parents to use the devices. Individuals who have the time to spare can also offer to tutor disadvantaged children who may need additional assistance with their academics or simply offer them a quiet space to learn and study. To younger children who are unable to enrol in schools because of the pandemic, one can donate books on the alphabet or colours and shapes. Ultimately, however, the onus resides on the government to quickly and equitably vaccinate our youngest population demographic, to avoid exposing children to a potentially life-threatening situation, the gravity of which they cannot even fully comprehend.
The Indian Express. 2021. “When are schools reopening in your state? Check state-wise status here”. August 12th, 2021.
Mordani, Sneha. 2021. “Third Covid wave may peak in October, children at risk: Govt panel”. August 23rd.
India Today. 2021. “Hazards of not reopening schools too dangerous to ignore: Parliamentary panel”. August 9th.