With the pandemic hitting global development heavily since the beginning of 2020, millions of children have already dropped out of schools worldwide. A New York Times article quoted a study that claims that almost 500 million children are cut off from school over the past six months, as they were told to stay home from school to help minimize transmission of the coronavirus.
Lack of access to remote learning
Although many institutions are conducting courses online, a huge number of schools and colleges have not been able to do so for the lack of infrastructure and funds. The article, based on a UNICEF report published on Wednesday, says that more than 30 per cent of these students — around 463 million — were unable to gain access to remote learning opportunities. “The sheer number of children whose education was completely disrupted for months on end is a global education emergency,” Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, said in a statement.
Education officials in Kenya said last month that they were cancelling the academic year and making students repeat it, to curb the unequal access to online classes. On the other hand, Mexico is taking a new approach to reach out to more students by broadcasting classes on television and radio.
Bridging the gap
In general, students from higher-income households appear to be faring better at studying at home, according to findings by researchers around the world. However, this has elevated substantial concerns that school closures might be just another mechanism for longstanding inequalities to be amplified by the pandemic.
Would the cancellation of this academic year in India help bridge the gap between the privileged and non-privileged students? “Although Mexico’s approach is seemingly more beneficial for students overall, it will prevent interaction between teacher and students which is otherwise a benefit in online classes. When students come across any issue during a lecture they can immediately clarify their doubts with the teachers during a regular class at school, or now at an online session,” said retired school principal Madhabi Basu.
“However, the problem with this long pause in the academic year for numerous government schools is going to affect the children a lot. If they are promoted without any assessment it will not help them in the future as they would not get to face the difficulties and challenges posed examination questions which help students identify their shortcoming and work on it. Like Kenya, if India decides to call off this academic year it would be beneficial for younger students but it would affect the high school students and colleges students in a rather negative way,” expressed the former principal.
Professor Debanjan Banerjee, HOD, NSHM School of Media and Communication, Kolkata, opines, “For a huge population below the poverty line in India, online education is a utopian concept. I would recommend the government to ensure that the education calendar to be deferred by a few more months to restart classes in physical mode especially for the primary to high school classes V-XII. Until then the authorities must try to provide alternative options to online classes for deprived students. Two major options are the introduction of educational sessions on television and radio in rural areas.”
“They can arrange for some fixed slots for educational television, and provide the panchayats, schools, municipal areas with projectors and help students attend the sessions by maintaining social distancing. In other places, the government can also provide families with radio sets and broadcast sessions on community radio,” explained Prof Banerjee.
Whilst students of private institutions are already halfway through the academic year via online classes, those registered with schools that lack the infrastructure are still waiting for their classes to begin.
Right to education hampered
The government is neither able to provide all students with the necessary tools to resume classes and nor are the bodies controlling the private institutions from holding off online classes. How can the gap between these two sections be bridged?
“One way to control this discord is to defer the academic year by at least six-eight months irrespective of all boards. All educational activities, for the time being, shall be closed until the authoritative bodies can restore online or physical education for all students across the country,” suggested Prof Banerjee.
“During the Naxalite movement in Bengal, colleges and universities were closed, and the academic year was postponed by 8 months. It should not be a big deal, in the long run, to defer the academic calendar by a year. But it would be rather wrong and dangerous to forcefully restart physical classes or go ahead with a discriminational educational policy,” Prof Banerjee concluded.
Whether to held college exams
Given the present chaotic situation, any decision by administrative bodies will fuel heated debates. July-August is the period during which the semester or yearly examinations are held at colleges and universities. But this year, whether or not to hold college exams has become a topic of a seemingly never-ending debate. The Supreme Court of India ruled recently that final year college examinations must be held, but states can ask for the dates to be deferred beyond September 30.
On similar grounds, the National Testing Agency has clarified that competitive exams will take place in September. Scheduling of the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) and National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) has also been a subject of controversy after at least two postponements. Whilst the Centre and many students argue that deferring the exams any further would lead to the loss of an academic year, those against the idea point out that many students are facing crises like natural calamities, lack of safe transport or accommodation near test centres, and therefore cannot in any probability appear for the tests.
Students provide solutions to examination conundrum
A couple of days ago, NDTV presented a series of solutions from willing students on how to go about with the examinations.
- The pupils suggested train and bus services be restored only for students, and special conveyance arrangements be made available for people in flood-affected areas.
- About the lack of exam centres, they suggested the use of government and municipal schools, currently closed due to the pandemic.
- They also said that exams should be held in multiple phases like elections, with limited candidates at a time.
- However, to prevent cheating, some students also advised that authorities could hold exams online with camera and voice recording.
A proficient way of conducting examinations, in phases, without the fear of paper leaks can be achieved by using multiple sets of question papers. If the authorities manage to implement this method, it might provide some relief to students across the country.
The neighbour’s take
India’s neighbour, Bangladesh is equally drowning in uncertainty. Speaking about the problems of conducting online classes, Rajib Nandy, Assistant professor, Department of Journalism, University of Chittagong, Bangladesh says, “A major disadvantage in the times of COVID-19 epidemic is the disruption in education. This strange whirlwind is one of the rarest situations in the history of civilization, and neither students nor teachers were prepared for it. Distance learning or online class methods are also not very successful for the lack of a constant flow of communication between students and the teacher. As a result, it seems to me that the damage caused by the pandemic is long-term.”
Talking about the role of government in finding a solution Prof Nandy suggests, “Online classes do not go with the traditional methods in India and Bangladesh’s education policy. Yet it is necessary to do as much as possible as an alternative to provide access to education to the deprived. In this case, the government needs to responsibly ensure faster internet services and free data to teachers and students if need be.”
“The education system in Bangladesh is completely stagnant now. Neither are most teachers proficient in online teaching, now are the students interested or able. We are not technologically advanced enough to keep up the pace with the developed nations in terms of dealing with the pandemic scenario online. We are neither Europe nor Africa, we are somewhere in the middle… As a result, the crisis has landed us in troubled waters,” explained prof Nandy.