Education in the midst of a Pandemic
Shuvabrata Garai – Student, Kautilya
It was the period of March 2020. The COVID-19 cases saw a massive spike in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of the pandemic which also had a significant impact on the education sector in India. As India battled successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed one of the world’s longest school closures for 69 weeks.
There was already a significant inequality in the education sector and the pandemic widened the gap in many ways. According to a UNICEF report of March 2021, “In India, closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. In addition, there are over six million girls and boys who were already out of school even before the COVID-19 crisis began.”
This prolonged closure of schools had multiple repercussions. The lockdown forced many students, mainly from low-income families to work to support their families. Once students are out of school for a longer time, it is really hard to bring them back to the classroom.
Increased child marriages
Given the enormous number of young people it impacts, child marriages in India ought to be one of the most concerning social issues. According to the UNICEF 2022 report, 99.8 million of the 226.3 million girls and women in India who were married before the age of 18 were under the age of 15. The pandemic has affected more girl students who were eventually forced to marry at an early age. The impact of Covid-19 on child marriages was seen in two phases—one while the pandemic was raging and the lockdown was in place, and the other when the lockdown was lifted. Many grassroots social organizations, such as Aarambh claim that the pandemic has erased much of the excellent work that was done locally over the previous few years to end child marriages.
During the pandemic, most families suffered major livelihood losses. Whatever resources they had, they thought it wise to spend on responsibilities like getting their daughter married, said Archana Sahay, Director of NGO Aarambh.
A comparison of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2019 and 2020 is illuminating. During that time, total crime in the nation decreased by 13.26%, while the number of incidents reported under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, increased by 49.52%. This saw a huge spike of 167% increase in such cases in 2020 over 2015.
Rising illiteracy rate
All this might lead to an increased illiteracy rate in the country. As per the last census report of 2011, the female literacy rate of 65.46 percent is already low when compared to the male literacy rate of 82.14 percent. This divide increased further during the pandemic. According to the World Bank’s Learning Poverty Index, 55% of 10-year-old children in India are estimated to be unable to read a sentence, compared to 15% in Sri Lanka and China.
Caption: The COVID-19 pandemic had impacted learners across the country. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com
Schools have been attempting to replace the in-person teaching method with online learning due to the majority of students not being able to attend schools for over a year owing to the pandemic. Teachers have been experimenting with a variety of methods to connect with their students, including Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp groups, radio…etc. Though in many places, classroom teaching did move online but that is not the optimal solution. Not everyone has access to the internet and digital connectivity, and neither everyone can afford a smartphone. There is a significant gap in terms of internet accessibility in rural and urban areas of the country. The latest National Sample Survey report on Household Social Consumption on Education in India states that 14.9% of rural households have internet facilities, whereas for the urban population, the numbers stand at 42%. The same UNICEF report states that only one in four children in India have access to the internet and digital connectivity, so online education is not an option for all.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve the existing resources. Digital literacy and infrastructure are a must for schools in rural areas. We need smart schools in villages too.
Most families use the Midday Meal Scheme, which is provided at nearby schools, as a major persuader to send their kids to school as they receive a one-time meal without any additional cost. Before the pandemic, the Mid Day Meal Scheme was benefiting 120 million children across 1.2 million schools. However, 115 million children have been impacted by the pandemic and the closure of physical schools, putting them at significant risk of developing severe malnutrition. India already has a poor ranking in 2022, coming in at 107th place out of 121 nations in the Global Hunger Index.
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on the education sector in India and has highlighted the need for further investment in technology and digital infrastructure to support online learning. It will require a concerted effort to address the challenges and ensure that students are able to continue their education despite the ongoing pandemic.
The government should invest more in the education sector. Between 2014-2019 the government spent 2.8% of its GDP on education which increased to around 3.1% during 2019-21. However, the first National Policy on Education in 1968 recommended it to be 6% of the GDP, which the new National Educational Policy of 2020 has emphasized.
*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.