ACOVID-19 MEASURES relax around the world, nothing brings more relief than reopening schools. For India’s 320 million schoolchildren, its 8.5 million teachers and parents alike, the relief is particularly acute. Not only have Indian schools suffered some of the longest shutdowns in the world – an average of 69 weeks. For reasons specific to India, its closures have also been particularly disruptive. And they have exacerbated the terrible learning outcomes of the vast lower level of schools.
For some, the shift from classroom learning to online learning has started well. A teacher at a private school in Delhi, the capital, recalls that she stopped worrying about distance learning from day one, after seeing that every student on her screen had respectfully donned the school uniform to the occasion. But for others, the change never happened. A survey in Calcutta last year found that two-fifths of students enrolled in public primary schools had no way to track documents online. Another in Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city, found that one in five children were in schools that offered no online education, and that a fifth of the rest were not attending classes. distance anyway.
Things have been bad for the poor, and worse for rural India. A more recent study, conducted in August of low-income households in 15 states, found that only 24% of children surveyed in urban slums said they “regularly” take online classes. The proportion in the villages was a dismal 8%. Some 37% of rural children said they had not studied at all when schools were closed. Many cited the lack of a computer or smartphone as the reason. Erratic diet and internet access, or the lack of online material in their language, also played a role.
K. Mahalakshmi, who teaches among tribal people in the Jawadhu Hills area of southern state Tamil Nadu, says the two-year pandemic has derailed ten years of work to increase enrollment, especially of girls, in his school. She remembers meeting by chance, during the devastating second wave of India this spring, a student whom she noted as particularly brilliant, but this time in a maternity hospital. “Girls like her would have at least finished high school before marriage,” says Mahalakshmi, adding that the boys have been sent to work to help families fend for themselves.
Those who stayed in school also did less well than they should have. “Knowledge is not reaching their heads at all,” says Amol Ahire, 38, a father of two in Thane, a suburb of Mumbai. He says that before the pandemic, his eight-year-old son wrote numbers and the alphabet, but now he’s stumbling.
The boy is not alone. In the study of poor communities, less than one in 20 parents said their children’s skills improved during school closings. Preliminary results from a respected periodic survey of learning in rural schools, the State of Education Annual Report (ASER), corroborate the decrease. Released this month, it revealed that among 18,000 children in Karnataka state, the proportion of third-graders able to read a second-graders test had halved from nearly 20 percent to one. just under 10%.
Years of ASER the data pointed to a more general failure of Indian education. Because students are promoted regardless of their performance, and because teachers then favor only those students whom they consider likely to pass high school exams, many drop out of education without ever acquiring basic skills. To correct this, the government launched an ambitious campaign last year to strengthen early learning. But now, after losing over 14 months of schooling, Indian students are instead entering the upper grades with an even greater handicap.
Many will also be less well fed. Over the past 25 years, a program that serves a simple, hot lunch to some 100 million students in public schools has dramatically reduced rates of stunting and malnutrition. A recent study suggests that these benefits extend to the next generation as well. During the closures, many Indian states attempted to make up for lost school meals with direct food assistance, with varying degrees of success. With online learning, unlike in-person instruction, there is rarely a free lunch. ■
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Distance learning”