Pratisha Borborah and Krishna Surya Das
Various historical records have seen how epidemics or pandemics like Spanish flu 1918 or the present Covid-19 have shaped the socio-political-economic scenario of human world. Shifts are seen in everyday life experiences of layman, politicians, intellectuals as well as the frontline professionals like medical workers, police administration. With days, weeks or months of lockdown, there is not only a change in priorities but also in habits. The pandemic not only brought terms like ‘quarantine’, ‘social distancing’ to our daily conversations, but it also brought with it change of habits and priorities today in life. What is ‘normal routine’ has been modified according to various requirements. However, this change of habits and priorities need to be understood through different dimensions. While for some quarantine or staying at home is a social responsibility of not spreading the disease or in common language “breaking the chain of the virus”, others it is a privilege that they can’t afford. Here it is the question of ‘survival’ rather than ‘death by some alien disease’.
Recently Union Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal informed in Rajya Sabha that school drop out in primary and secondary education is highest in Assam. In 2017-18, Assam registered 10.1 per cent drop out rate in primary classes and 33.7% in secondary classes. Out of this, the drop-out rate is higher among boys in primary school, while it is higher among girls in secondary school. Most of the reasons cited for this dropout are poverty or economic reasons, poor health etc. In this scenario, it is significant to understand the impact of pandemic on education.
With the reaction to the pandemic, people across the country are into different forms of education for their children. As per government rules and regulations, each and every institution are following new forms of teaching and learning through online process. However, looking into different social and economic aspects, it can be expected that there will be an increase in drop outs if the online education process continuous. Shifting to online education is a kind of assumption made that all parents and teachers are tech-savvy. Moreover, maintaining an environment for students of primary and secondary schools who are not used to online learning will be critical. Most of the school students do not have their personal desktops or smart phones. As such, it is the duty of the parents to make it available for their children. This is creating a conflicting situation for parents to make their children engaged in their studies. My concern here is the students of primary and secondary education belonging to different government schools. The initiative of online learning is in the process of creating an unequal education environment. Discussed with one of the professor teaching in a college under Gauhati University, she replied that “there will be huge dropouts. One of the major reasons will be safe environment and mid-day meal”.
School tends to give a safe and equitable environment for children. Most of the children in India face child abuse at home. According to India Today, “hotlines are lighting up with cases of child abuse and child line India Helpline has received more than 92,000 calls asking for protection of child from abuse and violence in the past few days during the lockdown period”. Most of the time, it is the angst of hunger, poverty among families that leads to abuse and violence on children. While most parents under below poverty line (BPL) tend to send their children to work as an increase in manpower, this online learning will encourage major dropouts. As such the remote learning might not be viable for most of the children because of lack of internet connectivity and mostly a suitable environment in the household. Here, one of the significant predictors of increase in drop out will also be increase in family size. Not all the siblings might get equal opportunity of education, especially when we see in terms of gender. UNESCO predicts that “where limited social protection measures are in place, economic hardships caused by the crisis will have spill-over effects as families consider the financial and opportunity costs of educating their daughters.”
Most of the BPL families are daily wage labourers, and their poverty might be associated with various adverse conditions like inadequate housing, hunger and food insecurity alongside illness and malnutrition of the children’s of the low-income families. Recognizing the importance of the nutrition security of the children, government introduced the Mid-Day meal scheme to encourage the poor and children belonging to the disadvantageous groups to attend school regularly. Under the program, government provides one meal to children enrolled in primary education in government schools. Most of the children from below poverty line families tend to rely on the school for the meal, while their parents are out for work. During the lockdown, one can assume how difficult it could be for them to arrange their daily needs of foods. Moreover, in the absence of food, the illness and malnutrition of the poor children may escalate. With transformation of school education to online process since the beginning of lockdown, the facility of Mid-Day meal is absent and this might further link to drop out of children. One can see how switching to the online mode, policymakers have showed ignorance towards this destitute section of the society, where the latter have to choose between their daily needs and access to the internet service.
Another important concern is learning of the students. World Bank rightly identify that, we are heading towards are gigantic educational crisis. The report of World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” (Percentage of children, one cannot write and understand at the age 10) identify that, 54.8 per cent of India’s children were under learning poverty before the outbreak hit the world. Thus, there is a very high probability that the pandemic will worsen the situation rapidly in the nation. This is also because of the accessibility of resources. Although teachers are asked to send materials through online software and applications, there is a dearth of availability of portable document format (PDF) for all subjects in all languages. As reported in India Today, parents and guardians without smart phones are asked to take help from local youths. Even teachers are asked to provide necessary learning through WhatsApp and check home-works in WhatsApp.What one is missing here is the real production of ‘knowledge’ that a classroom can actually generate. The engagement and interaction among students and teachers in a classroom environment are not just about accepting facts but to have a critical understanding. With limited internet accessibility, lack of proper network or laptop facilities the challenges of learning will be amplified.
Thus, one cannot deny the fact that a pandemic not only comes with medical problems but also brings with its social crisis. Social distancing is important as there is a danger of the spread of the virus. However, with uncertainty and confusion ahead, turning education into something that’s creating class distinction should not be an agenda. It is also an opportunity and responsibility of the educational administrators and policymakers to establish some innovative learning modes that can reach every nook and crannies of the country irrespective of class differences of the society.
Pratisha Borborah is an Assistant Professor, Cotton University and a Doctoral candidate in Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Krishna Surya Das is a Doctoral candidate in Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at email@example.com.