As COVID-19 cases reduce in the State, let’s get ready to send children back to school
With the Government’s announcement of reopening of schools in Jharkhand from Grades 1-9 from March 7, as parents, teachers, and communities, the only way we can ensure that children continue to learn and are happy is by sending children back to school and support the Government ‘s welcome step. It is now our responsibility as a community to ensure that we maintain safety protocols so that children can learn and play in a healthy environment. It is time to give children the childhood that they deserve, a blackboard to scribble and draw, a playground with friends to play in and classrooms to study in.
Aarav, a first-grade student from Ranchi in Jharkhand, anticipates his school's reopening. He longs to meet up with his classmates who he hasn’t’ seen for more than two years. For Meenu, a 12-year-old six grader from East Singhbhum, Jharkhand the issue is more complex. She has been anxious as her uncle has started looking for a suitable match for her. Her mother, Sunita who is a single parent depends on the extended family for social and financial security and is increasingly finding it difficult to delay Meenu’s marriage, especially as the schools remained closed. For Meenu, school is her community, her teachers and friends are her supporters and her safety net. As schools open, Meenu knows that her mother will not have to fight a lonely battle to delay her marriage.
250 million children in India have been affected by school closures as estimated by UNICEF. Aarav and Meenu’s stories are echoed across the country. We all know that children in the last two years have missed out on critical moments of their social and learning development. The loss that children and young people have suffered due to schools being shut will be challenging to fully address. From learning loss, stress, anxiety, to missed mid-day meals and lack of socialisation, the consequences for children will be felt in their academic achievement, social engagement, and mental health for years to come. The most affected are often children from vulnerable families and communities who do not have access to remote learning tools or an environment where they can study and be helped.
Much has been done over the last two years to respond to this challenge, for instance the Department of Education, UNICEF and other agencies have collaborated to connect about 1.2 million students in Jharkhand through networks of WhatsApp groups to provide a platform of support for sharing learning content. Television has been used to promote remote learning and the use of what we call the ‘Digi-school app’ is providing easy-to-use digital material. Through innovative collaborations and partnerships, huge efforts have been made to provide worksheets, learning materials and support classes to children. However, these initiatives have fallen short of universal reach and what we have learned is that ‘access’ does not equal children learning or their well-being safe-guarded.
For example, not all children have access to technology and this divide has led to deepening disparities in learning. The Annual Status of Education Report 2021 highlights that online education was restricted to only a quarter of students in India due to the digital divide, a matter of grave concern for ensuring equity in education. A mobile handset for example, may be a shared commodity in a family but not all children will have access even if it is at home. Neither do all children have the same freedom, academic support, or even the self-motivation to engage in self-learning. Experience and research show that home learning is difficult for girls as they will be pulled into home-chores or sibling care, and boys from poorer households may be pushed into income generation activities.
Children in more affluent settings, who attend online classes are faced with the challenge of interrupted connections, unfamiliar learning environments, reduced understanding of ideas, lack of interest, disturbance at home. Children’s health is impacted due to sedentary lifestyles, increased screen time impacting eyesight and social isolation taking a toll on young people’s mental health.
Children are not the only ones who have faced the brunt of schools being shut. Many teachers have had to adapt and pick up new skills for such a sudden shift to e-learning, impacting learning outcomes for children. Parents too have had their own set of struggles, faced with the task of fulfilling multiple roles of a teacher, classmate, and friend all at once. The new responsibilities put both teachers and parents under a lot of pressure amidst the pandemic.
I know that many parents may feel worried about sending children to school because of the uncertain nature of the virus. But with vaccinations and by following covid appropriate behaviour, we can ensure that children remain safe. Teachers and principals have a big role to play in ensuring physical distancing, safe conduct of classes, wearing of masks and maintaining hand hygiene. Assurance of safety measures from schools will instil confidence in parents regarding the wellbeing of their children.
Reopening of schools must be a collective effort between the school, families, health authorities and local authorities. We shouldn’t forget that millions of children like Aarav and Meenu await their turn to go to school. It is time we reimagine learning beyond a screen.
The author is the Chief of Field Services in UNICEF India