In anticipation of starting proper school in Grade 1 two weeks ago, my friend’s 6 year old daughter was all excited with new school bag, new books and new clothes. Then came the lockdown. Crestfallen, she asked her parents whether she will ever go to school? She had, with great difficulty, spent last full year trying to ‘study’ online alphabets, nursery rhymes and basic arithmetic, and was thoroughly bored and tired.
The pandemic had deprived her of the possibility of going to a proper school, so far.
During my last taxi ride before another lockdown was declared in Delhi, I learnt the story of Ramesh, the taxi-driver. Earning a meagre INR 12000 per month (tips included), Ramesh was unable to feed his family of three children and wife after the lockdown started in March 2020. His 16 year old daughter was preparing to complete High School, to enter a vocational college for girls. His 14 year old son was attending school, with some difficulty, but Ramesh wanted him to complete 10th grade before doing anything else. The youngest son, age 12, loved to study and go to school.
Suddenly, all schools were shut down. And, teaching began online. Ramesh had an old style smart phone for his taxi purposes. Now, the children wanted smart phone each to study online. In addition to paying about INR 4000 as ‘fees’ for the three children, and INR 1000 for a tutor who came home to ‘teach’ them for an hour four times a week, now Ramesh needed to borrow INR 30,000 for 3 ‘decent’ smart phones which his three children could use to ‘study’.
It has been a whole academic year when kids did not go to school to study. And, as time came for the ‘new’ academic session and final examinations, another lockdown and complete closure was declared. Ramesh is fed up, wants his kids to study in school, but felt helpless. He is not even sure what the elder girl and boy are doing on smart phones throughout the day, as he is away from home driving taxi, and his wife is barely literate to monitor the contents.
My colleague’s 18 year old daughter finished her 12th exam just barely in time before the March 2020 lockdown. She had planned to study biology, and was already admitted to a good university. But, she has not been able to attend her university even for a single day during her first year, and is studying all that biology ‘online’. She gets tired after sitting in front of her laptop after 2-3 hours, but her classes continue for full 6 hours a day, all these 300 days or so during the past one year. With new round of lockdown, she is now thinking of taking a ‘gap’ year from studying biology, and may just ‘rest’.
The above stories are not unique in the country. Nearly 320 million students in India have been ‘away’ from their schools, colleges and universities for nearly14 months now. Those who have been dreaming to enter a school or college, and those who are looking forward to a career and livelihood after completing their studies…all of these 320 million young Indians are frustrated, anxious and confused. Nearly half a billion parents of these children are also tense, anxious, stressed and over-burdened.
Given India’s strong digital capacity, these past months have been ‘managed’ through online teaching and education from pre-school to post-graduate level of studies. There are many reports confirming the huge digital divide in the country, thereby pushing millions of students in sub-optimal study situations…absence of fast and affordable internet, poor quality and absent digital devices, lack of ‘quiet’ physical space while teaching is going on, and even erratic supply of electricity. One full academic year has gone by in this manner for the youth of India. And they have been now promoted to next grade without assessment. This has begun to further reduce the quality of teaching/learning, which was already of a rather poor standard, across all levels of education…primary, secondary, tertiary.
It is not my case that learning happens only inside a school or college; indeed, life-long and life-wide learning is critical for all; experiences in life, our own and those of others, have always been a source of learning, and continue to be so during lockdown. So, informal, non-formal and life-long education is essential complement to formal education in a school, college, lab or training centre.
But, shutting down of all schools and colleges for such a long time is perhaps impacting India’s youth in many other ways too. Socialisation happens in schools and colleges; young learn new skills and attitudes through interaction in structured spaces like schools and colleges.
Interactions with peers are essential to acquire not just life skills but also cognitive and analytical competencies. Despite all known limitations of poor infrastructure and inadequately trained teachers in such educational institutions, all young persons in contemporary societies find a sense of belonging, an identity, a place of everyday encounter in them. Such physical spaces for ‘study’ provide a structure spread over nearly twenty years to all youth and their parents/elders.
Therefore, it is essential that educational leaders and policy-makers create meaningful, and safe, options for face-to-face study in formally structured educational settings….schools, colleges, labs and training centres. Not all things we need everyday can be produced if every one in the country worked-from-home. Millions have to work physically (not digitally) to produce food, health care, mobility, etc. Likewise, all young Indians can not study from home, for ever, even if they had the means.
Blanket shut-downs are no solution; creative ways must be designed, perhaps locally, to enable students of all ages and backgrounds to continue to come to physical ‘study’ spaces regularly.
No young Indian should be wondering “where would I study next?”
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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