Major impact on education by Covid on South Asian kids

ECONOMYNEXT – Neighbours India and Pakistan are experiencing the impact Covid 19 has had on their education systems very differently.

While the closure of schools and the introduction of e-learning has been the norm this past year in most countries, including Sri Lanka, India sees the gains she has made in the field of education these past decades lost, while in Pakistan the disparities between the various economic classes in accessing education, has now become a conversation of national importance.

Both India and Pakistan have a two-tiered system; the government-run schools and the fee levying private schools, some of which are high end and cater to the elite of society.

There are also less expensive privately run schools as well. Budget Private Schools as they are known in India for children of Blue-collar workers, or Low-Cost Private schools in Pakistan. These are schools that attract low-income earners who yearn to see their children receive more qualitative education and thereby, a step up in life for their progeny, which they believe government schools do not deliver.

Says a leading advocate for girls education in Pakistan, social entrepreneur, activist and Influencer Fajer Rabia Pasha, that in a country where equal access to education for all levels of society has been far from acceptable, it took the coronavirus pandemic for that reality to strike home.

According to UNICEF, ‘22.8 million children aged 5-16 are out-of-school’ in Pakistan, making it the world’s second-highest after Nigeria.

Pasha was one of the panellists on ‘ Reimagining Education in South Asia Post COVID 19,’ hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), South Asia, held on January 24, to mark International Education Day.

A vast number of children residing in rural areas, says Pasha, have little or no access to education, leave alone the technological devices now used for e-learning, and the closure of schools owing to the pandemic has struck a chord amongst all. ‘When children with access to education were left out, people realised what it must be like for those with no access at all.’ The government used broadcast media to reach students, she says, adding that except for students attending high-end private schools, all others were affected in some way or another. “Today, there is civic engagement on the matter.’

Educator and politician, Atishi Marlena, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Delhi one of the other panellists meanwhile says that in the past two to three decades, India had made vast strides in having education accessible to all. While in the early ‘90’s around 60% of students had access to education, it had reached nearly 95%, when the pandemic hit.

“India was now concentrating on improving the quality of education, but this has put the country back to the ‘1990’s’ she says. The gap has widened again she points out because even though technology could help some students who have uninterrupted access to the internet and multiple devises with which to continue their studies, nothing compares to face-to-face learning. Some children may not have access to phones or computers, other’s must wait to share the phone with their parents, and invariably miss on-line classes, she says adding that on-line learning is best for those students preparing for their Grade 10 or 12 public exams.

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Initiatives such as delivering worksheets via phone or arranging for parents to pick those up from school for students in higher grades have been put in place, says Marlena, who adds that the government had for some time been focussing on improving the foundational learning skills of students. This initiative has continued through SMS’s, where stories, questions etc. being sent to students.

But, says Vikas Jhunjhunwala, the Founder and CEO of Sunshine Schools, also a panellist in the discussion, the worst affected are students of Budget Private Schools. Children of blue-collar workers, the low-income earners, he explains have opted to put aside 20 to 30% of their monthly wages to pay for schooling they believe delivers a better system than do government-run schools.

Such schools are affordable as the fees are usually less than Rs 2,000 a month, and offer a market-based solution to those who prefer not to send their children to government schools, but cannot afford high fees. However, says Jhunjhunwala, these schools are of use to such parents only if face to face teaching is available. Even if they have access to technological devices that could help their children study on-line, being first-generation students, they have no one at home to help with their studies. “For such parents, they see no value in paying fees when they get no return. Nor are budget schools designed to deliver online learning,’ says Jhunjhunwala who, like others who run such schools is struggling to pay salaries and other costs, without the income brought in by the fees paid by their students.

Explains Marlena, it will be necessary to try a hybrid scheme or rostering of classes when schools are expected to re-open around April. There is the possibility she points out that without such a scheme, there will be a clamour for students to be admitted to government schools, or that they may simply drop out.

Even so, she adds that the government’s main focus in the midst of the coronavirus is getting the basic needs to the people; education is currently on the back-burner.

‘In the case of education, the role of government is only as a regulator, and the virtual collapse of the education system several decades ago saw the rise of private schools over time.’ The government was working on bringing the quality of education in government schools on par with private schools, these past five years She acknowledges that though the government has neither unlimited bandwidth nor the resources, the government must improve the quality of education available in State-run schools and ensure better access for all. But post-Covid, it will be more about making up the academic losses, which means working on the foundational learning skills of students. Teachers will also require training to act as counsellors, for students who may have faced traumatic situations these past months, Marlena explains.

Pasha meanwhile says the Pakistani government must look at short, mid and long-term post-Covid solutions. Online-education, she points out is not a solution for Pakistan, and expresses fear that without quality and accessible education, post-Covid, there will be more drop-outs, and that would mostly be girls. While illiterate parents cannot help with the studies, they must both work to support families, ‘this means the girls would have to drop out to manage the home.’

There are larger civil society organisations that have stepped in, taken over a few government schools to improve the quality of education. Community-based schools, around 128 across the country, remain engaged with their students who come from extremely deprived communities, even going door-to-door with the work-sheets for the students, explains Pasha. As well, education through radio and TV has benefitted those with no access to online education

Pakistan is set to re-open schools on February 1st.

Agreeing with Marlena, she says mental health programmes will be necessary for children who may have faced traumatic situations, living in close quarters with family for many months. As well, a system that caters to the different segments of society will have to be identified. “Government took the lead in guiding schools when the pandemic began, and it must continue in that role.’

Says Jhunjhunwala, school closures impacted the teacher-student relationship and that must be restored.
The discussion was moderated by the CEO of City Montessori School, Lucknow, Roshan Gandhi. (Colombo, January 28, 2021)

Edited by Arjuna Ranawana

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