ECONOMYNEXT – An Indian Educationist is calling on educators to give precedence to the mental health of students over academics, whenever the coronavirus-enforced school closures come to an end.
Dr. Mona Mathur – Founder and CEO of Million Sparks Foundation said, ‘children have forgotten what it’s like to be in school’, which is, for many a safe place, where they receive attention, food, and even have access to a playground.“The spread of the second wave in the country has resulted in a large number of deaths, leaving children without parents.”
Therefore addressing their mental health, she says, must come before discussions on when to re-open educational institutions, or at which point the academic year should begin. To this end, teachers must be given ongoing training to understand and respond to the situation.
Mathur was speaking at a webinar on “Education in Pandemic: Fulfilling Learning Gap among Students” on June 11, where, along with two other panelists from Nepal and Afghanistan, she discussed the setbacks and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic in the field of education.The webinar, organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF), South Asia Chapter, was moderated by Roshan Gandhi, CEO, City Montessori School, India.
Indeed, similar to the world economy taking a beating with the spread of the coronavirus, students across the globe, irrespective of income or social status have been severely affected owing to prolonged school closures.
A UNICEF report released in March of this year says that “Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost a full year.” For many educationists, especially those in developing countries, this means rebuilding and regaining the painstakingly gained victories such as increasing school enrolment.
When the pandemic hit, says Matur, India had reached between 80 to 90 percent in school enrollment. The challenge at that time was to improve the quality of education for all segments.
Now, studies show, she claims that there has been a nearly 90 percent loss in reading capability and an 85 percent loss in the area of numeracy of what children had learned at the time schools had to be closed.
However, the actual situation could be worse she warns, given the fact that the studies have been conducted only amongst ‘a few thousands.’
The onset of the first wave of the virus saw India’s migrant workers trudging back miles to their homes. Now, says Matur there are indications that as much as 2/3rd of students in India may not return to school. A good number of them are children of these migrant workers.
Some countries have attempted to re-open schools, only to close them as the spread of the pandemic worsened.
Panelist Sakar Pudasaini a Technologist and Educator in Nepal agrees that the mental health of students is central, and proper assessments are necessary to determine where students are at before schools reopen.
As in India, access to education and accompanying facilities are inequitably spread amongst students in Nepal and Afghanistan. Of course, this is true of many nations, including Sri Lanka.
In Nepal, Pudasaini explains, there are State run schools, private schools that are well resourced, and others that are not. While State-run schools are supported by the learned who design curriculum etc. and well-resourced private schools have the means to handle a crisis.
However private schools that are not so well placed financially are the most affected. Like most Asian nations, educational institutions in remote areas have not kept up with digitalization as their counterparts in urban areas have.
Less costly private schools are the preferred option of parents in the lower-income brackets. Often their children could be the first generation being afforded an education. Despite school closures, these parents continue to pay school fees in fear their children would lose their spot. Again, the situation is no different to other South Asian nations.
In Afghanistan, says the Country Representative of the Asia Foundation, Abdullah Ahmadzai, it’s a mixture of limited access to both electricity and the internet, challenges that the other two countries are also dealing with. In Afghanistan, Ahmadzai explains the situation is compounded by rebels who often disrupt the supply of electricity.
Padusainisays that a UNICEF report has found that the number of students participating in distance learning methods is proportionate to income levels, where the ‘top 20 percent of regular attendance is from amongst the socially and economically better off homes.’ This is a setback for Nepal, which had, in pre-pandemic times achieved almost 99 percent enrolment in primary schools. The government, he adds, had been advised before the coronavirus outbreak, to provide better access to the internet and electricity to rural areas, but that had not been followed through.
In Nepal, school administration falls under the respective Municipalities. However, funding is determined by the federal government, says Padusaini. This means that State schools in the country’s capital Katmandu could attract better quality teachers for lesser pay, while schools in remote areas are unable to hire that same quality of teacher owing to the low pay structure. Such Municipalities, he explains, would have to pay twice as much to attract better teachers, adding that there must be ‘more freedom for Municipalities.’
Says Matur, the pandemic has thrown up ‘shocking learning gaps,’ adding that while initially around 5 hours a day was spent on distance learning, it has now dropped to 3 to 4 hours. Here too, the primary issue is the availability of data and electricity.
While students continue to remain at home, with no possibility of academic institutions re-opening any time soon, the onus, says Ahmadzai is on governments to ‘ensure continuity, so children remain engaged, without a further learning loss.’ That requires innovation.
Challenges have been overcome to some extent through television and radio to impart the daily lessons, yet they are not the most effective, as there is no healthy interaction or debate between teacher and students. In some instances in Nepal for example, study material has been delivered to the homes of the students. While mid-range private schools do not have the capacity to support live streaming of lessons, Edtech programmes have come in handy, to send information via text messages and WhatsApp, etc., or even to read stories to children over the phone.
In Afghanistan, the private sector has chipped in, contributing software for computers, and assisting with the transfer of educational material to flash drives and DVDs, according to Ahmadzai. Universities, he says, switched to online learning early in the pandemic, though such measures are easy to achieve only in major cities. Amongst support Asia Foundation has provided are allowances to students to purchase bandwidth and scholarships to around 900 female students.
Matur also fears for the girl child; in many South Asian nations where women are relegated to second place, the pandemic-related school closures she explains could result once again in parents opting to keep their daughters at home, rather than getting them an education. Unlike their male siblings, daughters are expected to play multiple roles from assisting with household chores, minding younger children, or engaging in some form of employment to augment family earnings. Fathers and brothers too prefer the girls staying home, citing safety reasons.
Now, whether it is to persuade girls to return to school or mitigating the learning loss caused by the pandemic, Matur is suggesting training teachers to work with community volunteers to encourage parents and students to re-focus on education. Her organisation, is doing just that; a majority of public school teachers, she explains own digital devices. They are also well paid and do not generally reside in remote areas, going there only for work. For just a hundred Indian rupees per month paid to teachers for data, they could be persuaded to reach out to community members to motivate students. It also means that students need not have access to the internet or digital tools.
She suggests adopting a similar plan as the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) programme, where local women are trained to promote good health practices in the community. Government must also introduce policies that would provide better care for students and teachers, and ensure the latter is also gender sensitized. While some States introduced a cap on school fees, others had not. Some schools demand parents pay for facilities that are not used owing to the pandemic, and this too must be addressed through policy.Padusaini suggests that the only way to overcome such fee issues is for schools to adopt a transparent, flat rate for the year.
More civil engagement is also needed to help governments make quality education better accessible for all. Ahmadzai says more investment is required to develop affordable private sector schools, a need that Padusaini also emphasizes.
Ahmadzai also sees a need for better cooperation between the ministries of education and higher education, curriculum reform, and the promotion of critical thinking. There is an immediate need to motivate more students to study the sciences, he adds, as currently, a majority opt for the social sciences.
The panelists also agreed that the pandemic provides an opportunity fo South Asian nations to take stock of their options, leave politics aside and adopt creative and innovative methods to promote common educational programming digitally.