After the pandemic: shaping a new roadmap

EducationWorld February 2022 | Expert Comment Magazine

There’s no indication yet that a committee will assess the different types of adverse impacts the pandemic has made on institutions, parents and children. Such an inquiry must constitute the first step to shape a roadmap. – Krishna Kumar

Krishna KumarTo say that post-Covid problems in education present an opportunity to reform the system is to beguile oneself. Calamities demand coping first, and our education establishment did not do well in coping with the pandemic. Shutting down schools, colleges and universities for long, indefinite periods is hardly an example of coping well. It demonstrated cluelessness together with indifference to children and youth. In the case of universities, there has also been an element of relief, that if students remain at home, campuses will be peaceful.

A blanket shut-down policy also revealed how centralised the system is. This isn’t news, of course, but it reminds us not to relent on the goal of decentralisation. It calls for trust in decision-taking at the local and/or institutional level. Movement in that direction will be a positive outcome of the pandemic. The policy on reopening school campuses followed a ham-fisted line: all-or-nothing. An almost permanent closure of schools and colleges from March 2020 onward provided a justifiable veneer for promoting online teaching at all levels. Edtech companies took over, and the state chose to lose sight of the plight in which millions of poorer children found themselves. Their parents couldn’t afford a necessary device like a laptop to receive online lessons. In fact, many state governments distributed smart phones as if they are substitutes for computers. The absence of reliable connectivity was also ignored.

Education equality, thus ceased to be a policy goal. Its pursuit was already weak, given the vast gap among different exam boards and institutions. To make matters worse, an unknown number of low-fees levying private schools closed down. Attempts to persuade government to provide them financial relief failed to get a response in the recently announced Union Budget 2022-23. A similar silence prevails over enhanced resources for government schools that have accommodated children from closed down private schools. There’s no indication yet that a committee will assess the different types of adverse impacts the pandemic has made on institutions, parents and children. Such an inquiry must constitute the first step if we want to shape a roadmap.

Several non-government organisations have tried to assess the impact of prolonged schools closure and home confinement on children. Their physical and mental health problems need large-scale studies. The learning loss they have suffered also needs assessment before being addressed. This is a formidable academic task for schools and higher level institutions. Managing this situation is not merely a pedagogic issue; the deeper issue is the restoration of children’s confidence. A comprehensive plan is required to figure out the multiple dimensions of various problems caused by policies adopted during the pandemic.

Teachers have passed through a difficult time. Theirs is a weak, low-status profession. During the pandemic, the profession became weaker as teachers experienced further erosion of their dignity. Some of my former students who hold permanent posts in Delhi’s government schools were ordered to serve at the airport, check trucks on highways and man the gates of public parks to persuade morning walkers to get vaccinated. Many primary teachers were deputed to help medical staff at vaccination centres. Throughout the prolonged shutdown of schools, all teachers, including those serving in prestigious private schools, were made to take online classes and check homework on WhatsApp. They knew that four hours of screen time would harm primary children, but they had little choice. They were helpless servants crushed between government directorates and school authorities.

It will be a tall order to restore teachers’ dignity and give them autonomy to devise ways to help children reestablish a semblance of normalcy in their disrupted lives. Many will require specific help to get de-addicted from screen gazing. Staff size will have to be enhanced in every school and long-standing vacancies filled up in government schools. A large number of private schools that depend on tuition fees had to close down. As I mentioned earlier, many children have shifted from these schools to government schools whose resources were already limited. Funds will have to be found to cope with this situation.

A policy document prepared by the Union government during the pandemic will require radical review to address the post-pandemic situation. Many of the recommendations need a second look in any case. Moreover, a review will have worth only if it is conducted with the active participation of state governments and private schools. The document has not gone through either a parliamentary debate or a discussion at the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). These missed steps can now be taken after a review to assess how the post-pandemic reality can be addressed.

(Dr. Krishna Kumar is former director of NCERT and former professor of education at Delhi University)

Also read: Case study showing the importance to keep schools open

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