-Shivani Chaturvedi (Chennai)
After a gap of nearly two years, 3,000 aided and 12,000 unaided private schools across Tamil Nadu reopened nursery classes on February 16, following an official order of the DMK-led state government permiting nursery classes, kindergarten, and playschools statewide to restart. This order has brought much needed relief to pre-primary schools, which had a tough time getting enrolments in the past academic year.
The prolonged closure of all schools and higher education institutions across the country since March 2020 to safeguard children and youth from the Covid-19 pandemic, prompted an almost 70 percent drop in admissions in Tamil Nadu’s early childhood education institutions.
According to a survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Nursery Primary Matriculation Higher Secondary and CBSE Schools Association, in the academic year 2020-21, pre-primary admissions aggregated 6.3 lakh plus 1.2 lakh poor household children admitted under s.12 (1) (c) of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. In the academic year 2021-22, pre-primary admissions plunged to a mere 2.5 lakh.
As the process for pre-primary admissions for the academic year 2022-23 began in February in most schools across Tamil Nadu, parents of youngest children have responded enthusiastically to normative in-person (cf. online) classes. “In the first week after reopening, our nursery section is at full strength with 100 students in lower KG and 100 in upper KG. In the academic year 2020-21, the admissions plunged to 60 and in the academic year 2021-22, 50 parents took our application forms but only 30 paid the stipulated admission/tuition fee. Clearly, now most parents are confident about sending their infants to school. This is because we are adhering to all Covid-19 safety protocols,” says Sudha Malini, principal of the CBSE-affiliated RMK Senior Secondary School, Thiruverkadu, which has an enrolment of 1,700 children and 90 teachers.
This experience is not exceptional. “Youngest children confined at home for almost two years are returning — in some cases starting — nursery classes with great enthusiasm. Attendance till now is 80 percent and we are expecting all seats will be filled in the next few days,” says D. Girija Devi, principal of Anna Gem Science Park Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Chennai.
In Tamil Nadu’s 54,000 anganwadi centres (AWCs) — essentially nutrition centres for new-borns and lactating mothers that also provide free-of-charge ECCE (early childhood care and education) to children in the 0-6 age group — the enthusiasm about returning to in-person classes is discernibly greater. AWCs are a refuge for children from bottom-of-the-pyramid households because they not only provide playway education but free mid-day meals. For infants imprisoned in cramped houses and suffering nutrition anxiety, AWCs are a deliverance from boring daily routines especially for first generation learners.
“Children are back in AWCs with full attendance. There are very few parents who are unwilling to send their children back to school. Most parents understand that their children are better off in school than at home. With very few resources to learn with at home, AWC children are delighted to be back in school,” says advocate MJ John Arokia Prabhu, vice president of the Tamil Nadu Private Schools Association and counsel of the National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA).
Quite clearly Tamil Nadu’s youngest children are ready, willing and eager to learn. Now the ball is in the educators’ court.