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When will India’s poorest kids go back to school?

When will India’s poorest kids go back to school?

March 10, 2021
-Abhik Bhattacherji, Alumnus and Marketing & Communications Director, Teach For India

Neha is a tenth-standard Student in one of Govandi’s many budget private schools. When they shut their doors a little more than twelve months ago, Neha was left with an abundance of bad options. Confined to a 100-square foot room with two parents and a younger sibling, she first tried using her father’s smartphone to access learning. Eventually, though, he went back to work. Neha pulled out old books. She even practised ninth-standard math sums. With no teacher, no peers, and little access to the internet, she got stuck – a lot.

This has been an unprecedented year for children. In addition to their emotional toll, children from low-income communities have had little to no access to learning. Meanwhile, their schools turned into COVID-relief centres. And now, to close the year, we’re asking them to take a high-stakes exam that will only exacerbate their disadvantage.

It’s soon going to be 12 months since schools have been shut. For India’s lowest-income students, this has been a lost year. As the pandemic rages on, the foundational cracks and the digital divide in the country’s education system have been laid bare. While no student has been completely immune to its effects, it’s our poorest kids who have been hit hardest. In January 2021, when a few grades were allowed to return to school, one of our fellows noticed that 12 of his 9th-grade Students had forgotten how to do double-digit multiplication. Another teacher exclaimed that three-letter words that she had phonetically coached her class were forgotten. The highest performing quartile in classrooms is now hovering dangerously in the middle. In a study conducted by Azim Premji University, research has shown that 43% of Grade 6 students are unable to orally express themselves. 55% of Grade 5 students don’t know how to multiply 2 digit numbers. The gap in rigour and consistency of instruction has been the biggest contributing factor to these numbers. 

Over the past year, stories of struggle have emerged from our community but we’ve also seen resilience, grit and heart. Students have converted their households into mask making facilities. Sahil goes to his rooftop because that’s the only place he gets network for his Zoom class. Neha cannot concentrate on her phone when there is so much noise outside her 10 x 10 jhuggi.

“My son is very distracted by games on the phone, instead of using it to learn. When school was on, at least they had the school instruction time and came home and did homework. As parents, we cannot keep monitoring them at home. Schools have to open because it is a question of their future.” says Rupesh’s mother. Rupesh is 15 and studies in a municipal school in Malwani, Mumbai.

“This has been an unprecedented year for kids. In addition to the emotional toll that’s accompanied isolation and a growing pandemic, children from low-income communities have had little access to learning. Their peers from high-income backgrounds have had engaged parents, high-quality devices, teachers who are skilled in online instruction, and schools that are thinking about how to adapt. Meanwhile, our children have had their schools turned into COVID-relief centres. And now, to close the year, we’re asking them to take a high-stakes exam that will only exacerbate their disadvantage”, said Sandeep Rai, Chief of City Operations, Teach For India.

We have to be the voice of these children. We have to think of safe ways to get them back to schools. We will have to reteach primary school their foundational abilities in language and mathematics. We will have to invest time and energy in their well-being. Once we establish that rhythm, we can tackle the syllabus.

If we don’t take a stand about schools reopening safely for all grades and the upcoming board examinations being delayed, students who have not been able to learn digitally will fall further behind academically, affecting their future and our country’s employable workforce. This year has shown us that the crisis deepens every minute that our kids are not in school but the real cost will reflect in the coming year’s growth rates, crime rates, and suicides when graduating cohorts can’t get into colleges or get jobs.

Also read: Dear Prime Minister, Why no pandemic package for education?

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