‘It’s Not A Problem If Schools Are The Last To Open’

The original article was published in IndiaSpend on May 26, 2020


Mumbai: Among the many schedules and events that the year 2020 couldn’t keep its date with due to the COVID-19 outbreak, academic calendars were the first to stop in their tracks. In India alone, more than 320 million school, college and university students–130 million of them in the higher-secondary bracket–have been impacted by the pandemic-induced lockdown, according to this UNESCO report.

Many educational institutions in India, especially schools, were shut down as a preventive measure well before the nationwide lockdown started on March 25, 2020, leading to disruption–and indefinite suspension–of final examination of certain subjects across boards.

To maintain the momentum of studies and to close the gap in curriculum-driven learning, many schools turned to online teaching. The government also, in response to the situation, started online classes; the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has made several arrangements such as online portals as well as educational channels through direct-to-home TV for students.

But, experts have pointed out, only 27% of households in India have some member in the family with internet access. And, internet access does not necessarily mean that a household actually has network bandwidth or a computer at home though it may have internet through mobile phones, shows this study by a scholar from Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. Urban people’s access to the internet as compared to their rural counterparts further widens the gulf between one set of students and another.

In such a scenario, when online teaching modules may not be viable for many institutes, when most state governments are struggling to reach a consensus on the when-what-how of reopening schools and rescheduling exams, an average student, teacher and parent is staring at many complex questions. IndiaSpend speaks to educationist Rukmini Banerji, the chief executive officer of Pratham Education Foundation, to find some answers.

Trained as an economist in India, Banerji graduated from St Stephen’s College and attended Delhi School of Economics. She was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and later earned her PhD at the University of Chicago, US, in 1991. Banerji worked in Chicago for several years at the education philanthropy Spencer Foundation. She returned to India in 1996 and co-founded Pratham, where she has been ever since. Banerji has extensive experience in the field of education–working directly with rural and urban communities as well as in designing and implementing large-scale partnerships with governments. She led Pratham’s research and assessment efforts, including the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) initiative from 2005 to 2014.

Edited excerpts:

The COVID-19 outbreak and the consequent lockdown have thrown at schools challenges they have never faced before. Caught off guard and now closed for an indeterminate duration, what is the way ahead for schools?

I would say that it’s the ‘most-anticipated’ reopening of schools of all time, and we must take advantage of it. Whatever the schools are doing right now–be it online classes or other activities–is possibly the best, but still not enough and, so, everyone is looking forward to the opening of schools again. I will give credit to state governments and schools that are trying to do something [online] even though caught completely off guard by this crisis. There is plenty of time [before schools reopen], but there is no planning still on what we want to do once the schools open. Systematic thinking is required regarding how or what should be done for the first few months when schools reopen; how the rest of the school year would be.

This year should not be about academics only; overall growth must be focused on–there is a social and emotional, and not just academic, aspect to school. We (at Pratham) believe that a child’s foundational skills should be strong. Schools must first allow children to settle down. Then an assessment (which sounds scary) should be done. There should be a method to figure out where every child stands in terms of basic foundation.

Schools must spend the first couple of months [after reopening] not being bothered about the curriculum, and make sure that children reconnect and catch up on basic reading, writing, arithmetic and comprehension skills.

Second, it is generally believed that if the school is closed then children are not learning anything. But [as a result of the present situation] some time should now be devoted to finding out what children have actually learnt, especially about coping with life when there is uncertainty in the family. These are the things which we don’t teach in schools; this is a period where teachers have to learn from students. It depends on reconnecting–as human beings–with each other. It is important because different children will have different experiences to share. It’s a good opportunity to build a link between home and school because parents [during lockdown] are really willing–and have–to help their children in learning. Right now parents in India [irrespective of different strata they belong to] have a sense that since schools are closed they are supposed to do something more [for their child’s learning]. Therefore, a closeness between school and home has to be established, and not just for academic purposes, but also to help the child grow in his or her entirety.

Access to learning is one thing but access to quality learning another. Do you think the digital divide in our country could be disadvantageous for some students; are the platforms for discernment of knowledge equally viable for and accessible to private and government schools?

This is really not a digital divide as much as an economic divide. There are educated and well-off parents who have a lot of resources, including digital. But the biggest resource they have is their own education and the ability to help children in whatever way they can. Normally, in elite families parents are busy, but because of the lockdown everybody is at home. The family resources to support children are higher than usual. They have always been higher in certain families than others. I don’t think this is a new divide.

Then there are different ways in which you can connect with students, such as radio, TV, Zoom calls, webinars, WhatsApp. What has happened is that the variety of ways to reach out has become visible now, but it’s not that every state government is exploring each one of them. But across the board, many ways are being attempted to reach out, which actually open up future possibilities for reducing the digital divide.

At Pratham, we have been able to reach out to about 11,000 villages and some urban communities. We reached out to children in rural areas via SMS and WhatsApp. This was part of our programme ‘Karona Thodi Masti Thodi Padhai’ where we send activities that are both fun and educational for children. The result is such that one message goes out and, by evening, we have more than 10 responses or phone calls from parents and students alike asking for further advice.

Basically, now is the opportunity to develop such systems, but the family [of the student] should be kept in mind. I have noticed that when I send a textbook-like assignment, parents feel they are ill-educated to help their children with it. For example, last week we asked children to find out how much water was used in the house everyday. We got a lot of responses from children as well as parents; they asked if they could measure it in mugs because it was easier that way. It was very interactive. But another day, we asked children to make a 3X3 grid with 15 as the middle number and all calculations resulting in a total of 15. There wasn’t much response as parents felt they were not educated enough to help in this activity. I hope the digital content producers have their ear to the ground, else it will also become like traditional educational systems and not solve issues of accessibility of education.

Many state governments are doing quite a lot–some are doing interactive voice recordings, others are doing TV programmes. What they are doing or not is not the question; they must also find out what is working and what is not.

Private schools are doing this, but government systems are large. In private schools, a decision is made at the school level. So, the loop between making decisions and taking the next step is small. In a government system, say, someone like a district administrator cannot decide what will happen in all the schools in the district. A state government authority will relay the instructions; loops are much bigger. But, again, I think a crisis gives you an opportunity to do things differently.

Millions of migrant workers in cities have been rendered jobless due to the lockdown, forcing them to return to native villages to escape hunger. What effect will this humanitarian crisis and mass exodus have on the education of migrants’ children?

Crores of people coming back to their villages will have both negative and positive repercussions. One thing is certain that there will be hardship. The mid-day meal programme will become all the more important now because it is [about] food security. Also, attendance and enrollment in schools would go up in rural areas. And, I think, there will be a move from private schools to government schools because parents will not be able to afford fees, particularly in rural settings. In which case, government schools will be under pressure, but, again, the state governments may not increase spending because they would not have enough funds. The real solutions have to come at the local level. So, collective decision-making is important.

I will give an example: Migrants who are returning to villages have been exposed to better schools in cities; they can add value to rural schools. How are we going to use these people? How are we going to welcome these children? Are we going to see the children as a burden because they will have little money and may lead to overcrowding? We should use this as an opportunity instead to involve children’s parents to help out the school in some way–helping with meals, teaching or even storytelling.

What do you think of the alternative calendar year developed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training? This four-week, activity-based academic calendar for students of classes 1 to 10 focuses on learning outcomes and competency-based learning rather than marks. What are your thoughts about some states directly sending children to the next class? How would it impact particularly those who are in higher classes and are planning to go to college next year?

I feel this is not the year for accelerating curriculum. This is a year for settling down, taking care of things around us and strengthening our base because we don’t know what lies ahead. It is time to ensure basic health and nutrition, and to do some exercise because then you are broadly ready for anything that comes at you. This time should be spent to enhance basic reading, writing, maths and problem-solving skills of Indian students so that in March or April 2021, children can go into a new school year all fresh and strong.

See, we already have a policy where elementary students are promoted to the next class, up to class 5 [the no-detention policy introduced in 2009]. There is also an implicit policy that every student has to pass class 10. How to deal with the class-10 exams of March 2021 though is a big question. Students of classes 8 and 9 need to be tutored well and their weaknesses should be fixed so that when they go to a new class next year, the teachers do not have to deal with students of vastly different learning standards. Sometimes taking two steps back is better than rushing ahead. Why should children be penalised for the current crisis? You know, going to the next class is kind of a part of life for them–like growing taller.

When do you see schools reopening? What policy should states follow in opening schools?

Foremost, we must remember that schools were the first to be shut because we wanted to keep our children safe. We were not sure what was going to happen. Schools were closed in many states well before the lockdown came into effect; to me, it is not a problem if the schools are the last to open. However, it has to be kept in mind that parents have to return to work–in rural areas, parents already had to go out for harvesting, leaving children at home. For schools to open, it is also important that public transport is fully functional. But then, what is the rush? Schools are not going to fetch the money states need–like in case of excise duty from liquor shops. Just as in a family unit, you would make sure that the surroundings are completely safe before you send your children out, a community should also first let things get back to complete normalcy before opening schools.

And when you open schools, open them in a new way that they become a place where information for family is available. Schools must also recognise the role that parents have played in children’s education; how, while schools were closed, parents became pillars of strength in their child’s learning. A lot of interaction should happen between school and parents about broader subjects such as family hygiene and health and the importance of nutrition.

How are schools in other countries dealing with the situation? Some developed countries allow a limited number of students every week to be seated at six-foot distance from each other. Your suggestions for practicable solutions for India?

There are countries like Sweden which did not shut schools at all; they see schools as a safe place and maintain that children are not prone to being infected by COVID-19. I think there are varied experiences, and rather than looking at practice, it is important to look at the logic behind that particular practice because it is highly contextual. Children being seated at six-foot distance may work in Sweden because they have far fewer students in a classroom than us. In our case, we may have to do two shifts rather than try to move children around.

What impact do you see of the COVID crisis on students from vulnerable communities, girls and children with disabilities?

People who are already at a disadvantage are affected more than others in times of crisis. As I said, it’s important not to worry about learning outcomes this year; instead we should keep a close watch on attendance of students in the catchment area with a vulnerable population. Say, in a rural school if we notice–over a period of time–that attendance of students from catchment areas is going down, then efforts should be made to go and get those children back. So, one way to make sure that a vulnerable or disadvantaged child doesn’t fall off the track is to target and monitor their attendance more than others and find solutions to get them back to school.

There will also be a need to monitor expenditure closely and make sure that whatever money comes to government schools is spent on essentials such as mid-day meals rather than, say, science equipment.

Furthermore, a strong community of parents should be seen as a resource that can add value to school. Schools should look at parents as an extra hand and not a liability. We will need more local resources in future as the government funding might get cut down.