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The Educational Side-Effects of COVID-19

A few months ago, one seemingly insignificant case of wrongly diagnosed flu, brought the entire world to a screeching halt. Grocery shortages, a giant exodus of the migrant labour population, alarming increases in unemployment and hunger as well as the ever-rising death toll in the country are provide a rare insight into just how insignificant some of our biggest corporations and institutions are, amplifying the divisions in our society to an extent where they aren’t ignorable anymore, this is especially true in the field of education. And so, the effects of this pandemic may prove to be as detrimental to education and mental well-being as it is to public health.

The divide between urban and rural are in the country factor in issues of literacy, costs incurred for education as well as technology and connectivity. The pandemic has only further highlighted the digital divide. 4% of rural households had access to computers as compared to 23% of urban households between July 2017 and June 2018. Additionally, only 15% of rural households have access to any kind of internet, and the network is often 2G or low speed internet that is not strong enough to stream or even engage with much of the educational content available online for them. In contrast, 42% of urban households have access to high speed internet.

Educational NGOs that worked with children from vulnerable communities before the pandemic, are coming up with new and innovative techniques to continue their interventions in accordance with the need of the hour. Slam Out Loud is a prime example of such organisations doing inspiring work.

Slam Out Loud (SOL) in an art education focused NGO that aims to build creative confidence in backward communities. In a conversation with their founder Jigyasa Labroo and current employee Astha, we discussed the impact of the pandemic on their interventions. On asking about some challenges faced by SOL while carrying out their initiatives-

JIGYASA : Our whole approach to the pandemic was child-related, we tried to find out some of the issues they were experiencing. But these children were facing loneliness, lack of engagement, an unnatural end to the school year, lack of social interaction. Since we are an art-based organisation, we tried to use art in a way that kept children’s well-being at the center in our interventions.

One huge challenge was the digital divide – We saw high-income schools go online almost overnight. But in a lot of the communities we work with, things like internet access, devices were scarce. Secondly, orientation of teachers, caregivers, parents to provide these environments for children that cater to their well-being. And again this is because of the novelty of the whole situation, we have never faced something like this before. Even things like enrolling them online or making them aware of circumstances has proven to be a challenge.

Another huge challenge that we faced was the number of kids that went off the grid during this time. A huge number of kids from our previous in-person program became untraceable. This was because of the huge exodus we saw of the migrant labor population. So many parents virtually went off the map when they navigated from cities to their own villages.

While the digital divide is one of the major reasons hampering the work of teachers in areas with little to no internet connectivity as well as extremely low device accessibility, teachers are coming up with new alternative, innovative methods to keep education going. In Haryana’s Jajjhar district, children are being taught by teachers through loudspeakers attached to carts to maintain social distancing as well as keeping education going. The same basic idea is also employed in the Janan Village in Gujarat where teachers are using the Panchayat’s public announcement systems to impart knowledge in the form of stories, lessons, educational songs etc. This is half as efficient as in person classes but at least these methods ensure that learning, in some shape or form, is continuing.

There is however a severe problem with these initiatives- they do not entail any strategies of assessment. How do you assess the amount and quality of the learning, how clear the concepts are? Without a feedback mechanism, it is virtually impossible to assess the quantity or quality of the learning. When asked about strategies employed by Slam Out Loud, Jigyasa briefly mentioned the many different creative means of dispersing educational content and engaging with students-

JIGYASA: Radio and TV are mediums that are picked up more in rural areas as compared to the online mode of communication, people are more receptive to these mediums- local mass media, community radios- are more exercised in rural areas, so we have been employing those, creating interactive podcasts. Further mediums of scale communication -like WhatsApp groups have also helped with the dispersing of content which also allows some limited feedback and submissions of homework and other responses.

The one positive that technology and e-learning provides us with are statistics, we can see which courses or programs were watched most by the children, when they were doing their homework, whether they stopped the video in between or watched it till the end. So the quantifiable aspects like engagement have been pretty easy to assess because of the ease of data available. It is the qualitative aspect of education, like the depth of understanding and impact, that we are finding hard to measure or even have an idea about.

ASTHA: To encourage more interaction and engagement and interest in studies, we often release some small newsletters in the local language of the region and on it, there are pictures of the work of the kids that did the hardest work that week, or we post them on social media. This provides an incentive for kids to engage more and finish the work assigned to them on time. It is not assessment but it is like a pat on the back, an acknowledgement of their work.

In many regions across the country, there are serious network and connectivity issues, especially in the Kashmir Valley where any form of internet except 2G is currently banned by the government. In Kashmir, there have been two back to back lockdowns, first on revoking the state’s special status, a military lockdown and the second on the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Students have not attended schools or colleges in almost 18 months. Further, the internet blackout in the region, only seriously hampered the future of the youth of the state as being isolated and out of school for so long is expected to have long term effects on their mental health as well as education.

A recent video of students appearing for an online exam in a dense forest because of lack of connectivity has recently gone viral. This is a recurrent sight all over India, in every state and almost every district. Digitization of education in India should’ve been done long ago, even without the pandemic, but because of how peripheral this issue was made to be, the youth of our country will pay the price. Supportive infrastructure like Angadwaris have also been shut for months now. While NGOs like Slam Out Loud are doing exemplary work in counteracting the negative effectives of COVID-19 on education, only time will really tell the extent of the damage caused by this pandemic to education.

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