Nivedita Krishna and Deepanshi Sharma
With the Covid-19 pandemic, a significant constituent of the ‘new normal’ is online-schooling. The transition was sudden, yet convenient for those with the resources. But for those already at the fringes of society, the initial battle was against hunger and physical danger. Once hunger was addressed, access to education became contingent on the socio-economic conditions of a child’s family.
While online education seems to be the most rational thing to do, is it as easy as it sounds?
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the world was already tackling a learning crisis. It was estimated that around 53 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries were living in Learning Poverty – inability to read and understand a simple text by the age of ten.
During the pandemic, schools, child-care centers and higher-education institutes (non-essential services), were ordered to be closed under the Ministry of Home Affairs’ lockdown guidelines. Schools announced early summer breaks and cancelled examinations.
After the long summer break, schools faced the predicament of whether to reopen. For private schools to survive, pay their teachers, maintain their campus and help the children keep the continuum of learning, continuation of school was essential. Thus, most high-end schools resorted to offering education in the online mode.
Budget schools which provide for 30%-40% of learners leveraged technology solutions such WhatsApp groups, e-resources, telephonic interventions etc.
But the government school goers did not have such learning opportunities. Therein lay a bigger problem – access to these technology solutions.
Economically Weaker Students
Statistics show that only 12.5% of households in India have access to a device with internet connection at home. When combined with gender divide, lack of internet connectivity, access during typical school hours, online learning is elusive to a vast majority of learners.
Children With Disability (CWD)
Special schools for children with disability also had to close. Some migrated online. However, such online engagement completely overlooks the social component of education. Non-neurotypical children, or children with intellectual disabilities, struggle to access quality e-learning content, while grappling with the oddness of the ‘new-normal’. Learning material for those with visual and speech impairments are not part of inclusive learning content.
CWD typically depend on therapy centers, for speech, cognitive & physical therapy. Though therapy centers could function (as essential medical services), parents’ legitimate skepticism about visiting these centers, for the fear of their children contracting the virus, remained another hurdle for access to necessary interactions / therapy for special children.
Although no definitive data is available, there are roughly 18 million homeless children in India. These children, once rescued, are either traced and returned to their parents or are put in child-care centers. It is unclear what effort child-care centers have made towards sustained education of these children, though a suo moto Supreme Court decision clearly directed child-care centers to provide education and the respective states to oversee the compliance of it.
So what did the government do as response?
Early Policy Responses
The Centre’s Pragyata guidelines provided valuable early guidance on operationalizing digital education at the school level. It also laid down a framework cognizant of children with little/ no access to devices, children with disability, age-appropriate duration of engagement, pedagogy for online-teaching etc.
The efficacy of virtual lessons for children in primary and secondary school has never before been put to an objective test. Parents were concerned about learning outcomes, child health and safety. Should they pay the same school fees for experimental learning?
This started a spate of litigations across high courts in the country. We must remember that all education laws in India are built on the edifice of the physical schooling method. Taking cue from global trends, High Courts upheld the lawfulness of online schooling and suggested compliance with the Pragyata guidelines. Restrictions in fee increase, flexibility in fee-payment, keeping the classes optional for attendance were commonalities across various judgements.
This was essential for teachers to keep their jobs and keep the learning continuum where possible. However compensatory education, for those missing out on learning opportunities, was conveniently overlooked.
The Karnataka High Court Case
In Karnataka, parent groups objected to online schooling on grounds that it was being made compulsory, additional fees were levied and some schools were conducting the online classes in an unscientific manner. The Department of School Education responded quite drastically by banning online education. Online learning came to an abrupt stop. Then another parent group filed a writ petition to question the constitutionality of such an order and contending that children were anyway spending hours watching television/internet/other classes.
Over the course of the next four weeks, the Karnataka High Court sought informed views from various quarters. A Committee on Technology Enabled Education was set up under the chairmanship of Prof. M.K. Sridhar. The National Institute for Mental Health And Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) was roped in for views on health related aspects of online classes. The Committee had representatives from the government, public schools, aided and unaided private schools, CBSE and ICSE schools, early childhood experts and academicians of education.
Voices of all stakeholders were heard, recorded and considered judiciously. The Committee provided a framework for the conduct of online education having considered the social, health and learning concerns presented by online distance learning as well as non-technology solutions that could be adopted during the pandemic. Online schooling was then allowed to resume in conformance with the Committee’s guidelines.
The Supreme Court has recently admitted a PIL praying for uniform education policy to avoid discrimination and digital divide among children of weaker sections. All states of India have been arrayed as respondents and some accountability can be expected in making education more inclusive.
Central and State governments set up television channels, radio stations and e-resources for teachers and students. Examples are, Diksha portal and Swayam- online learning platforms, e-Pathshalaan application, a National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER). Another initiative, Swayam Prabha, created 32 DTH TV channels transmitting educational contents on a 24/7 basis. These channels are available for viewing all across the country using DD Free Dish Set Top Box and Antenna.
Some states like Kerala and Karnataka have proactively ensured access and adopted innovative practices to bridge the divide. These are discussed in more detail in the next section.
Civil Society Responses
Initially, the priority was to address hunger, migrants, and front-line workers. NGOs with strong grass roots networks dived deep into COVID relief work.
Once the initial lock downs were lifted and they could re-focus on education, some NGOs engaged in massive campaigns seeking donations of electronic devices or fund-raising for online/remote learning. This is an on-going effort.
Some that ran education interventions, were even forced to pivot their strategy to other impact areas.
A few NGOs, whose beneficiaries did not have access to a device with internet at home were left stranded without much scope to do anything except providing sporadic support and tele-check in’s and wait for a semblance of normal to resume their programs.
However, some states got it right.
Kerala Model: Victers Channels, Neighbourhood Study Centers and a Strong Commitment for Education
Kerala initiated the use of KITE Victers channel on television (provided free on cable and DTH) in addition to online resources to increase access to learning for children without access to internet. The local self-government departments, panchayats and civil society came together to donate devices for online learning to needy children. Community learning hubs were created to offer a unique and effective approach since a collective viewing decreased the number of devices required as well as duplicated a classroom ambience for kids for increasing accessibility.
The Ayalpakka Padhana kendrangal (Neighbourhood Study Centres) were also financed by Kerala State Financial Enterprises. Needless to mention, social distancing norms were required to be followed in these centers.
Karnataka: Community Classes to Ensure Continuity of Schooling
In Karnataka, the Vidyagama program was put together for students studying in government and government-aided schools, who may not have access to technology-based gadgets. Under this program, groups of 20 to 25 students were organized by schools based on geographical proximity. These groups of neighboring students were then engaged in community classes held in public spaces (not school campuses) while ensuring adequate social-distancing and precautions. The Education Department provided elaborate guidelines on how to conduct the Vidyagama program. However there is no approved state budget for this initiative and this could be a constraint with the onset of the monsoon (making a sheltered venue necessary), and the need for better teaching, learning and assessment aids such as worksheets.
Great initiatives. But how long will this continue?
Online learning is certainly not an alternate to regular schooling. At best, it can be used as a tool to augment learning.
In ‘Schools in the times of COVID-19’, Azim Premji University suggests reopening of government schools, particularly in rural areas with necessary pre-emptive measures – including social distancing within schools, alternate seating arrangement, monitoring of temperature, tweaks to school assembly, distribution of mid-day meal etc. The guidelines suggest that since these schools cater to the children from local communities who often only interact within the community, reopening of schools with the necessary precautions will be an unlikely cause for spread of the virus.
So, what next?
The latest unlock guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs provides for voluntary resumption of schooling. All other classes are still encouraged to continue in the virtual mode.
Better access to technology has been key to enabling inclusivity in education and to overcome economic disadvantage. Innovations in non-tech interventions are also equally important.
The aim should be towards a progressively higher engagement of students and teachers, with strategies for inclusion of children with disabilities and other marginalized groups. This will become possible through sustained budgetary support, high quality teaching-learning material and continuously measuring outcomes.
In the post pandemic world, online learning blended with in-school learning should be leveraged as an effective way to augment children’s learning.
National Education Policy (2020), brought ubiquitous optimism and idealism on the future of education in India. With its recommendations including technological adaptations, one wishes that the Kasturirangan Committee’s draft policy was adopted a year ago. Maybe then, the educational system would have been more resilient to the COVID pandemic?
n Re Contagion of Covid 19 Virus in Children Protection Homes, Suo Moto Writ Petition No. 4 of 2020. https://main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2020/10820/10820_2020_0_4_21584_Order_03-Apr-2020.pdf
Nivedita Krishna is a lawyer & company secretary (LL.B & ACS). She is the Founder of Pacta, a social & impact sector exclusive law firm based in Bangalore. Nivedita is also a performing classical dancer & is passionate about exploring the intersection of the performing arts and the law. Deepanshi Sharma is a Legal Associate working with Pacta.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*