India’s Lost Generation and possible fourth wave

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Could the current crisis reverse decades of progress for children?

Three waves and two years of unprecedented disruptions of school education later, the overall development of millions of children is hanging by a thread. The Indian school system is at high risk of collapse. Teachers are overburdened. How? Let’s discuss:

Earlier, we talked about the risks and benefits of re-opening schools and discussions approaching for safe reopening of schools, yet many children are still out of school and some have never seen a classroom before (even before the pandemic, more than six million Indian girls and boys were already not going to school). While schools in the majority of the states reopened slowly to an encouraging response, many private institutions are once again dealing with low classroom attendance and a lost generation – a long-term effect that will take years to recover from. Like we said, the future of an entire generation is at risk.

After prolonged school closures, India is trying to make significant progress in ensuring access to education and enrollment in schools, yet the learning crisis is not solved. School closures caused by the pandemic have far-reaching consequences on schooling, highlighting the need for education policy to focus on the primary goal of education, ensuring learning for all children irrespective of whether they are enrolled in government or private schools.

While young adults undoubtedly did suffer proportionately more than other age groups, this year has been undeniably difficult for children and adolescents stepping out into the world. Imagine, as you transition into adulthood, without any social skills because you stayed at home for the last two years —  or perhaps your parents were too overwhelmed to provide you with the love and guidance you needed to progress in the offline world.

Yes, there is now a distinction between online and offline learning and the digital divide is quite wide. But we’ll save that debate for another day. In 2019, many children under the age of three were excited at the thought of going to school for the first time in a few months. But by the time their classes were to begin, India had entered into a national lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Even after the lockdown was lifted months later, schools across the country remained closed. Over the last two years, some states have attempted to open educational institutions, but successive waves foiled that effort. Some kids in remote villages would trade anything to be with their classmates again. They were offered online classes, but the family could barely afford two meals a day, let alone internet access. This is a reality for thousands of young people today in India. They are barely educated, barely surviving. 

School closures mean students lose opportunities to learn vital cognitive, social, physical, and emotional skills. Most of them evidently forget part of what they have learned when they took a break from school.

As a result, young people are experiencing “learning loss” and “future employment loss”, indicating a real risk of a “lost generation.”

These kids, they all had a little hope – completing an education and escaping a life of poverty – but the damage and lingering trauma are evident everywhere, from the legions of unemployed workers roaming the streets, to the growing mental health crisis that the disease has left in its wake.

The surge and impact of COVID-19 in India 

India has the largest adolescent population in the world, 253 million, and the lockdown has impacted around 40 million children from poor families. 42 million Indian children were affected by school closures at the pre-primary level.

Indian schools were mostly shut in the first half of 2020 but many countries (including Japan, South Africa, US, UK, Portugal) had kept physical classes largely open through subsequent waves. In India, however, restaurants, malls, cinemas were given prioritise over schools. This led to a widespread discussion on social media, prompting us to consider the idea that schools should be the “last to close and first to open” in the event of future pandemics or other emergencies. The below chart shows quite clearly how bad India’s closures were in comparison to other countries:

Source: India Needs To Learn — A Case for Keeping Schools Open by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Teach For India, 2022.

 

The majority of India’s population did not have access to adequate digital tools to continue with effective remote education. So, the overall learning loss and regression in the country are much higher than in most other countries.

Several organisations rolled out a range of remote learning tools in response to school shutdowns:

  • Central and State governments launched DIKSHA –an online portal with access to video lessons, worksheets, assignments in multiple languages
  • Several states provided content through a combination of tools and channels, including Whatsapp, TV, Radio
  • Many private ed-tech players made their content available for free for extended periods of time 

BUT!

Students

  • 60% children cannot access online learning opportunities
  • 50% teachers reported that children were unable to complete assignments shared during online classes, which in turn led to serious gaps in learning. 
  • Inadequate time being spent with children for their learning as per data collected on both the frequency and duration of online classes

Parents

  • 15%  rural households have internet access
  • 82% faced challenges in supporting their children to access digital education; Signal and internet speed were the biggest issues 
  • 41% parents said that education was delivered during lockdown; WhatsApp was the most commonly used medium of ‘delivery’ 

Teachers

  • 90%  teachers responded that no meaningful assessment of children’s learning was possible in online classes.
  • 84% struggle with delivery through digital mediums 

Source: Azim Premji University: Myths of Online Education

Resulting in

Decrease in learning levels

  • 90% Children between grades 2-6 have lost at least one language ability
  • 80% have lost at least one math ability from the previous year 
  • 75% Parents of children between 5-13 years, with access to digital devices, report that their children have been learning less

Widening of the Learning Gap

  • >1 Y  Students could lose more than a full year’s worth of learning from a three-month school closure
  • 5% Earning loss of more than 5% of their lifetime earnings from a three-month school closure
  • The gap between actual and expected learning level widens significantly as children move to higher grades

Increase in Dropouts

  • 3X Increase in “Out of school children” in the 6-10 age group between 2018-2020
  • 3M Increase in “Out-of-school” rural children due to the pandemic

Source: ASER (Annual Status of Education Report)

World Bank, Observer Research Foundation Aug-21

Disconnected from learning: Key findings

A study by Azim Premji Foundation showed that a majority of children have forgotten foundational abilities in language and mathematics, which they knew in March 2020. “If you show a child a picture, can she narrate the picture in her own words? Or if you talk of arithmetic, can a child recognise two numbers, or can she add three numbers? Those are called foundational abilities,” Anurag Behar, the CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, told Moneycontrol on the learning loss. 

“The younger the child is, the greater the cumulative learning loss in the long term” Anurag Behar

Parents said

Source: UNICEF – Rapid assessment of learning during school closures in the COVID context
  • The top two challenges for parents were internet recharge costs and device affordability to be able to give their children continued education through the pandemic
  • Parents also request support from the govt/school on the above

Talking about a significant loss of foundational abilities and learning in her child due to schools being shut, Tanya Aggarwal, a mother and a lawyer by profession, told Varthana, ”Although my child’s school tried hard, I think it is difficult to teach writing and reading online. Not all parents have the luxury of time and resources, and so I feel these two years have taken a heavy toll on learning and development. I think schools will need to assess the learning levels of each student and then offer bridge courses, reduce syllabus, etc.”

Losses in potential earnings

Research suggests that for most children, learning less will also mean earning less for an entire lifetime. It is well-established that a person’s earnings increase with more years of schooling. First, affected students whose schooling has been interrupted by the pandemic face long-term losses in income. Second, national economies that go forward with a less skilled labour force face lower economic growth which subtracts from the overall welfare of society. 

This generation of students now risks losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value, or about 14% of today’s global GDP, as a result of COVID-19 pandemic-related school closure, as per a World Bank-UNESCO-UNICEF report.

Consequence of school closures

Unstable education – Unemployment – Worsening economy

So, how do we reintegrate children into the system and, ultimately, provide them with a proper education? Educationalist Jyoti Arora said in an interview, “School is not only a place for academic growth; it is also a place for the child’s holistic and social-emotional development. These are equally important.And this can only happen once they return to school. Children must reconnect with their friends and teachers as part of their overall development.” With inadequate holistic and social-emotional development, we can speak of a “lost generation of youth”, deprived of central developmental opportunities as a result of the pandemic that has reached a wide audience.

Source: A World Bank research paper published in 2020

Possible fourth wave

“It’s difficult for small schools to survive if the last two tragic years repeat again,” these are the words of Alice Dennis, who also runs a low-cost budget school in Pune. She explains that many private schools, including hers, operate on a fee structure. As a result, they are primarily reliant on parents to pay teacher fees. “If the fourth wave hits us now,” she says, “it will be a major setback for the education sector.” Many school owners feel the same way and some believe it could lead to a disastrous situation. Even as there are concerns of a possible fourth wave of COVID-19 in India, there are also growing fears for a “lost generation of learners”.

When asked what happens when the fourth wave hits, how would it affect her children,  Aggarwal commented, “We know a lot more about COVID-19 now than we did in March 2020. It’s been two years and I don’t think we can live in fear forever. COVID-19 is not the only risk to our kids. We have to conduct a risk-benefit analysis and acknowledge that so far, children are at least risk of poor COVID-19 outcomes. However, children have faced the most restrictions, and this needs to change urgently. We need to prioritize our kids and give them their childhood back.”

Learning recovery

To prepare ahead and to enable all children to learn in a supportive environment, these measures can be applied:

Three priorities–

  • Address the issue of dropouts, bring all children and youth back to schools and give them tailored services needed to meet their learning, health, psychosocial well-being, and other needs
  • All children receive support to catch up on lost learning
  • All teachers are prepared and supported to address learning losses among their students and to incorporate digital technology into their teaching

Looking ahead

Education is one of the major ways in which one can escape poverty. If the issue is not corrected, we will have a workforce of half-literate youth from marginalised communities who will be exploited even more after the pandemic. 

Goal: Seize opportunities to make education more inclusive, effective and resilient

Coping

While schools are closed:

  • Protect health, safety and nutrition
  • Prevent learning loss through remote learning
  • Draw on Higher secondary education

Managing continuity

As schools reopen:

  • Prevent increase in dropout
  • Prepare for partial reopening
  • Prepare teachers to assess learning losses and close learning gaps

Improving and accelerating

For long term:

  • Scale up effective remote learning
  • Focus on creating build-back-better education system
  • Protect and enhance education financing

Source: World Bank 2020

Regardless of the next variant that tries to bring us down, schools need to reopen and be kept open.

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