Students in a classroom in a school in Kasheli village, Bhiwandi, which reopened after a year in February. (HT FILE)
Students in a classroom in a school in Kasheli village, Bhiwandi, which reopened after a year in February. (HT FILE)

One year of Covid-19: Online mode - a big lesson for education system

As online became the only mode of learning during the lockdown months of 2020, the stark inequalities of class, caste and gender became visible, as thousands of children were forced out of the education system, and thousands more faced learning setbacks.
By Ankita Bhatkhande
PUBLISHED ON MAR 08, 2021 01:00 AM IST

Months after the nationwide lockdown started in March 2020, 15-year-old Sahil Gaikar’s life was upended forever. He found out that his parents’ savings were nearly over. His father, Sandeep, a dabbawala, and mother, Kavita, a home-maker, had no money left to pay the rent of their Kalyan flat, buy food, or pay the fees for his sister, Pratiksha, and him. There was only one option left: to live with his grandparents in Junnar, Pune district.

It was meant to be temporary. In October, Sandeep, Kavita, and Pratiksha returned to Mumbai – Kavita got a job at a local tailoring unit, Sandeep took up a job as a security guard as office-goers were still working from home and no one needed their lunch boxes delivered. Pratiksha got admission in a college. The money was still barely enough.

Sandeep asked Gaikar to stay back with relatives in Sangamner in Ahmednagar, where he could join a junior college. Gaikar, who scored 73% in Class 10, wanted to join the Science stream, and that’s what he did, at a tenth of the cost.

“I left behind all my friends and my house in Mumbai because we could no longer afford my studies in the city,” Gaikar said. But living on a farm, and attending college in a small town came with its own challenges. For one, his college does not have a proper functioning laboratory. Gaikar has no coaching classes nearby – something that he sorely missed. Internet connectivity is poor in the village and Gaikar has barely been able to attend classes after his college started in September 2020.

“It has become really tough to study,” Gaikar said.

Affected by inequality

Millions of school and college-going students would agree with Gaikar. Online learning is revolutionary in many ways: it can take education modules to remote corners of the country and help supplement learning benchmarks for different age groups. However, when it became the only mode of learning during the lockdown months of 2020, the stark inequalities of class, caste and gender became immediately visible as thousands of children were forced out of the education system and thousands more faced learning setbacks.

Between April and June 2020 the state education department collected data from schools in two blocks of each of the 36 districts to understand the means of communication that students had access to. Nearly 16% of the students who responded had no access to any medium of communication (radio, television or mobile phone); more than 26% students in the state did not have access to even a simple mobile phone. Inequities varied across the state. For instance, in Mumbai, nearly 88% students reported having access to phone.

In another survey, this one conducted by the Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research and Training (MSCERT) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) before the beginning of the academic year in June, it was found that of the 5.98 million students who had access to a smart phone, only about 57% had internet connectivity. A total of 737 schools (private and state-run) and 6,855 students (between classes 1 to 10) were surveyed. Students in remote parts of the state like Gadchiroli and Palghar were simply unable to attend online classes due to poor network and lack of digital resources.

Reshma Agarwal, an education specialist at UNICEF, said the survey team realised that many children had simply fallen off the radar. “When we did the survey in June, we got the phone numbers of a few students picked in a random sample and within that lot 3-4% students could not be reached. We got their contacts from their teachers, but we still couldn’t track them down. We need to tackle the loss of a learning environment along with loss of livelihood, and anxieties that come with migration.”

In December 2020, Leadership for Equity, a Pune-based NGO that works closely with the state education department, conducted a community survey to assess the impact of the pandemic on learning. The NGO reached out to 382 teachers and nearly 400 parents across six districts, including Pune, Akola, Satara, Solapur, Ahmednagar, Nashik. Almost every teacher reported that at least two children from their class had failed to return to school.

In Mumbai where mobile penetration is higher than other parts of the state, data compiled by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) last month revealed that more than 60,000 of the 628,000 students studying in 2,387 municipality-governed schools, for which data was collected, have not been able to attend online classes due to varied reasons, including migration and lack of access to devices.

Challenges for teachers

“I started with a revision of all that was taught to the class over the last 10 months but realised that students had not understood quite a bit. It was shocking because I had never realised this until I took a physical session with them. In online classes, they seemed to respond well and also solved tests sent to them on their phones. But the fact that a large number of students struggled was left unaddressed till it became more apparent in the offline classes.”

That was the experience of a 32-year-old Math teacher in Osmanabad with her Class 9 students on the first day back at school in November.

Vikram Adsul teaches at a Zilla Parishad school in Karjat, Ahmednagar. The school is located in a small hamlet called Bandgar Vasti, home to members of the Dhangar community. When the school opened in January 2021, Adsul also realised what the loss of learning in a physical space meant.

“We found that while foundational skills of students, including reading and writing were more or less intact, their ability to take up complex tasks and understand concepts in various subjects had drastically reduced. The response rate of students has definitely gone down and it is a cause of concern,” he said. The state education department allowed schools in the state to reopen for classes 9 to 12 from November 23, 2020 and for classes 5 to 8 from January 27, 2021. The final decision of reopening schools, however, rested with the local authorities. Mumbai, Thane and Navi Mumbai decided to remain closed as the cases of Covid-19 infection were still high.

Ashwini Sonavane, block education officer in Bhor in Pune district said parents fear that their children have lost a year altogether. “I worked in Bhamragad, Gadchiroli earlier and there, majority of the households barely have electricity. How can you expect students to attend online classes? The end result of this is learning loss and the risk of children dropping out. Girls, for instance, are likely to bear the brunt of this more because they are made to work in the household and in the farm instead of allowing them to study.”

Efforts made

On March 1, the state education department began a drive to identify the number of students who are not attending class across 100,000 schools in all districts. They will halt this drive on March 20. The idea is to get a sense of how many students have fallen out of the education net.

MSCERT and UNICEF have also compiled some of these experiments into a small booklet which will be released this month. One of the teachers mentioned in this booklet is Smita Kapse, a 43-year-old Math and Science teacher in a Zilla Parishad school in Malewadi, Solapur. More than 50% of her students did not own a smart phone and could not attend Kapse’s online classes. So she came up with a strategy.

Kapse reached out to her former students and formed a group that called itself Corona Fighters. This group, comprising 16 to 25-year-old students many of whom are either in college or working, began to hold physical classes for small groups of students in their own localities. “Each former student was allotted three students. Every week, I would meet them and guide them for the following week’s plan,” Kapse said.

“Most of them are children of labourers who work on fields in the village. Their parents don’t even have permanent homes and having an Android phone is out of question,” she said.

Between April 2020 and January 2021, Corona Fighters taught nearly 150 students. Snehal Suryavanshi, a class 12 student and one of Kapse’s former students, said she was happy to see the children keep up with their studies in tough times. “Kapse ma’am taught us to motivate these children to study by offering incentives like positive remarks or a toffee if they did well. This made learning fun for them. We are happy we could make a difference.”

Meanwhile, Sahil Gaikar has made peace with the fact that he is stuck in Ahmednagar for now. He is keen to prepare for the army and navy entrance. “I miss my friends and my teachers and sometimes call them when I have some doubts with studies. But the pandemic has changed everything for me,” he said.

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