Amid another wave, Odisha’s Kandhamal district grapples with a learning gap

ByDebabrata Mohanty, Kandhamal
Jan 17, 2022 06:35 PM IST

As Omicron looms, and more uncertainty confronts India’s schools, in a five-part series from across the country, HT looks at the vast ramifications of the pandemic on India’s schools and children

It is 11am on December 7, and there are lines of worry etched across headmaster RK Sahoo’s face. There are 40 students in front of him, sitting on wooden desks, all disturbingly quiet. Bholeshwar Bidyapith in Phiringia block of Kandhamal is ramshackle, the paint on the walls is peeling off, and there is barely any sunlight in the dark room. Even at the best of times, education in Kandhamal, one of Odisha’s most backward districts is difficult. He asks the question again, his voice echoing in the silence of the classroom. “What is a plus b whole square?” The heads in front of him remain bowed, almost in embarrassment. A board on the crumbling door outside the room says standard 10. The question is elementary, but there is no answer still. There rarely has been over the past few weeks.

Class 10 students during a class in Phiringia village’s ‘Upgraded high school’. (HT Photo)
Class 10 students during a class in Phiringia village’s ‘Upgraded high school’. (HT Photo)

Like the rest of the country, and therefore Odisha, the Bholeswar Vidyapith in Ratang village shut down in March 2020, as India began dealing with its first Covid wave. For a year and a half, schools in Odisha remained closed as the pandemic went from strength to strength, ravaging health systems and the economy, and causing immeasurable hardship. In that year and a half, school students across India lost access to their schools, with online learning a last resort. As the second deadly Delta wave abated somewhat, India gingerly opened its classrooms state by state, and Odisha finally opened to physical instruction on July 26 for Class 10 and 12, and then August 16 for Class 9. Physical classes for Class 8 and 11 began on October 25 while for Class 6 and 7, they resumed from November 15. Bholeshwar Vidyapith opened its doors on July 26. And when it did, confronted perhaps the biggest challenge that the pandemic has bequeathed to the Indian education system. A deep learning loss. “I don’t know how they will write the papers for their summative assessment in January 2022 if they can’t remember basic algebra. I shudder to think how they will perform during offline exams,” said Sahoo.

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But this challenge isn’t just a limited question of performance in examinations. As Omicron looms, and more uncertainty confronts India’s schools (many have been shut in response) in a five-part series from across the country, HT looks at the vast ramifications of the pandemic on India’s schools and children: from learning loss to increasing susceptibility to child marriages and trafficking; the closure of low-cost public schools; the linkages between migration and education; even the vulnerability of children to recruitment by Maoist organizations.

Learning loss

10 kilometres away from Bholeswar Bidyapith, Subhashree Mishra, a teacher at Phiringia village’s “Upgraded high school” is in the midst of a similar, exasperating exercise. The Class 8 teacher has 42 students in front of her, and the response is a similar silence. The question is even more elementary. Speak out loud the numbers between 10 and 99. Of the 42, only two are able to complete the exercise. “There are many who have even forgotten how to sign their names by the time the schools reopened on October 25 for Class 8,” said Mishra.

A study by Azim Premji Foundation, titled Loss of Learning During the Pandemic, conducted in February 2021 among 16,067 children across 1,137 public schools and covering 44 districts of Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand revealed that 92% of children on average have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year across all classes. Similarly, 82% of children on average have lost at least one specific mathematical ability from the previous year across all classes.

Anurag Behar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation, believes that learning loss is clearly the biggest challenge that the country faces in the near future. “Roughly 210 to 220 million children have had virtually no education for practically two years. They have not learnt what they should have and they’ve forgotten much of what they knew at that point in time. This has never happened in the history of education. It’s incredible,” said Behar.

A landmark study by Karthik Muralidharan and associates at Education Initiatives, made an assessment of the levels of student achievement in the Adarsh Schools of Rajasthan. “There is a general deficit of average attainment and grade-expected norms. More importantly, within each grade, there is a wide dispersion of student achievement, making it an extremely challenging task for teachers in government schools to handle such variation. The gap between actual and expected learning level only widens as children move to higher grades,” the study said.

To map the extent of learning losses,the Union education ministry is currently conducting a National Achievement Survey among 3.8 million students in 123,000 schools in 733 districts across 36 states and Union territories for students of Classes 3, 5, 8 and 10 in which the abilities of the students in language, mathematics, science, social science, English and environmental studies will be tested.

Limitations to the digital push

In April 2020, Odisha’s school and mass education department started online classes for Class X students, providing learning materials to primary, upper primary and elementary students through WhatsApp. In May, the Scheduled Tribe & Scheduled Caste development department started an “Alternative Learning and Mentorship Programme” to teach students through mobile applications, YouTube channels or a doorstep visit by mentor teachers.

The practice continued till January 8, 2021 when offline classes resumed for students from Class 10 and 12. But with the second wave spreading its tentacles through the country beginning April 2021, classes were suspended again.

This has meant that schools across the state were effectively shut for anything between 13 to 19 months for students of Class 6 -12. Students from Class 1 to 5 have yet to see the insides of their classrooms for over 21 months. In the interim, the only option has been online education. But across various parts of Odisha, that term is fanciful.

Odisha school and mass education department minister Samir Dash told the state assembly on December 8 that during the pandemic, at least 49,098 higher secondary students including 15,792 tribal and 11,045 Dalit students dropped out of school. “I have asked the District Education Officers to implement different schemes under the Samagra Sikshya Abhiyan to bring back the dropouts to educational institutions,” he said.

In terms of mobile penetration, an October 2021 report from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India puts the national average at 88% with Delhi being the highest and Odisha at 79%.

But the Odisha Economic Survey 2018-19 states that at least 20% of the 51,311 villages in the state did not have mobile phone connectivity while the penetration of the internet was 28.22% to the national average of 38.02%. When schools were closed due to lockdown last year, the digital divide grew ever more stark. After all, these numbers refer to households; it is rare for children in even lower middle-class households to have their own devices.

Dash told the state assembly in the last session that only 28.87% of students studying in classes 1 to 10 had access to smartphones for online classes. In Kandhamal, just about 13.38% of students had access to smartphones while mobile connectivity was available in 30% of the 2587 villages of the district.

In districts like Kandhamal, the digital divide is deep.

The real world implications

In March 2020, 13-year-old year old Kamandha Kanhar was a class five student of the Phiringia government high school, run by the state SC/ST department. The year ending examinations were yet to be held, and suddenly, his hostel was shut. Without a test, Kanhar was promoted to class 6. In the next year and a half, he had absolutely no access to online education. A resident of Patilipidia village, his parents Bharat Kanhar and Jhagumati Kanhar, are illiterate, and subsistence labourers. He was the first in the family to go to school, his two sisters are younger than him.

Nobody in the family has smartphones, and the village has no mobile connectivity. With nothing else to do, Kanhar began going to work with his parents, tilling farmlands someone else owned. “There was no one in the village who could teach us. Though a teacher sometimes visited our village during the pandemic, no one in the village was willing to study,” Kanhar said. On November 15, 2021, when the schools reopened, Kanhar travelled back to his hostel, 20 kilometres away from his village. He found he could not read two words in English. “I could before, there was a sense of practice. Now, I don’t understand anything,” he said.

Smrutirekha Nayak, a teacher in Retang upper primary school of Kandhamal said that the biggest hurdle that faces them, is how to make children “re-learn”. “As they were absent from schools, they have difficulties in concentrating. To bring back the rhythm and recoup learning losses we have to work extra hard. But where is the time for it? Earlier children in upper primary classes could do addition using numbers in their notebooks. But now they have forgotten how to do that. Many have simply forgotten how to write in their notebooks. We are forced to start everything from scratch. It is frustrating at times,” she said.

Anil Pradhan, a Right to Education activist in Odisha said, “While the long absence of students from schools has affected learning processes, students in districts such as Kandhamal, Koraput, Rayagada, Nabarangpur or Malkangiri with poor network connectivity have lost out the most. Many students have skipped an entire year’s learning and this is bound to show up in their academic performances.”

Over the past year, there have been other despairing examples of just how difficult the pandemic has been. In August last year for instance, Andrea Jagaranga, a 13-year-old tribal student of Rayagada district died when the boulder he was sitting on to attend his online classes rolled downhill. Jagaranga had gone back to his village after physical classes were suspended due to Covid-19 and would climb atop a mountain a few furlongs away to find the best connectivity.

The way forward

Kandhamal’s district education officer Pramod Sarangi admits that learning loss is a major issue for students of Kandhamal considering its poor mobile connectivity. “As most children did not have much writing practice, we have asked the schools to focus on it and undertake learning recovery programmes. The teachers have been asked to teach important parts of the syllabus that the students missed out last year. But it is a difficult task.”

Behar of Azim Premji Foundation says both the Centre and the states must act. “States should take all possible measures to recover lost learning. Most importantly, teachers should be given adequate time to help the students recover the lost learning. Let’s say a kid is in 7th grade now. He left school when he was in the 5th. You can’t start with 7th grade syllabus right away as the kid has also forgotten what he had learnt in Class 5 and 6. The states have to give teachers time, and the appropriate kind of material,” he said.

The Central Square Foundation, a non-profit organization that works in the education sector has put forth 10 recommendations which include designing targeted interventions, especially for marginalized groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The other recommendations are increasing effective, in-person instructional time by reducing the number of holidays, freeing up teachers’ time from administrative tasks, gently re-inducting children into social interactions and a focus on foundational literacy and numeracy skills.

Back at the Phiringia Upgraded High School, headmaster Mahendra Das is almost tearful as he speaks. Most of his 300 students are back in school, but over the past two years, the school has fallen into greater depths of disrepair. Some classrooms are virtually unusable, and students have to huddle together in ones that are. Government mandated social distancing is impossible, and there is always fear of an outbreak. The greater fear is for the future of his students. In India’s education system, there is always an examination on the horizon. “The students are not at fault. They just are not ready. They can barely read, have jumped forward a class. Even for teachers like us, there is very little we can do,” Das said.

(Reporting for the story was done in December)

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