Covid: As students return to school, teachers find unprecedented learning loss
With schools reopening across the country after a year-and-a-half, teachers from different states and Union Territories (UTs) said that they are observing “unprecedented” loss in learning levels among students, specifically among those who were not in regular touch with their schools due to the digital divide.
Several teachers and principals said, in interviews, that not only did students forget what they learnt before the Covid-19 pandemic — which forced the country to shut all educational institutions in March 2020 — but they are also showing several psychological and behavioural changes. Teachers also observed more loss of learning among students who did not have access to online learning during this time.
“Many of our students, who had started reading proper sentences in English and Hindi before the pandemic, are now struggling to even pronounce regular words. Also, students are finding it difficult to adjust back in the classrooms, mingle with their classmates, and [are] showing hesitancy in speaking or reading out lessons during classes. The situation is even worse among students who had no access to digital devices and the internet,” said Parul Kumari, an English teacher at a government school in Bihar’s West Champaran district.
The impact of a gaping, and varied, digital divide
A story published by Hindustan Times on Thursday detailed a report by the Union education minister which revealed that around 29 million students across 24 states and UTs do not have access to digital devices as per the data collected in June 2021.
Of the 29 million, 14 million are from Bihar, 3.2 million, from Jharkhand; 3.1 million, from Karnataka; 3.1 million, from Assam; and 1.75 million, from Tamil Nadu. The numbers could be higher as seven states and UTs, including the densely populated Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, have not submitted the data.
The data highlights the extent to which these students have been disadvantaged over the past year-and-a-half when almost all education has been online. “The ‘new normal’ may also have a huge impact on the learning levels for almost all children; learning loss may be a reality for many children,” the ministry report stated.
Even though there were several interventions by the Centre and states/UTs to continue the teaching-learning process for such students, teachers said it would take them six months to a year to bring them at par with those who were able to attend online learning during this period.
“At least one academic session will go [just] in bringing all students to one level. It might take even more time for them to adjust back in classrooms with the same concentration and patience as they had developed in the pre-pandemic era,” said Kumari.
Lowered learning levels among the disadvantaged
According to a survey report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) last month, at least 80% of students between the ages of 14 and 18 reported lower levels of learning at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, compared to when they attended classes in schools. The survey was conducted across six states — Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.
The survey highlighted that at least 67% of teachers perceive students to have fallen behind in their overall progress. Many teachers backed the survey’s observations.
“Students, who are first-generation learners and do not have anyone to help them with studies at home, suffered the most. A majority of such students did not even have smartphones and internet connectivity for online classes. Even as schools provided them with notes and study material, they could not develop an understanding of the topics without physical classes. All this has developed a huge learning gap among them which is now very prominent as they return to classes. A majority of our students fall in this category,” said Jagan Kumar, a mathematics teacher at a government senior secondary school in a village in the Khunti district of Jharkhand.
Bina Kumari, principal of a government school in Uttar Pradesh (UP)’s Jhansi district, said that the impact of a prolonged closure of schools was found on primary students the most. “These students are in their foundational years of learning, and this long and unexpected break from school has created a huge learning gap among them. Many students of classes 1 to 6 have completely lost their habit of writing. They have forgotten basic problem-solving skills in mathematics as well,” she said.
A study released by the Azim Premji University last year first revealed that 92% of primary school children have suffered from the learning loss of at least one specific language ability during the lockdown, while 82% of children have lost at least one specific mathematics ability.
First, addressing the fallout
The ministry’s report titled, ”Initiatives by school education sector in 2020-21 for continuing teaching and learning”, released on Wednesday, highlighted that the digital divide has hit some states exceptionally hard.
For instance, in at least seven states/UTs — Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand — 40%-70% of students did not have access to digital devices during the academic session 2020-21. This percentage was better in some states/UTs including Delhi (4%), Kerala (1.63%), and Tamil Nadu (14.51%).
Teachers in the most affected states fear that it will take them more time to bridge the learning gap. “The first challenge for us is to address the needs of students who could not attend online classes or access online study material. A big chunk of our students falls in that category. We will first have to bring them at par with the students who have devices and internet access before taking any step to bridge the learning gap caused by the pandemic among all students. Otherwise, there are chances that such students may drop out after facing several challenges,” said Mahavir Verma, principal of a government school in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli district.
The Unicef survey released in September also warned that approximately 8% of children are not likely to return to schools. The survey also found that the use of platforms such as WhatsApp and Youtube among girls was 8% lower than boys.
Some teachers also said that they have observed a digital gender divide. “Many of our girl students have complained that despite the availability of smartphones at their home, they do not have access to them. Either their brothers are using them, or family members do not consider it important to give them to girls for educational purposes. Now that they have returned to classes, we have to put extra efforts to address their issues,” said a primary school teacher at a government school in Haryana’s Panipat district, who did not want to be named.
The pressing need for intervention
Poonam Batra, professor of education from the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, said that the figure of 29 million students without access to digital devices is highly underestimated.
“Several surveys have shown that the digital divide is very large in both urban and rural areas. The bulk of children left out of the learning process are from marginalised communities across the country simply because they did not have access to digital devices, or internet connection infrastructure, or because they lacked the resources to buy internet data packages despite having devices,” she added.
“India had achieved near universalisation at the elementary level as a result of the Right to Education. The most critical issue has been that of providing equitable quality education. Since the pandemic, the state’s attempt to shift education to online learning has brought back the problem of access to education, especially for children from marginalised communities,” she said.
Batra suggests that, as schools open up across the country, the critical need is for teachers to conduct realistic assessments to understand the conceptual understanding of students, not that of “rote memorisation of the syllabus”. This alone can help schools to pitch classroom learning to children’s cognitive levels. The fact is that even those who had access to online learning may not have gained conceptual understanding,” she said.
Experts also suggest psychological and emotional support to students. Meanwhile, as per the education ministry report, several states/UTs are providing counselling, organising webinars and one-on-one sessions with parents and students, and different community engagement programmes.
Officials at the education ministry said that the extent of “learning loss” will be gauged during this year’s National Assessment Survey (NAS) which is scheduled to take place in November.