How a virus turned the classroom upside down
Ram Singh is staring at an uncertain future. The 25-year-old visually impaired postgraduate student at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) moved to his home in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar district when the government announced a nationwide lockdown in March to curb the spread of Covid-19. Since then, the university has held semester examinations twice, but the final-year Masters student of International Relations has failed to appear both times, due to connectivity snags and lack of online resources.
The 25-year-old said the majority of his study material, including his laptop which has reading assistive devices, is back in his hostel room on campus. “The laptop had all my data and research work required for studies. But we have not been allowed to visit the hostel and collect our stuff till now. I have been using my sister’s laptop for the last 10 months but it does not have the reading software,” he said.
Singh hails from humble roots, his father is a farmer and mother is a homemaker. The lockdown and the pandemic have been difficult on all of them, but especially on him because his mobility has been restricted. “It’s been so harsh and challenging without any help. Also, it’s restricted because of the lack of internet. In our area, the connectivity is so poor. One can’t attend an online class without it getting disconnected,” he said.
Many of his friends couldn’t appear in the first online exam, conducted on August-September, but managed in the second iteration of the examination that started this month. “But I can’t even go to cyber cafés since I would require human assistance. We could not get even the minimum during the pandemic,” he said.
University authorities said they have already given multiple opportunities for students to appear in exams and complete the academic year. “In case some students are still left behind, the university will help them. It’s been an unprecedented year and the administration is helping students in every way,” said a senior administrative official.
Singh hoped the university gives him another chance, with a pen-and-paper examination, and feared he might lose a year if he didn’t complete the pending semester at the earliest. “I can only take admission in any other course after completing my semester. Otherwise, I will have to drop a year and I do not want that,” he said.
He is not alone.
The pandemic upended academic calendars across the country as fears of infection forced authorities to shut schools and colleges and shift all teaching online. Many students missed semesters, or lost their chance to go abroad for studies. Others waited anxiously for dates of competitive professional entrance exams, like JEE or NEET that they spent years preparing for.
Disputes about national tests reached the Supreme Court, and board examination dates for the following year have still not been finalised. What’s more, thousands of students — mainly from lower-income backgrounds — were forced to drop out of school as a contracting economy hurt family incomes and made paying fees difficult.
Anxiety around the virus and its transmission also revolutionised teaching methods and how we study, from the elementary to the graduate level. Classrooms became small square boxes on a zoom call, classroom chatter became encrypted chat boxes and daily attendance became a sign-in password. You needn’t talk loudly in class to interrupt it any more, you could now pass around the zoom link and wait for strangers to disrupt teaching.
“We are definitely not going back to pre-Covid style of teaching and learning even after reopening the schools. Education from now on will be blended, interdisciplinary and integrated,” said Jyoti Arora, principal of Mount Abu Public School in Rohini. “The pandemic changed the education sector forever.”
Arora explained that the pandemic initially caught teachers on the wrong foot as everyone was not skilled in using technological learning tools and online learning lacked a structured environment for students.
“But this challenge was eventually turned into an opportunity by introducing experiential learning, art integration and critical thinking aspect to the virtual mode curriculum,” she added.
Some of the most anxious were final-year students in high schools and colleges: the former over competitive exams and the latter over job prospects, term-end tests and higher education abroad.
“There is a general sense of despondency and gloom in final-year students as they face difficulty in scheduling their career,” said Tanvir Aeijaz, an associate professor of Political Science at Delhi University’s Ramjas College. “Those who applied abroad aren’t sure about admissions and mode of studies. While many made changes in plans, some started higher education online,” he added.
Ripple effect of the pandemic-hit academic year is likely to be felt for years. Nearly 24 million children globally are at risk of not returning to school next year, estimated UNICEF in August, and girls and women may be disproportionately affected. A World Bank report in October estimated that the prolonged closure of schools may cause a loss of $400 billion in India’s future earnings.
The brunt of this disruption may be borne by children from weaker backgrounds, who lost access to assured meals, free textbooks and other facilities. “There is an immense loss of learning among such children. Prolonged closure of schools and financial crises wrought by the lockdown enforced to curb the pandemic has pushed a lot of poor children into child labour,” said Sanjay Gupta, director of CHETNA (Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action), a non-governmental organisation.