Neha is a student of Class 10 in one of Govandi’s many budget private schools. When they shut their doors a little more than 12 months ago, Neha was left with an abundance of bad options. Confined to a 100-square foot room with her parents and a younger sibling, she first tried using her father’s smartphone to access learning. Eventually, though, he went back to work and Neha had no option but to pull out old books. She even practiced math sums from Class 9. With no teacher, no peers, and little access to the internet, she couldn’t do any better.
Encountering a difficult math problem or an incomprehensible concept wasn’t just frustrating. It was immovable.
Less than 25 kilometers away, Aditya studies in one of Bandra’s many high-income schools. Forty-eight hours after his school shut down last March, administrators rolled out an online plan for instruction. Technology teams were mobilised. Teachers were retrained. By Monday morning, students were navigating Google Classrooms, learning securely via Zoom, and accessing small-group tutoring.
Encountering a tough math problem, for Aditya, was reliably and swiftly met with immediate assistance. The safety net picked him up.
This pandemic has elicited a litany of statistics that are both astounding and unsettling. It’s shut down schools in 191 countries, including 1.5 million here in India. 87 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion children lost an entire year of learning. Additional analyses are correlating repeated lockdowns with a rise in teen suicides, feelings of isolation, and severe mental health issues.
Along with most things, though, those statistics grow more disparate along lines of inequity. Students like Neha, who have little access to technology and connectivity, are projected to lose more than 16 months of instruction. The cost of that? Up to 6 percent of her future life earnings will be gone. She’s now three times more likely to drop out. Neha’s reality, unfortunately, is no anomaly. It’s the reality shared by more than 65 percent of India’s 320 million children.
Education Not Prioritised in India This Year
We have, for better or for worse, largely deprioritised education in India this year. We’ve converted schools to relief centres. We’ve mobilised teachers to facilitate community screenings. We’ve opened up bars, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, and yoga centres all before reopening schools. We’ve essentially told our children that, for this year, they’re on their own.
And now, in less than 60 days, local governments and state boards are faced with an impossible set of decisions and questions: what on earth should we do with the impending Class 10 and 12 board exams? How can we fairly administer an exam, when two thirds of Indian students have missed more than a year of instruction?
Local governments, to be clear, have not found themselves in enviable positions this year. With limited resources to fight a raging pandemic, do you choose between saving lives today or staving off a generational crisis? While few will argue that we did enough to bolster education, it’s too simplistic to lay blame at the top.
The board-exam decisions that await us will be no easier. Governments have invested both time and money into an important set of assessments. Papers have been printed. Teams have again been mobilised. Canceling exams will carry large implications that force colleges to rely on often unreliable internal grading.
What Must We Do?
We must be cognizant, however, that the decisions we make will also have consequences for millions of Indian children – for their futures. There are a number of logical and measured responses which may not solve the issue, but will mitigate its negative effects:
Reopen schools for students in grades ten to twelve. Transmission rates among younger students have, statistically, been significantly lower. We should focus on vaccinating their teachers, rotating classes to facilitate distancing, and safely reopening our schools.
Postpone exams by 90 days. Students across the world are raising their voices. They’re not trying to shirk. They just want a fair shot. Postponing will have large implications on admission processes, but it’s a price we’ll have to pay. Doing so will demand that our various school boards work together to arrive at a decision that works for all students.
Make significant reductions in the syllabus tested. Students didn’t just lose teachers this year. They lost the process of learning. We need to make significant reductions in what we expect them to master, if we’re choosing to continue testing.
More than 247 million Indian children have faced the brunt of this year’s pandemic. The toll has been severe. Asking them to now take a high-stakes exam, which is assessing a system that’s been shut down and inactive, will only exacerbate that toll.
Sandeep Rai is the Chief of City Operations at Teach For India and the Author of Grey Sunshine. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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