When Nelson Mandela famously said: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” little did we know that a day would come when this essential weapon would be at a treacherous risk. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting people worldwide irrespective of nationality or race, the education system has faced the most significant blow the generation has ever witnessed. It has impacted about 80 percent of the young learners worldwide, with 1.53 billion learners out of school due to the massive interruption to access to education. As online education overthrew conventional school education, even the mere experience of an online classroom setup remains a distant dream for many.

This global health crisis is the most significant economic downturn the world has ever seen, after the great depression, and though dire needs such as health, nutrition, and hygiene have to be responded to, prioritizing education recovery is vital to avoid long term implications, as highlighted in a high-level ministerial meeting in March 2021. Without a doubt, losing a whole generation of educated assets will be one of the biggest challenges to the world once the pandemic is contained.

The rapid closures of schools and very little time for planning left the schools with numerous obstacles. At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, technology became the center of educational experience. With the establishment of online education, a wide range of opportunities opened up. Students could now learn at their own pace away from the competitive atmosphere of classroom learning. The system democratized access to global education around the world and removed walls to effective learning. But the online mode of education also brought in umpteen challenges to tackle. Students and teachers struggled with unacquainted technology and the way of teaching. This by far reduced the efficiency of teaching because teachers who did brilliantly in a classroom setup failed pathetically at explaining even the simplest of concepts due to the lack of technological competency.

The once vibrant students are now confined to the four-cornered screens of their mobile phones and laptops. With ever-increasing screen time and lack of physical activities at one side, and loss of compassion, and a feeling of isolation, the students have been left in a state of boundless gloom due to the lack of face-to-face interaction. Therefore, it is evident that only a blend of both online and offline education would be effective in practice.

Online education has certainly been a critical point in decreasing community transmission and bridging the gap between time and space, but money defines the rules of the game; those born with a silver spoon in their mouth found their way past closed school doors to these new learning opportunities, but for those who work to make ends meet, an online learning platform is by far beyond reach. The digital divide that exists due to lack of technology and uninterrupted access to the internet has become an obstacle to continued learning for students in rural areas and disadvantaged families. Though the pandemic did not discriminate between rich and poor in action, the consequences hit the most vulnerable of all the hardest, deepening the previously existing educational inequalities. 

The closure of schools has also worsened food insecurity since many children depend on schools for healthy eating in India. Research has also shown the fact that school lunch is associated with mental health and academic improvements. As for India, 116 million hungry children were affected by the indefinite closure of schools since the mid-day meal program in schools, both government and private, is the most extensive school-feeding program in the world. Another upsetting fact to be considered is that many children who come from a vulnerable background reach school with an empty stomach, and the school’s mid-day meals are their only source of nutrition.

It is a horrid fact that we live in a country where young children are not even safe in their own homes. An online learning setup cannot safeguard children from predators such as pedophiles who could previously be kept in check to a certain degree; schools can no longer check who has access to the children during school hours. Children no longer have a third party to open up to about their fears.

Hence, it is essential for policymakers, school administrators, and other local officials to respond to all of these issues immediately- nutrition, learning, and safety needs of poor students. They must also keep in mind to choose the most relevant tools based on the dependability of both teachers and students’ internet connectivity and digital skills. Broadcasting through TV and radio is a very effective way to ensure that every child is given access to these technologies through practical methods like operating such devices from labs. Labs of schools and other educational institutes can be kept open for fixed periods, maintaining the COVID-19 protocol to enable online teaching and learning.

We must mobilize the available tools to connect students and teachers and address students’ psychosocial challenges due to this seclusion. It is also essential to plan schedules looking into the situation of the affected zones and the needs of students in the affected areas. Furthermore, giving brief training sessions and workshops to teachers is essential to help them learn the basic technological applications and internet use.

This global health crisis has taught us that attaining knowledge and applying it in the realm of action is the only operative way to reduce the effects of disasters. We must prioritize the flexibility of education systems to lessen the damage to children’s learning. It is imperative that we try to provide quality education and make sure that the initiatives of varied stakeholders reach the poorest of the poor. All schools should immediately look at a setup to deploy urgent funding to tackle any disasters that might come in the future. The Central, as well as State Governments should look at infusing funds to not only better the infrastructure of public schools, but the budget private schools as well, as a large part of the underprivileged population looks at budget private schools as an effective and practical option for securing their children’s education (future). Enhancing communication and coordination between stakeholders for coping with change also plays a vital role.

The shock witnessed by the education sector due to the pandemic has been unparalleled, disproportionately affecting the poor and vulnerable. Policymakers must keep in mind that no child is left out from receiving benefits from the policies they make. Good governance and responsive administration will always be the backbone of future preparedness in schools.

By Irene Mariah, Research Associate, Policy, LQF