Representative image of a classroom. Photo: shankaronline/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

By Mohit Verma and Navya Poonia

India has experienced one of the longest school closures in the world, an average of 69 weeks across states, leaving millions of school children without any support. Since then, all discussions and debates around the opening of schools have remained limited to those who can afford online education, ignoring the large majority with no access to the internet, a figure which is as high as over 70% for rural areas according to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India).

As for Rajasthan, according to a report by the Indian Express earlier this year, only 10% of children at a secondary school in Banswara district had a smartphone at home. That’s how bad the situation has been.

To investigate the ground realities of online education further, we surveyed about 45 houses in the Kathputli Nagar Basti and Hathroi areas in Jaipur as part of the SCHOOL survey carried out by Roadscholarz, a team of researchers, in August across 15 states and Union territories. Among other things, the survey found that out of the 1400+ surveyed children in relatively deprived hamlets and bastis, only 24% in urban areas, and 8% in rural areas were studying online.

The urban-rural divide in education was evident in the survey findings. In rural areas, only 28% of children were regularly attending schools, and 37% were not studying at all. Nearly 50% of rural children were unable to read a few words in a simple reading test, and two-thirds of parents in urban areas felt that their child’s reading/writing abilities had declined after the lockdown. Furthermore, 97% of parents in rural areas wanted schools to reopen as soon as possible.

The findings of the survey show the devastating impact of lockdown-induced school closures on marginalised children. Jaipur, unsurprisingly, was not an exception.

Childhood robbed and hopes dashed 

Take the case of Krishna. He was living with his aunt in Jaipur where he was enrolled at a private school. Due to the lack of a smartphone, he was not able to keep up with the material sent by the school. Consequently, he had to drop out and enrol at a government school this year.

Krishna, however, is not alone. Due to the lack of smartphones to access online education and the closure of close to 8,000 private schools in the state, close to 8.8 million students were enrolled at state-run schools in 2020-21 compared to 8.1 million in the preceding year.

Most of the children we spoke to were enrolled in the nearby government schools. The only time anyone got to visit the school was when it was distributing ration. Other than that, there had been no communication or support from the school or the teachers for most of these “offline children”. Children in the locality either sat idle at home or started helping around the house with dreams of a better future fading with each passing day.

Many of the residents of the basti were simply struggling to survive. One woman told us that they had no money to buy even the necessities and there were times when they had to depend on ration from their children’s school to survive after the lockdown.

Online education for such families is simply a myth.

It was found the problem was not exclusive to offline children though. Even those with smartphones were facing severe issues. Kamar-e-Alam, a class V student, was studying online regularly so to speak. In the name of online classes, all he received was a 10-minute video from his school every day. Other than that, he had received no support from his school or teachers who he hadn’t seen since the lockdown last year.

Similarly, Chandani has three other school-going siblings. Her father works as a casual labourer. Only he had a smartphone in the family and he left his phone at home every day before going to work so that all four of his children could study. Since four of them shared the same device, they wouldn’t get enough time on the phone to properly do their online classes.

There are many other children like these who either do not have access to online education or if they do, it is partial at best.

For instance, Himani’s mother is an Aanganwadi worker. She holds a BA degree and took care of kids in the local Aanganwadi. Then she would come home and helped her kids. She said her children couldn’t study online because they were unable to understand anything through online learning. As a result, their education suffered a lot and they forgot most things they had learnt.

Therefore, even children with educated parents and some access to online education were found facing a major learning loss crisis as validated by the findings from the survey.

Some children like Mallika were also found falling behind their peers. She depended upon her mother’s and sister’s earnings as domestic workers, who migrated from West Bengal, for her education. However, after lockdown, both of them lost their jobs and they could not afford Mallika’s education anymore. She was consequently sent back to her village, but she had to return as she could not fit into the state board curriculum in Bengal anymore.

Back in Jaipur, her old school’s demands of online homework were expensive to meet and she was also found to be behind her peers because of her missing (gap) year. With every subsequent class, she found herself falling behind more and more. Due to lack of remedial facilities, and private tuition being too expensive an option, she was worried if she would ever be able to catch up.

As results from the SCHOOL survey and these accounts from Jaipur show, school closures in India have had a devastating impact on the education of children, particularly those from marginalised castes and classes. There is an immediate need to reopen schools, especially for primary and upper primary levels in Rajasthan and elsewhere if we’re serious about the future of our children.

This story first appeared on thewire.in