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The classrooms are empty. Dusty chairs and tables gather cobwebs, as though forgotten in time. The voices of teachers calling out letters and words that would echo in a sing-song child chorus have been replaced by the pings of WhatsApp forwards. For the lucky few whose parents own smartphones, these online messages arrive like unconvincing emissaries who claim that Indian children are still learning.

The pandemic has illuminated the many ways in which India is divided. In urban enclaves, schools have transitioned to digital platforms with only the slightest hiccup, as teachers quickly upskilled to shift their lessons online. In the country’s vast rural swathes, where only 4% of homes own a computer, and where learning acquisition was already a major concern, the picture is far bleaker.

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The recently released Annual Status of Education Report(ASER) shows how the multiple hardships of migration, loss of livelihood and school closures have put the already-fragile learning capacity of rural children at further risk. The data points to lower enrolment amid an endless wait for schools to reopen, a large shift away from private schools to government schools, and a disproportionate number of young girls who are dropping out, some possibly never to return.

As teachers and administrators pull together to reach what material they can to children in their efforts to save the academic year and stem a larger learning crisis from overwhelming the system, the infrastructure gaps of inadequate teacher training, low educational resources and a lack of digital access point to how easily the country’s educational network can be decimated by an unexpected turn of events, leaving an entire generation of children at risk.

What, then, is the way out? How do we circumvent the digital divide and rejig educational environments and capacities so that children can keep up their learning through the covid pandemic and continue to get support once restrictions are removed?

Think low-tech: Reports from rural Maharashtra of children seated in socially distant circles, receiving lessons over a loudspeaker, are heartening. They inspire thinking around a curriculum designed for delivery at scale over low-end technologies like radio. It is easy to envision self-sustaining, hyper-local learning communities coalescing around such solutions.

Get parents to play: Studies around the world validate the power of guided play in enhancing learning outcomes. The idea of capitalizing on children’s natural propensity to learn through play is gaining currency in urban areas. However, parents in rural or low-resource homes are still inclined to think of play and learning as two separate realms of experience. By showing parents how to guide their children through play with objects commonly found at home, and how to work play organically into daily busy routines, we open imaginations to the learning opportunities that surround children wherever they are. It is also likely that schools will take some time to hobble back to normal and that parental involvement in learning is here to stay. Learning how to harness the value of play can be empowering to parents who feel ill-equipped to teach their children. The bonus hidden in this approach is that children, families and entire communities stand to gain from the lasting socio-emotional benefits of bonds built over play.

Blended learning: Government schools in rural India have outdone private schools in distributing text books and materials to their students through the pandemic. As the penetration of smartphones increases, embedding digital access into available material through picture recognition or QR codes can open up virtual classrooms at times when physical classrooms are inaccessible, or even enhance learning for children with low reinforcement or mentoring support at home.

Skilling and equipping teachers: The ASER report shows that only about a third of all children in rural areas managed to receive any study material from their teachers. Interestingly, for the ones who did, over 60% of the material that came in was shared over WhatsApp. The lack of resources and training undoubtedly makes it challenging for teachers in rural India to pivot towards using technology to share learning material. Partnerships between governments, education institutions and civil society can address this gap by creating mixed-media content that is easy to use and share, aids multi-sensory learning, and also creates feedback loops for assessment. While such methodologies can never replace the impact and motivation of human interaction, investing in these methods would allow teachers to stay in touch with students and ensure that learning continues despite the frequent interruptions of schooling that are endemic to rural India.

These practices would also be invaluable in ensuring that young children who migrate seasonally or temporarily with parents to distant work places remain connected to a familiar learning ecosystem.

With the extreme hardship that the pandemic has unleashed, it is hard to think of silver linings. But, as with all disruptions, it is forcing us to rethink early education and question whether current models still serve us, or whether a better way might emerge from this crisis.

Sonali Khan is managing director, Sesame Workshop India. Her Twitter handle is @sonalikhan

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