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Opinion | The big challenge of schooling India’s offline millions

While access to education and nutritious food must be revived, technological innovation may hold the key

A whopping 1.6 billion young people, or about 90% of the world’s student population, were shut out of school and university due to measures to contain covid-19 in the month of April, as mentioned by the British charity Save the Children in its recent report, Save Our Education. The report throws up a clear warning of a “global unprecedented education emergency" with up to 9.7 million children affected by school closures at risk of never going back to class, as global cases hit a new milestone of 13 million. In addition to the social fallouts, the economic fallout of the crisis could force an extra 90 to 117 million children into poverty, with a knock-on effect on school admissions.

It’s another crisis staring at the world and more so for children in India. India has one-third of the world’s poorest children. Even before the covid-19 pandemic brought new uncertainties to their lot, policy and academic circles were filled with talk of India’s “learning crisis". Alarm bells rang as reports said that less than half of India’s seven-year olds could read at grade level. Hearteningly, the critical need for foundational learning was brought into the spotlight by the Draft National Education Policy, 2019. Every organization working in the space of early childhood care and education rallied to respond. Plans were drawn up, and it seemed like early education in India was on the brink of a brave new dawn.

Then, along came covid-19. As schools, creches and anganwadis closed, all plans were upended overnight. The newly-begun and still shaky learning journeys of millions of children came to an abrupt halt. Most of them were also deprived of the essential nutrition and health services that government-run early learning centres provide.

What meaningful talk can we make of recovery till we recognize this as a silent crisis? We must find ways to address this emergency, lest our much-touted demographic dividend turns into a disaster.

Put out a safety net: Child safety must become an urgent national priority. The well-laid plans and structures for child protection are severely underfunded with only 1,500 crore for 472 million children.

A recent report by Unicef and the International Labour Organization says that the pandemic is likely to undo a 20-year battle against child labour. Uncertainty, falling household income and school closures may force children into exploitative and hazardous workspaces.

The consequences of not intervening quickly can be seen in the situation of migrant children who work as casual labour in eateries and factories in India’s large cities. Left to their own devices, abandoned by employers who have fled, these children now have nowhere to go. They need to be taken off the streets at the earliest. Their potential to grow, thrive and contribute can perhaps still be salvaged if we act in time.

Be kind: All responses to young children, through the pandemic and beyond, must spring from empathy, kindness and a willingness to listen to their pain. Stories of hunger, domestic violence and loss are forming the narratives of these young lives. Schools, as and when they reopen, cannot possibly go back to learning as usual. Socio-emotional learning must take centre-stage, so that these children can cope, process and reignite their enthusiasm to learn. By sensitizing teachers and frontline anganwadi workers to focus on mental and emotional wellbeing, we prepare the ground for communities of happy, engaged learners.

Be nimble: Schools and colleges have been quick to adapt to online learning. However, digital access and connectivity challenges are creating a widening chasm between those who will continue to learn and those who will not. Technological innovation needs to bridge this gap. Where the child cannot come to school, school must go to the child. By adapting to available technologies, like television, radio, mobile phone or even the loudspeaker, it is possible to think creatively and reach the farthest child. The pandemic offers us an opportunity to design content that can traverse platforms and a chance to benefit from these solutions in the years to come.

At the same time, government, companies and civil society must keep pushing forward on digital inclusion, and not stop till every last pocket is covered. While online learning may not offer the social interaction and dedicated learning environment of a physical classroom, it is a learning opportunity that can be made available to every child.

Every home a classroom, every community a learning environment: Over 31 million children depend on the anganwadi network for early learning, health and nutrition. It is critical that these centres reopen. Till they do, however, we must make every effort to provide these services to children at home. In a wishful reboot and rethink of early learning systems, every community would take responsibility for nurturing its youngest members. Global studies show that guided play with a caring, attentive adult can boost early learning outcomes and enhance bonding, with benefits to both caregiver and child. With a little training, these skills are easily developed in caregivers, even those who have limited time and resources. If these skills were widely developed and encouraged by frontline workers, along with vaccinations and essential nutrition, and endorsed by community leaders, every home would be turned into a learning environment. What a ray of hope and joy this could be for India’s youngest. And what better way to help families heal?

Sonali Khan is managing director, Sesame Workshop India

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