The pandemic’s big disruption of schooling calls for close analysis

The effects of the pandemic on the schooling of Indian children continue to be observed in various forms, and the insights from this review study present a sobering picture.
The effects of the pandemic on the schooling of Indian children continue to be observed in various forms, and the insights from this review study present a sobering picture.


An in-depth look at why children dropped out or went absent will help us tackle crisis-created challenges of education better

With the aim of universalizing free and compulsory elementary education for all, India’s Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009, holds local authorities responsible for maintaining a record of children (up to the age of 14 years) residing in their jurisdiction, to ensure that they are enrolled in schools, attending the same, and thereby on their way to completing their elementary education.

Despite vast improvements made since then by the country towards achieving this goal, we know that in India a large number of children continue to be out of school, the explanation for which can be traced to various multi-dimensional factors, including poverty, disability, poor health, child marriage, child labour, migration, discrimination, and so on.

Major crises, such as the covid pandemic that took hold in March 2020, only exacerbate challenges faced by children in accessing education. The pandemic disruption has had a significant impact on schooling across the world, with the United Nations having estimated that 24 million learners (from the pre-primary to university level) may never return to school, globally.

Many efforts were made during this period to document the experiences of parents and children in accessing schooling in India, across geographies and communities, and by various organizations. However, we still lack a clear picture on the status of out-of-school children in the aftermath of the pandemic in India.

The Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy recently released a report that synthesizes evidence on out-of-school children in the country from across different state and non-state sources. This compilation of covid-specific surveys conducted from April 2020 to June 2022 found that the proportion of children who were not enrolled in a school, or had dropped out, ranged from 1.3% to 43.5%. This vast range was explained by the period, geography, and/or groups of households surveyed.

Beyond enrolment, we know that prolonged absenteeism can cause long-term adversities for children’s learning and their retention in schools. India, notably, saw one of the longest periods of school closures during the pandemic, compared to other countries in the world. They lasted almost two years.

During this time, absenteeism was largely a function of inaccessibility to digital devices or the internet. Across compiled studies and surveys, inaccessibility of devices ranged from 10% to 97%, while inaccessibility of internet connectivity as a means to participate in online classes ranged similarly from 11% to 91%.

Further, the proportion of children who ‘did not receive any online education’ ranged from 10% to 60%, with one study reporting that 43% of students had not accessed any online education for a period of up to 19 months (since the start of pandemic in March 2020).

The effects of the pandemic on the schooling of Indian children continue to be observed in various forms, and the insights from this review study present a sobering picture. Even where children continued to be enrolled in schools, they remained absent for prolonged periods, due to the over-reliance on digital modes of schooling during school closures. Despite the country’s increased penetration of smartphones, with parents reported to be investing more and more to get their children access, many Indian households could not overcome India’s digital divide. Moreover, even for children who had smartphones, laptops, television sets and so on at their disposal, the accessibility of academic content—in terms of the use of local languages, sign-language interpretation for those with hearing disabilities, etc—effectively meant that online classes were fruitless for many.

As we might expect, more children belonging to poorer households, lower caste groups and migrant households, apart from students with various disabilities, have been reported as being absent from online classes or having dropped out of school altogether.

In the case of both children with disabilities and migrant-household children, only a few studies have documented the unique challenges they face. This in itself reflects an apathy towards their plight, given that they suffered marginalization from education even before the pandemic.

However, we also find new sites of exclusion that warrant further examination. For example, evidence from a comparison with pre-pandemic data points to an increase in the percentage of children in the age cluster of 6-14 years who were not enrolled in any school during the pandemic. Given that the country has seen near universal enrolments in primary grades since the implementation of the Right to Education Act, this is a finding that should particularly trouble us. Studies also reported that parents invested less time and money in the education of their younger children, compared to older children, for example by purchasing smartphones only for the latter’s education.

As we try to recuperate from nearly 24 months of school closures and strive to bring children back to school, it is crucial we understand who have been left vulnerable to dropping out of or being absent from school for prolonged periods of time—and why. We can only hope that making sense of ‘why’ will help us minimize the challenges faced in accessing education in times of crisis.

Aditya Narayan Rai, Nisha Vernekar & Karan Singhal are, respectively, a research fellow and a senior resident fellow and lead, inclusive education, at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi, and a visiting researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socioeconomic Research (LISER).


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