The reach of online education, according to various surveys by higher education institutes and schools, ranges from 24-29% of student population. Factoring in errors, if any, one can stretch it at the maximum to 50%.
Some of the best estimates state that a vaccine is unlikely to be ready till the end of 2021. “Vaccine cover for 70% world population not before the end of 2022,” said Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, WHO, recently. However, on a positive note, infection rates have fallen to 37% over the last three weeks from 56% compared with the preceding three weeks.
Learning is an iterative process. One needs a teacher, a peer group, discussions, some interactivity for learning from others, by question, by debate, etc. Due to schools being closed, such learning, or what I call “learning-ethic”, is severely affected. The other dimension is that all students cannot learn in a unidirectional manner, and online teaching severely limits individual attention.
The numbers for anxiety, temper tantrums and hyperactivity in children have increased multi-fold in the last six months. There is also huge emotional distress in children due to lack of socialisation and staying confined. If we do not reopen schools, we are inviting another set of problems, and kids may even need psychological intervention.
This is primarily due to lack of devices such as mobile phones, laptops; and of internet connectivity; sufficient bandwidth; and uninterrupted power supply. In various locations, a combination of these issues is causing hurdles. If the government is in a mission mode to handle these issues, it is possible to ramp up the coverage of connectivity. When will the government go into a mission mode for it? Is this not very important to the nation?
The other side of the divide is a pre-Covid divide. What about the poor students who are now low on access to online education as well as deprivation of mid-day meals? For those students who are missing their mid-day meals, in fact, it is their all-day meals. What’s their residual aspiration to learn now?
What about the survival of private schools and the cascading insecurity among the teachers? Yes, they are doing all that’s possible from them. But will their teaching be unperturbed and scare-proof? Kids have to go to schools, schools need to survive, in order to revive the falling learning levels. In fact, schools build society. If we fail to notice this interdependence, we are failing ourselves.
As parents, we tend to overprotect. The parental urge to protect the child is fine, but we seem to be not realising that we are depriving one generation a great deal of their right to learn. Parents too are deciding thinking as if the virus is getting obliterated from the face of the earth the moment vaccine is approved for production.
Some self-styled experts are exhibiting a sudden urge to “discover” and “fix” parental responsibility in “teaching” their own kids — this is simply wrong. If so, homeschooling would have been the norm. If learning at home was so much doable, imagine we wouldn’t have had to establish so many schools and colleges. What is okay by exception cannot become the norm.
Can we empathise with our own children and their needs to learn? Empathy for children and their learning is paramount. Let’s also empathise with the child’s future, for whose physical safety we are genuinely worried so much. An extraordinary situation like this definitely needs creative solutions.
“Man is a pliant animal, a being who gets accustomed to anything”– so said Fyodor Dostoyevsky. We are hardwired to adapt to the new normal. Given the intrinsic nature of the human mind and spirit, man refuses to be cornered within four walls. For reasons of life, livelihood, and living, he is bound to go out and try to ape the old normal.
Indeed freedom is to be respected and choices need to be made to follow safe practices, as advised by health experts. But are we learning the right lessons from the last six months?
Schools have reopened in various countries around the world. The response has been mixed to good. Although the ecosystem conditions are not completely similar, we can pick up lessons from the way it is panning out in the US, UK and other countries.
The government should not think it knows all. In the US, they are going with a choice-based option. Taking precautions, although it is cumbersome, is in our hands, and doable compared to obliterating the virus. In the emerging situation, we don’t have much of a choice but to open schools, take precautions and then keep learning.
The only option is to accept the situation in totality and act on what best can be done. Past is fine for learning but action is now. Governments and civil society should move ahead in that direction and commit resources.
When there are no clear answers for returning to normalcy or the availability of vaccine in the near future – take precautions and continue life, living and learning — that’s what is the right approach. So let’s take whatever precautions we can, go ahead with the in-person classes and give it our best shot.
Schools must now be opened in a graded manner. Our schools and our mindsets too are obviously not ready. We can’t solve problems by keeping everything unchanged, right? Let’s push the boundaries.
(The author is Director, ICFAI Group)
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