Pandemic 2020: A hit on the children’s well-being and learning outcomes

While the debates during this pandemic surround the ramifications of coronavirus on the recession, shrinking GDP growth, increased mortality and malnourishment, the arguments on child’s well-being and learning outcomes especially in the vulnerable settings are much softer. Exploring the extent to which children in such settings are at risk, and how policies and programmes can foster their learning experience is thus crucial for building a stimulating and safe environments for them.

Schools are closed in 188 countries, impacting over 90% of the world’s children’s education (UNESCO Institute for Statistics). These closures, along with unequal access to the available online education services widens the gaps in achieving the age-appropriate learning outcomes by children. While doing my research I read an interesting report published by UNICEF that has stated daunting the impact of COVID-19 pandemic in India.

‘Only a quarter of households (24%) in India have an access to the internet causing large rural-urban divide’.

Due to this digital divide approximately most children out of the total of — 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education, besides 28 million children who were going to anganwadi centres are missing out their daily school activities and learning opportunities. Another challenge in the education system in India is the seamless integration of technology into the present delivery and pedagogical approaches used in schools. Systems and staff both need preparation and support to mitigate the challenges faced in delivering the quality education to children during the pandemic situations.

Voicing out the real challenges faced by children:

Although school closures are temporary, however, I believe it certainly has the potential to impact children’s learning outcomes leading to higher dropout rates and lower academic grades in the future. The biggest reason among the others is the sudden lockdown restrictions, that has triggered challenges like-

  • Food insecurities among children- Most children in marginalised communities are dependent on their school lunch for getting nutritious meals at least once a day. The famous govt. initiative Mid-Day meal in India gained success after enrolling many out of school children back to school based on their scheme. Researches have shown that meals provided in schools or at anganwadi centres have positively impacted the child’s well-being, resulting in positive learning outcomes.
  • Lack of stimulating environment at home and the absence of parental knowledge- Long holidays like summer vacations in India contributes to a loss in the academic achievement of children with low socioeconomic status. Researchers in the field has given credits to summer slide for making about half of the overall difference in the academic achievement among children between lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds. This is due to the non-availability of resource material, lack of stimulating print-rich environment, and poor or no guidance from the parents at home. Similarly, the current situation of extended school closures because of COVID-19 has widened these inequalities in educational outcomes among these children.[1]
  • Child marriages- This is one of the major challenges that has been negatively impacting the children’s well-being, making them more vulnerable during this pandemic. Tele survey report 2020 conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), stated clearly the rise in child marriage due to pandemic. Young girls who were already considered burden especially for poverty stricken families and are robbed of their childhood and forced to marry early. This leaves them to suffer sexual violence, undergo risky pregnancies and deliveries, unfortunately making them traumatised. Teachers and other community staff needs to be trained in working with children who are traumatized under such conditions. Dial-in numbers can be one of the ways of getting the cases registered
  • Digital gaps- Children from low-income households, live under conditions that make home-schooling difficult. This is primarily because online learning platforms usually requires an active screen- a mobile or a computer along with a reliable internet connection. In India, most of the children are living in houses with limited or no access to reading materials or other learning resources. This digital divide among diverse families is leaving children behind in attainting their age-appropriate milestones.
  • Recession and loss of income- Beyond the educational challenges, children from marginalised families are facing another threat- the economic recession and loss of parent’s jobs. Recessions have exacerbated levels of child poverty with long-lasting consequences for children’s health, wellbeing, and learning outcomes.

A multi-pronged strategy is thus, necessary to manage the pandemic situation by developing a resilient education system in the long term. However, organisations are working continuously to build sustainable solutions and minimise the risks for children in future. UNICEF and Microsoft have recently launched a global learning platform to help address the COVID-19 education crisis. These platforms are gradually trying to build knowledge gaps through the better remote learning experience and teacher training. Still, there is a long way to go!

What looks easy is definitely not! This is due to lack of preparedness among key stakeholders with regard to using technology.

  • Policy interventions- enhancing laws, and regulations in the education eco-space by including education as an explicit part of public stimulus packages. Providing a scope in polices to incorporate strategies for financing smart solutions that aim to solve educational challenges during pandemics and emergencies.
  • Policy interventions- enhancing laws, and regulations in the education eco-space by including education as an explicit part of public stimulus packages. Providing a scope in polices to incorporate strategies for financing smart solutions that aim to solve educational challenges during pandemics and emergencies.
  • Systemic interventions are changes that would affect elements of intervention by specifying the roles of the diverse organisations, civil societies etc. in finding/delivering low-cost technological solutions and stimulating the education needs of vulnerable children. Organising online capacity building workshops for teachers and other community staff to reach out to marginalised groups. Social benefit schemes can also be offered to the most vulnerable families that can help those access online classes and learning materials through free internet packages etc. The fair price ration shops should continue and enough rations through government schemes should be made available to marginsalised communities by collaborating with local organisations.
  • Environmental interventions involve physical or material changes to the economic, social or physical environment- It is important to emphasise and build on both tech and non-tech solutions (e.g. interactive lessons, recorded classrooms, sending activity-based assignments online, and delivering paper materials with the support of community leaders, Anganwadi/Asha workers) to assure continuity for all groups. Secondly, apart from the adoption of technology, exploring flexible learning schedules and distribution of reading materials for students in their local language or dialect is another way to solidify the education system.

Examples like- school education department in Maharashtra has launched 3 educational channels on to telecast lectures for class 10th Marathi and English students along with class 12th science students and one radio programme on JioSaavn to broadcast audiobooks for 8 to 10 classes. PlanetRead has been telecasting Bollywood songs with subtitling in major languages to promote early reading skills on local cable Tv channels and Doordarshan. Sesame Workshop India is also telecasting, early literacy concepts through interesting cartoon series on these channels which is accessible in remote areas as well.

Community radios with pre-recorded sessions for students can be distributed to the community leaders to reinforce their members to integrate learning through these channels. Loudspeakers to share important messages and instructions to key stakeholders can be shared. Simple Text-based instructions and activities over SMS can be sent to children and caregivers to keep them updated about their assessments also.

These practices to some extent will still have challenges like poor electricity facilities and internet connectivity as online education may not offer equal educational opportunities to all. Teaching through TV channels cannot clarify student’s doubts with the teachers, as it will be the one-way method. Going forward, Interactive voice response (IVR) techniques can be explored and infrastructure can be prepared that would allow students to have IVR dialogue with the set of teachers to share their doubts and anxieties with them. IVR systems can respond with pre-recorded or dynamically generated audio to further direct users on how to proceed. This solution is definitely resource-intensive, therefore requires strategic partnerships and long-term convergence/collaborations.

[1] COVID-19, school closures, and child poverty: a social crisis in the making-Vol 5, Published Online April 7, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30084-0

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(20)30109-7/fulltext