Opinion

Why Education Must be an Essential Service: An Educator’s Impassioned Plea

Kavita Anand
Why Education Must be an Essential Service: An Educator’s Impassioned Plea

Our students’ parents do not even have smart-phones”;

Some students live in areas that do not have even telephone access - there is no tower”;

Our students’ families’ have maybe one smart-phone with limited data that has to be used by the parents and shared between two, sometimes three, children”;

The only way we can get through to our students is on phone and WhatsApp”.

These are only some of the comments from not one, but several school leaders describing their present situation during our online meetings about ‘Online Teaching and Learning’ (Adhyayan’s Eduseries) attended by school leaders and management from 50 schools across India. We hear the despair in their voices: education has been disrupted; many of their students now don’t have access to traditional classroom learning or to any learning at all. How should do their students continue their education without the required infrastructure? Can they hope that somehow the virus will disappear just as suddenly as it appeared?

The hardest thing for any human being to accept is an irreversible change. And so, teachers and leaders are struggling to imagine a world in which they may no longer have classrooms bursting at the seams, full of eager young learners hungry for knowledge and impatiently waiting to become productive, earning members of their families, most of them coming from the lower socioeconomic strata of society.  

The closure of schools was sudden. Across the world, there were announcements, and within a month of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring the Covid19 pandemic, 91% of the world’s student population found itself at home. In India, schools had less than 24 hours to figure out how to respond to the closure notice. School leaders, who were used to government orders were faced with the need to make independent instant decisions - Go online? Use an app? Let go? Lie low? And this decision had to be made in the absence of any definitive information - just how long would the lockdown last? A week? a fortnight? Would it be like the usual school closures for pollution or a heatwave? 

By the end of March 2020, 32 crore students in India lost access to education for an indefinite period of time. An access that had been enabled with the greatest difficulty over that last 40 years, by incrementally creating the second-largest school system in the world that provided every child with a primary school within a kilometre from their homes.

All 1.5 million schools in India closed their gates. A handful of private schools in every metro city went online immediately. They could. Others followed their lead over the next three weeks. They could too. By mid-April, along with the extension of the lockdown to May 2020, The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) ordered that all schools would have to go online. Could they?  

With hundreds of years of face-to-face didactic teaching in our DNA, public and private schools are forced to accept a painful reality: they have no choice but to prepare for and deliver, a distance learning model. Their decisions on how quickly they prepare are going to be critical for the future of the students, and the country. This is especially so given how the economy, globally, is already taking a massive hit due to the Coronavirus clampdowns. Jobs that were already too few before the Covid era are going to be even fewer. Life is going to be really difficult for most who will graduate this year, and that has nothing to do with the difficulty of no examinations. 

This situation is completely different from 70 years ago when we began to formulate a system that favoured a few students going to school. At that time our problem was defined as one of low access. Over the last 50 years, we developed nation-wide programmes to get most of our children into primary school, only to realise that we were losing them by the 1st, 5th and then the 8th grades. The Right to Education Act 2009 brought in a focus on the quality of education provision. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reports continued to reveal the agonising impoverishment in the academic achievement of the students in spite of - and in my view, due to - a narrow examination focus in schools. Our policymakers acknowledged that the problem lay in the quality of the schooling experience. Consultations were held to develop a bold new education policy that would address the needs of the second largest and youngest population in the world. We appeared to be on the cusp of big transformations in the school system. 

At this critical juncture, Covid19 swept like a malicious twist in the tale into an unprepared world and an even less prepared India. Governments worldwide scrambled to understand the implications of this illness seeking to buy time to flatten the curve with the singular aim to save their citizens and make it possible for their healthcare systems to cope with the burgeoning numbers. A list of essential services was made. This list identified what was really important in a state of extreme emergency. Sadly, education didn’t make that list in India. In other countries, it did. New Zealand rapidly provided teacher training to enable teaching staff and devices to students who did not have them. Singapore too provided iPads and laptops to their children if they could not afford one; children who could not stay at home and undertake distance learning are still able to go to school with all the social distancing protocol in place - every child’s education process is accounted for, even this 1% of the student population who either cannot afford digital devices and data or their parents are serving the nation as part of essential services. Ministry of Education staff is seen going to work in Singapore as they come under essential services. Every country that could, has transitioned to online teaching and learning. The governments are creating special budgets and education frameworks to facilitate this new learning model where access to digital technology and competent teachers to keep the students constructively occupied is the new normal. These governments realised a while back that this investment is urgently needed as the Covid catastrophe is not a transient, short-term malady. If not Covid, it could be another.

In India, it was every school for itself. If the school was a public school, it just closed like it would for the holidays or a bandh (a mass call - usually politically motivated - to stop work across the country or a state to protest against a crisis of sorts). Of the 300,000 or so private schools, in our guestimate, less than 1% went online the day after the lockdown was announced. The rest waited, confused, uncertain, directionless. Gradually, as school managements, leaders and governments learned more about the impact on most affected countries, they began to face the possibility that education, as they knew it, wasn’t going to be back in the current or next academic year.  

Students like 14-year-old Misha who lives in Mumbai has been online for close to a month. She is aware that she is privileged. So much so that she says, “I wish my school didn’t make such an effort to teach us. It would be fine to let us chill out a bit.” She has her own device and adequate data. She also has teachers who have been provided devices and data by the school, and have been trained - or in some cases, have trained themselves - to be able to reach their students with planned lessons and a variety of tools. These students, as well as their parents and teachers, speak of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Misha spends an hour at the least, researching for a variety of assignments on the internet. You can have a conversation with her about academic honesty, “metacognition” and “data security”. Her seven-year-old sister discusses a project on rainforests with her parents who offer to help find material from authentic websites.  

Further away in a school in Satara, Maharashtra, nine-year-old Nitin and his 13-year-old sister Surabhi argue over who gets access to the families the only phone. They are lucky to be part of the 41%in India who has, although limited, devices and data. Nitin’s teacher has a smartphone and a laptop that is five years old and slows down with long hours of use. Surabhi’s teacher has been calling her and sending messages, short videos and links to YouTube videos that can help her revise for her exams that may never be held. Nitin gets worksheets, puzzles and math problems every day and sends back the completed assignments through photographs. Their parents are busy trying to make the best of their tattered lives. They are sympathetic but have a limited ability to help their children. Their father's business has closed and their mother got laid off from her job. Their parents’ anxieties are infecting them more than Covid-19. 

It only gets worse. Nine-year-old Shalu’s family in the Khunti district of Jharkhand belongs to the 57% who neither possess a smartphone nor have data. A laptop is unheard of in their village. In fact, for most of the time, they do not receive a reliable phone signal. Her teacher does have a smartphone, and sometimes, if he stands near his gate and holds his phone up high enough, he even gets a 3G signal. That doesn’t help him much since he has no way of reaching his students, most of whom, like Shalu, have no devices or, perhaps, the most basic of devices. Shalu and her parents have never sent or received an SMS. Her parents are unable to help her with any schoolwork, and in the current circumstances, are more worried about getting a daily wage somehow, somewhere, so that they can buy food for themselves and their families. Her aunts, who had migrated to Mumbai, tried to come back “home”; they were last heard of eight days ago. One neighbour who did make it back was asked by the village to wait outside till they were sure that he hadn’t brought the virus with him. Shalu worries about what may happen once he gets home.

There are millions of children like Shalu, Nitin and Surabhi who are in the low-cost private school and public school systems. The parents deny themselves in order to pay for the private schooling of at least one of their children - could be two or three or more. When they look to the future, what do they see? How do we look at their present, first? Next, how do we look into the future to check their situation in the coming years?   What equal opportunity can we offer them without devices, data or a teacher cadre that is professionally equipped?

The question India is faced with today, is: What is our empathy quotient? How interested are we in the well-being of every single child? The India Internet 2019 report says only 36% of the population has access to the Internet. In the cities, it is 51% but in rural India, only 27% of the population has digital access. 69% of Delhi’s population contrasts sharply against Odisha’s 25%. 

There is a very large difference in the learning available to Misha, whose parents have provided her with a laptop and a broadband connection, versus Nitin and Surabhi, whose parents are not able to give them more than a few hours on a shared device which needs to be powered with precious data they can ill-afford. But an even more miserable plight than that is that of Shalu: no access, no device, no teacher, and maybe, not enough electricity to power her television.

What are we going to do in order to provide Nitin, Surabhi and Shalu with an education that will equip them and millions of others like them to live a life of dignity? Will Misha’s education help her become aware of her privilege and so more responsible for the wellbeing of the others? Will Shalu’s parents send her to school when the virus has been eradicated for her and her family? Will she want to return to school? Or will she be an extra hand in earning a living?

This is a call to action for government and social development organisations that have both been working at the grassroots to join hands and use design thinking principles to ensure all our resources are carefully managed and no child gets left out. We must support our education system to become the change-makers using the following guiding principles:

  1. School leaders ensure the professional development of their teachers on blended learning and providing social-emotional and cognitive support to students
  2. Every teacher embrace their ability to influence the well-being of their students and ensure their voice is heard
  3. Every administration, distribution network and communication channel accept education as a priority along with health and food security.

Education must be India’s priority, along with other core areas such as healthcare for which crores of rupees are being allocated today because Covid19 is here. We must ensure that high-quality education is listed as an essential service to which every child is entitled.

Kavita Anand is the co-founder of Adhyayan Quality Education Services Pvt. Ltd. and Adhyayan Quality Education Foundation. Adhyayan is a movement and network of Indian and international educators, dedicated to systemically improving the quality of leadership and learning in schools. Adhyayan has worked with 7000 schools across 26 states in 11 languages, impacting more than a million students.

Special thanks to Nandini Nayar Sharma, Sagittaire Consulting for research and editing of the article.

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