Covid setback for schoolchildren in India as dropout rate surges

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Manisha, 13, had to quit school because her father could no longer educate four children on his pandemic-affected paltry income.

Her father, Prashant Jha, worked as a security guard at a mall but lost his job during the lockdown imposed amid the second Covid wave and then took to selling vegetables.

“Because of the circumstances at home, I had to drop out of school. I started working alongside my parents and even taking up odd jobs to financially support the family,” Manisha told RFI.

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have disrupted the education of millions of students in India forcing an upsurge in the dropout rate, especially with girls bearing the brunt.

Now, with the shutdown of schools in many states including Delhi because of the Omicron variant, thousands of students are falling out of the education system.

Though online schooling made great strides during the pandemic, India’s digital divide has aggravated inequality in access to and quality of school education.

Dropping out in droves

Millions of schoolchildren like Manisha, especially from lower and middle-income families, are falling out of the education system with the shutdown of schools and are unsure when they will return in the absence of adequate government support.

India’s education system is among the largest in the world, after China, with more than 1.5 million schools, nearly 9.7 million teachers and over 265 million students of pre-primary to higher secondary level from various socio-economic backgrounds.

The figure for dropouts at the secondary level was as high as 17 percent, and there are children who have never been enrolled. These challenges amplified with the impact of temporary school closures due to Covid.

What’s more girls are more at risk, according to the National Right to Education forum’s policy brief, as 10 million girls are at risk of dropping out. Several surveys showed that the incidence of child labour had shot up, as had rates of child marriage.

According to the ministry of education, 3.5 million children are currently out of school, which includes those who dropped out during the pandemic. NGOs and educationists believe the number would be much higher as there is no consolidated

data on the exact number of children who left school since March 2020 as many states are still counting. According to another estimate, 20 million students dropped out of school across the country.

Massive disruption

“More than 2 million students have dropped out due to the shutdown of schools in the national capital Delhi alone,” said Ashok Agarwal, president of All India Parents Association.

Some of this information has been brought out by the Unified District Information System for Education, the only source of date for the school education system with respect to schools, teachers and student enrolment.

A significant fallout of the pandemic-imposed lockdowns is the setback to schemes for nutrition supplementation, formulated to tackle malnutrition in children.

According to the National Food Security Act of 2013, the mid-day meal scheme for school children is a legal entitlement in India, currently available to about 120 million children.

In the wake of school closures, guidelines issued by the government of India in March 2020 advised all states and union territories to make provisions for hot cooked meals or food security allowance for all eligible children covered under the scheme.

Data and accounts from the ground suggest that implementation has been ineffective.

“Covid and the lockdown revealed several truths about societal and State concern for education and the overall well-being of children, especially of poor and marginalised communities,” said Shantha Sinha, former chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights.

According to Unicef, the closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools.

Besides, more than six million girls and boys were already out of school even before the Covid crisis began.

“Online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devises and internet connectivity. Pre-Covid, only a quarter of households (24 percent) in India had access to the internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide,” said Unicef in a statement.

Though India’s Economic Survey 2020-21 claimed that online schooling made great strides during the Covid pandemic, experts believe the poor and disadvantaged sections have been disproportionately affected.

Early this month, the government said that its target is to ensure 100 percent enrolment of children in schools across the country during the next nine years and a policy to bring down the school dropout rate is being worked upon with all the states.

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