School pupil Teesta Bhattacharya says a classmate who had recently lost his father to Covid-19 had to hastily exit an online class in tears – unable to cope – after their teacher announced his bereavement to his peers.
At a small school in the tribal belt of the Indian state of Jharkhand, a young boy’s patriarchal ownership over their family’s only phone, used between two siblings for online classes, has meant that his sister has lost out on learning.
In Noida, Uttar Pradesh, Yahvi Poorna, eight, yearns to meet her favourite teacher and her best friend once again, both of whom she hasn’t seen in over a year.
Indian children have been out of physical classrooms for over a year, with no date yet set for when they will be able to return. The mental, physical and social impact of an indefinite school lockdown has been devastating, experts say.
“It sucks,” says Teesta, 15, whose school is in central Mumbai. “It doesn’t feel like you’re learning anything. It’s been self-study. You don’t study at school any more. You just sit there and listen to the teacher.
“Everybody has burned out and there’s really no mental health counselling happening,” Teesta says.
Indian schools closed in early March last year when the federal government announced a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For many parents, what seemed like a temporary arrangement for a few months, has now evolved into indefinite online schooling in a country where data connectivity and access to a smartphone is not available to a large number of people.
According to government data, India had only 719 million internet subscribers by the end of 2019 out of a population of 1.3 billion. And although India has about 530 million smartphone users, more than 300 million people use cheaper phones, according to tech consultancy firm Counterpoint Research, mostly unsuitable for online learning.
Teesta says: “I’m spending at least 10 hours on my laptop. We have no connection with our friends any more. I’m talking to about four friends. Everybody has lost touch. I know a lot of friends are struggling mentally. It’s been really hard.”
Some of her classmates have lost loved ones, including a parent, to Covid-19 and have had to return to class soon after with little or no time to process their trauma. She says: “They have to join school as if it’s nothing. It’s heartbreaking.”
Zarreen Rahman, a curriculum facilitator for English for schools in Jharkhand, says she tries to stretch her time for children from impoverished families who are struggling on many counts. They have difficulty accessing a phone so they can log in to online school, persuading parents to pay for internet data, dealing with connectivity in remote areas and negotiating patriarchal views that often prioritise the education of male children.
She says: “Children are dropping out, there’s no doubt about that and financial stress is a big problem.
“Many of my children are first-generation learners and in the past year and a half among the many things I’ve heard are their parents struggling with the technical aspects of online study and payment of school fees.”
When a family has a single phone, often parents need it for personal work and in some cases they ensure the male child has more access than their female siblings.
Ms Rahman says: “I will often have a boy piping up, ‘Ma’am I swear to you my sister is sitting right by my side, listening to you. Can you please mark her present?’ In a class of 30, when I start, around 17 or 18 log in. When I finish the class, after one hour, there are hardly six or seven left.
“Kids tell me, ‘We are not getting enough internet data and your period is towards the end of the school timetable’.”
In rural areas where she sometimes teaches children for free, if 20 are logging in and seven remain till the end: “I’m glad I am able to teach at least those seven.”
In rural areas, children have gone hungry with schools shut, deprived of the free government midday meal that certain schools are mandated to provide to ensure nutrition, attendance and enrolment. For many it is their only meal of the day.
Last year, the federal Human Resource Development ministry asked all states to ensure that students either get their midday meals or the cash to ensure they meet their nutritional needs. But efforts to implement this are hampered by pandemic restrictions, the vastness of the country and population density.
But the extended period at home, away from the rigour of school discipline, has meant that some children such as Yahvi have found more time for the activities they enjoy, which – in her case – include painting with her mother and baking. “I like the peace,” she tells The Independent. Four to six hours of daily online schooling has freed children from rising early and cut out their travelling time.
Her mother Anuradha, co-founder of a cricket gaming start-up, says it hasn’t been easy for working parents. “I am struggling. It has gone on for far too long. They are missing the company of their peers, need to be engaged all the time and are missing out on valuable life experiences.”
A Bengaluru-based journalist and a single mother to a boy aged seven, who does not wish to be named, says she is worried about some aspects of parenting during the pandemic.
She says: “He keeps talking about his classmates, wants to go to a playground or to a friend’s house. He asks me why I cannot come and sit with him. I compensate by giving him chocolates, I know it’s not right to do that, but I don’t know what else to do.” Teachers fear that this year, too, children will not be able to return to school unless they are vaccinated. India has not yet rolled out vaccination for those under 18.
Teesta says, after nearly two years of studying from home, returning to classrooms will be a challenge: “When the Covid situation is over, I genuinely do not think that we can ever go back to how we were learning before because it was already flawed. We don’t have support systems in place. Even if we go back to school it just won’t be the same.”
In many families, a single laptop is shared between students and working professionals asserting their claim
Education expert Meeta Sengupta says: “Once you have online learning, there’s no such concept as the ‘backbench’. Introverts, those who are neuro-diverse, and those who are, sort of, condemned to being ‘backbenchers’ have actually done better because they are in their comfort zones and because they have been protected from a lot of bullying and a lot of the triggers that happened in ordinary school.
“Teachers have started giving equal attention. Psychologically that means some students who would not ordinarily have been encouraged to be so engaged in their lessons have actually done a little bit better because they’ve all received almost equal encouragement.”
Students have learnt to take charge of their own learning in a way that doesn’t ever happen in India. Teachers here are also administrators who are expected to take full charge of children’s learning, she says.
However, in almost every other respect, children have suffered. Especially, “in their ability to be discovered by friends, and to be vulnerable at play or even in the classroom.”
She says: “The element of being a child has completely disappeared and therefore the opportunities for serendipity where you suddenly find yourself laughing with another friend or making eye contact with somebody and therefore discovering the the roots of relationships – all of that has pretty much disappeared.”
Nutan Chaturvedi, who teaches at the Noida branch of the Delhi Public School, says Indian teachers have rudimentary computing skills: “I did not know how to make a PowerPoint presentation. A school message came up, ‘How many laptops do you have at home?’ We never even thought of having a laptop for us exclusively.” It was as much a challenge for teachers like herself as it was for children, she says. In many families, a single laptop is shared between students and working professionals asserting their claim over it.
The closure of 1.5 million schools in 2020 impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools, UNICEF says. After the first Covid wave subsided, some states reopened schools for a few days but a second, deadlier wave in April and May forced them to revert to online teaching. The death toll of Covid-19 in India recently crossed 400,000 – so schools are not willing to take the risk of reopening, Ms Chaturvedi says.
The vaccination rollout will play a big role in students returning to schools, says All India Institute of Medical Science director Dr Randeep Guleria.
When schools reopen in the distant future, Ms Sengupta says educators will have to “very gently reintroduce students into habits of shared spaces”.
“And we will have to lift them out of the inner trauma, because we were literally huddling in fear. It was fear that kept us inside,” she says, adding that bridge modules of study on return will have to include mentoring children in social and emotional skills. “And that is something that educators have already started discussing.”
She says they also have to address learning loss: “Many of them have forgotten how to learn in traditional ways. Their learning habits have, sort of, devolved instead of evolving into stronger learning habits.
“The second [problem] is a learning lag. There is very little exploration and discovery happening, which tends to happen in the safe space of the classroom. Here they are in an alien space. Nobody’s been taught how to teach online.”
And students with educated parents did better than those without, she says. “That’s the only true privilege. Whether it is private or public school, what language you learn in, all of those things have really marginal impact. And that’s the whole point of school that you have somebody who’s educated and trained.”