The present pandemic has not only affected economies across the world but also rattled political structures and governments. While some countries face stagnation in growth and serious health security issues, almost all face challenges to their education systems.

India is amongst those countries whose educational institutions, including schools, have been shut down in light of the spread of Covid-19. These educational institutions have no set date for reopening despite growing concerns of various stakeholders over the prolonged educational lockdown’s immediate, shortterm and long-term impacts on students and parents in particular and on society at large.

It is in this context that an understanding of the impact of Covid- 19 on school education, with special focus on digitally deprived children garners importance. India’s school educational system, which is constitutionally guaranteed alongside numerous Central and state schemes geared towards achieving universal education and primarily related to the country’s economic, health and food security, has traditionally seen structural imbalances with respect to class, caste, language, region, developmental (urban and rural) and gender divides.

These fault lines continue to discriminate against many students. Furthermore, the advances in technology and the growing interdependence between technological innovations and sectors including education in delivery of social services, has laid bare another category of divide, namely digital divide, between school students across India. Educational institutions are most vulnerable to spread of the disease due to mass gatherings in classrooms.

Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted school education; it has put restrictions on the traditionally practiced classroom-based teaching and learning in schools, compelling these institutes to shift to remote-based or digital learning platforms for both teaching and student assessments. However, there are many structural and institutional issues which hamper even these virtual digital learning platforms.

Even though expenditure of MHRD’s Department of School Education and Literacy on education has increased, its expenditure on Digital India e-learning should also increase and provide this tax free. Internet access is disproportional across states as is evidenced by the Ministry of Statistics’ report on Key Indicators of Household and Social Consumption on Education in India (2017-18) report.

According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, on the national level, fewer women (33 per cent) have access to internet compared to men (67 per cent), with rural areas experiencing more disparities (28-72) compared to urban areas (38-62). The current situation has also laid bare the language divide prevalent across India with vernacular medium schools largely (though with exceptions) catering to the poor whilst English medium schools cater to other sections of the society.

Here again comes the aspect of the digital divide: poorest students do not have access to smartphones, and even if they do, net connectivity is poor, and content is often not available in vernacular languages. This gives rise to discrimination in access to education. Mobile phones are the most popular medium of accessing internet in both urban and rural areas as per the report.

However, there is a lack of digital infrastructure for both the teachers and students and a disparity in internet connection and access to devices; while all students might have smartphones, not all of them own desktops or laptops which are more suited for educational purposes.

Driven by the internet which relies solely on electricity availability, there exist disparities in its quality and uninterrupted availability despite almost all of rural India getting universal electrification, as evidenced by Ministry of Rural Development’s Mission Antyodaya survey; to improve upon these disparities, the survey sheds light on larger development questions relating to power distribution companies such as improving their operational efficiencies, financial health, ensuring their commercial sustainability, electricity theft and infrastructure strengthening. Internationally, according to World Bank (2020), the rampant spread of Covid-19 has coupled the pre-existing learning crisis with the crisis of school closures in more than 160 countries as of March 2020 which is expected to not only have short term losses of learning but long term losses in human capital and diminished economic opportunities.

The Bank also cautions against the negative affect of prolonged school closures on vulnerable students having fewer learning opportunities at home whilst putting a financial strain on parents with respect to childcare and providing food in absence of school meals. The Bank also highlights the usage of remote learning at scale, in the immediate and post pandemic term, to mitigate loss of learning across countries by capitalising on the work already started and addressing equity in access.

UNESCO (2020) indicates that over 60 per cent of the world’s student population is affected by school closures and that trust in public education services is undermined and could potentially corrode human rights in the present and post pandemic world. Thus, to facilitate inclusive learning opportunities during this period, the UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition. International organisations such as the World Bank, UNESCO and UNODC are driving efforts towards remote learning with emphasis on the vulnerable and the disadvantaged students.

Despite having been written in the context of graduate/tertiary education, the Indian Student Exclusive QS IGAUGE Report titled ‘Covid-19: A Wake up Call for Telecom Service Providers’ sums up the general shortcomings of digital integration in education in India when it concluded that “…the infrastructure in terms of technology in India has not achieved a state of quality so as to ensure sound delivery of online classes to students across the country.

It is seen that both the state and the private players have not yet managed to overcome technical challenges, for instance, in providing adequate power supply and ensuring effective connectivity. Due to lack of proper infrastructure, a shift to a total reliance on the online platform for the delivery of lectures seems to be a distant dream.”

(The writers are, respectively, a post-graduate student at London School of Economics and Political Science and a Junior Research Fellow at International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai)