What started out as a health crisis has resulted in major economic, social and political crises. Sadly, for all the developing countries, this crisis is going to drag them back in time. The UNDP’s recent report reveals that human development conditions today are equivalent to the levels of deprivation last seen during the 1980s. Adding to this assessment, the ILO report titled: “Covid-19 and the world of work” indicates that in India alone more than 400 million people are at the risk of sliding back into poverty. Although the virus has spared no nation, class or caste, the impact will be much higher on the most vulnerable sections of society.
We are now left to contemplate about the effects of this pandemic on school-going kids. In an already fragmented society, the divide has become more apparent in terms of rising inequities. The policy brief of the UN, “Education during Covid-19 and beyond” throws light on these inequities. The pandemic will impact over 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries, and the closing down of schools physically has affected over 94 per cent of the world’s school-going children. However, the ability to respond to such a drastic change is lesser in lower and lower-middle income countries, where up to 99 per cent of children are going to be adversely impacted.
Moreover, impact studies are yet to reveal the effect of the pandemic in increasing gender barriers to obtaining education. With millions being pushed into poverty, Unesco estimates that some 23.8 million youth/children will drop out of school next year alone due to increasing economic difficulties. This will have a higher impact on female students who will be pushed further towards child marriage, early pregnancy, increased domestic responsibilities and the threat of gender-based violence.
In India especially, the gender gap is quite appalling. According to the 2011 census only 65 per cent of females were literate, in comparison to 82 per cent males. Moreover, when it comes to giving quality education, parents are more likely to send their sons to private educational institutions, with better learning opportunities, rather than their daughters, who are more likely to end up in government schools. Undoubtedly, this pandemic further deepened the gender barrier which existed earlier. A recent study reveals that compared to 38 per cent of boys, 67 per cent of girls were engaged in household work and childcare facilities.
Additionally, the impact of closure of schools has spillover effects which extend beyond education. One such spillover relates to nutrition. For millions of children across the globe, school-based nutrition programs are their primary source of nutrition. As per the World Food Programme’s current data, approximately 282 million children are missing out on meals as a result of the closure of schools. This is therefore a major setback in achieving the second Sustainable Development Goal, which aims at eradicating global hunger by 2030.
India’s mid-day meal programme is the world’s largest school feeding exercise that caters to over 100 million school-going children. Data collated by the World Food Programme reveals that as of June 2020, only 18 States and Union Territories were continuing the mid-day meal programme despite the lockdown. However, there was no uniformity in the policies and the response was scattered, considering local circumstances. There are multiple media reports revealing failure in implementation of the scheme, with the disparity in implementation varying between urban and rural areas.
On 28 May, the Union government decided to directly transfer Rs.1200 crore as a one-time payment towards the nutritional needs of beneficiaries of the mid-day meal scheme. However, considering the number of beneficiaries, every student was eligible only for Rs. 100. Several experts have raised concerns at the amount being so negligible that it will hardly have an impact.
Another major spillover effect of the closure of schools relates to access to female sanitary hygiene products. The National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) disclosed that of 336 million menstruating women in India, only 36 per cent have access to sanitary napkins. Much of this access was through schools, under the central “Kishori Shakti Yojana” scheme. But with schools shut, millions of adolescent girls will undergo their first, and subsequent, menstruation without any access to sanitary hygiene products.
To respond to the drastic challenges brought in by Covid-19, schools have opted for remedial measures such as conducting virtual online classes to ensure minimal learning loss. But the truth remains that 70 per cent of rural India still does not have access to the internet. Even in urban areas internet penetration is not equal across different neighborhoods in the same city.
Taking this divide into account, on 18 September 2020, the Delhi High Court progressively held that the Right to Education Act, 2009 should be flexibly interpreted to deal with changes in society and other unforeseeable circumstances such as natural calamities and the outbreak of diseases. The High Court therefore directed private unaided schools and government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas to supply gadgets as well as internet packages to students belonging to the EWS category so as to ensure equitable access to education. Similarly, the Patna High Court had taken sou moto cognizance of the condition of children due to non-availability of mid-day meals following the shutting of schools/anganwadi centres due to Covid-19. The Court on 19 September 2020 passed multiple directions to ensure that the benefits of Mid-Day Meal Schemes and the Sarwa Shiksha Scheme reached all children.
While a declaration of rights by Courts will certainly set the groundwork for their realization, until robust policies are established and their implementation made a priority, these rights will never become a reality. Although schools are reopening partially again, the brunt of accepting the probable dangers of physical classrooms is on students of lower income groups who do not have access to digital goods. With children yet to be covered under the vaccination policy, it must be made mandatory to follow Covid hygiene in educational institutions.
Furthermore, health insurance can be extended to safeguard the health of students attending classes physically. In areas where digital learning cannot be ensured through internet facilities, distance learning solutions based on radio and television programmes must be strengthened. Collaborative efforts can be undertaken with community workers to ensure that books, nutrition (in the form of dry ration) and sanitary hygiene products are still accessible.
An undeniable truth which awaits us all is the economic impact of the pandemic; education programmes therefore must be designed to render vocational and technical education to students to prepare social capital which can help the economy rebound. But the government must make drastic policy changes as well as formulate measures for implementation to ameliorate the various disruptive impacts. While richer countries have invested nearly 10 per cent of their GDP on mitigating efforts, emerging economies have limited their spending at around 3 per cent.
But, with richer countries cutting back direct aid programmes, huge challenges lie before policy makers to ensure that the social gains made so far are not lost to the pandemic. Undoubtedly, it is a critical mission to recover the loss to education over a year and it must be taken up with a holistic approach.
The writer is a Law Researcher, Supreme Court of India.