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The Great Educational Recession

An unspoken tragedy of school closure has also been the deterioration of the mental health of students as well as the lack of awareness and infrastructure to protect it

AMAR PATNAIK AND MONIKA NIELSEN | New Delhi |

“I don’t feel like doing any more online classes. I feel angry and sad at the same time. I miss everything about my school – my friends, my teachers and even the scolding our teachers would give us.” – Sandhya, 13, Bhubaneswar

The pandemic has caused a change of the guard with modern remote learning becoming a substitute for in-person schooling. However, the strains of school closure and online schooling have caused a detrimental effect on the educational, mental, nutritional and emotional state of children across socio-economic backgrounds. With physical school returning in phases, immediate action must be taken to recover what has been lost and ensure that learning can be brought back on track especially for children living in the margins of society.

The triad of damages Learning loss: It is no surprise that children have not been able to learn in the way they would want to, and this has in turn induced a learning loss. In the short run, online learning has seen 92 per cent of children losing a language ability and 82 per cent of children losing a mathematical ability across all classes in five states, according to statistical studies by the Azim Premji University.

This is further worsened in time where, according to a recent UNICEF report, the pandemic could result in 0.3 to 0.9 years of quality schooling lost, resulting in trillions of dollars of income lost in the life cycle of these learners. The online setting has caused an academic backslide where children lose their competence today and will come out into society tomorrow undertrained and undereducated thus dulling their potential and setting off a vicious cycle of mediocrity and fall in the standard of quality education.

Nutritional loss: In addition, the closure of schools resulted in children losing vital access to food and other essentials. The UNICEF report ‘Covid-19: Missing More Than a Classroom’ states that 14 per cent of rural government school children and 20 per cent of urban area government school children had no access to midday meals. Although the government released a slew of guidelines to ensure a regular supply of ration kits to students’ families, the implementation has been lax.

The recent announcement of PM POSHAN scheme to provide mid-day meals to students may be a development in the right direction but more action needs to be taken to make up for the disparity that remains and has worsened over the past 2 years.

Loss of mental health: An unspoken tragedy of school closure has also been the deterioration of the mental health of students as well as the lack of awareness and infrastructure to protect it. According to the latest edition of UNICEF’s “The State of the World’s Children 2021’, 14 per cent of 15-24-year-olds in India feel depressed or have no interest in doing anything and a third of elementary school parents report their child’s mental and socio-emotional health to be ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ as of May 2020. Covid-induced isolation ripped children of everyday joy resulting in emotive deficiencies. Today, many children are filled with anxiety, sadness and trauma.

Mental disorders also carry an economic cost. South Asia loses more than $40 billion worth of human capital and potential due to mental illnesses. More disconcerting is the fact that regardless of the wasted talent, school authorities do not see mental illness as a symptom of an illness. According to a UNICEF report, 70 per cent of teachers consider depression as a “weakness and not an illness”, and that “it was unpredictable but not dangerous.”

Currently, the Union Budget 2021-22 dedicates a corpus of only Rs 40 crore to the National Mental Health Programme, thereby highlighting the need for more budgetary assistance from the government. Besides ensuring a safe physical schooling environment from a medical standpoint, many steps have to be taken to make up for the losses of learning. Remedial learning has been recommended by UNICEF, whereby teachers provide support to students to bolster not only their social and emotional well-being but also academic learning.

In this direction, Odisha’s initiative called the Alternate Mentorship and Learning Programme (ALMP) was unique as it sought to bring teachers closer to their students in tribal villages. More than 96 per cent of students benefitted from this intervention by mitigating the learning loss. The more recent initiative of involving trainee teachers to reach out to children in villages was another innovative programme to plug the gap in learning loss.

In addition to this, teachers themselves need to be trained and supported in this procedure so as to ensure that they are not at a loss themselves. Methods such as the blended teaching method have also been recommended whereby students are encouraged to direct their own teachings. The independence this brings improves the drive of the student and helps improve his competencies (such as memory, resourcefulness, etc.).

The government’s action through accelerated learning improved connectivity to the disadvantaged, and the move towards a better hybrid environment has also proved to be adequate in bridging the loss of learning. And finally, to promote better nutritional, emotional and mental well-being of children, we need greater investments in infrastructure, conversations that break the stigma around mental illnesses and positive actions to protect children in their adolescent years supported by institutions such as family, caregivers and schools.

We must aid children in their times of struggle, for if we do not, then the recession caused by school closure will reach catastrophic proportions.

(The writers are, respectively, a member of the Rajya Sabha from Odisha and a former bureaucrat, and the Chief of the Field Office, UNICEF, Odisha. The views expressed by the former are personal)