The United Nations has described the global scale of education disruption from COVID-19 as “unparalleled”. According to UNESCO monitoring, national and local closures have impacted about 99.9 percent of the world’s student population. While students across the board have been impacted, it is important to understand the impact on children from marginalized communities in many developing countries, including India, which at 260 Million children, has the largest school going population in the world.
As we reached out to students from marginalized communities, stark and growing inequities emerged, which include: 1) Loss of income and livelihood due to the extended lockdown.
2) Migration- The emotional toll of this on children will be manifold. Moreover, post the lockdown, many of the migrants may decide to stay back in the villages which could lead to children dropping out of formal education. 3) Forced to become adults like taking care of their younger siblings, managing household chores, organizing food and taking decisions on behalf of the family. 4) Misinformation spread through fake news and rumours. 5) Heightened Violence and Abuse – The Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, a sombre indication that the lockdown has turned into captivity, not just for women, but also for children trapped with their abusers at home. 7) Gendered Impact – Girls would be expected to take on more adult roles in their families, their education will be deprioritised compared to boys, and they are more likely to face domestic violence and abuse at home. 8) Loss of academic learning – As marginalized populations do not have access to digital resources and tools, there is also the loss of academic learning, furthering the learning gap. 9) Impact of Trauma resulting in Failure to Thrive – All the above outlined challenges faced by children/young people can and will cause tremendous trauma — mental, emotional and psychological.
We know that sustained trauma in early-years (0–10 years) results in stunting and failure to thrive the effects to which can be felt for life. Children are going to carry this trauma into schools, and it is going to hinder their ability to access content, engage in learning and build healthy relationships. As the impact of the pandemic unfolds, it is becoming abundantly clear that traditional learning models have ill-equipped our children to respond to the current crisis.
Some of the structural and systemic challenges in our education systems that have come to the forefront include,
1. The future is already here!
The oft-repeated assumption that children would have to face an uncertain job market and a fast-changing world a few years from now is already amidst us, and this uncertain future is changing as we speak.
2. Economic Growth Vs Prioritizing Well-being
Today we are rightly being forced to prioritize well-being over economic growth, for ourselves and the planet. Could this be the turning point that decides the new purpose of education, in the face of this new reality?
3. Entrenched systemic inequities
When an eighth grade student who shares one Smartphone between a family of 4, makes a tough choice to buy an internet-pack versus groceries and is then not allowed into her online class for being 5 minutes late, are we not perpetuating the same systemic biases we held offline to the online world? What could be the role of education in changing this reality?
Before we rush towards reactionary solutions, there is a need to pause and reflect on these structural and systemic challenges within our current education system. While it would be easy to replicate old offline models and repurpose them towards the online mode, we must pause to ask the tough question — is this what is needed right now?
The way forward: The Need for a Pause
Schools cannot go back to ‘business as usual’ at the end of this crisis. They cannot double down their efforts to catch-up to lost time by stuffing syllabus down student’s throats. There is a definite need to re-imagine the role of schools and teachers in the life of children coming from marginalized communities, with the entire ecosystem becoming trauma responsive.
For example, what if education ecosystems decide to:
- Spend the first 3 months when children come back to school only on re-integrating them into the post COVID-19 world, while deprioritizing academic subjects
- Have no examinations across the board for 1 year?
- Invest in targeted trauma-healing of teachers, resulting in schools becoming more trauma responsive.
- Support school leaders to re-imagine the school calendar to integrate life-skills and SEL as core components to prepare children for future uncertainty.
- Change the metric of success of our education systems from academic and economic outcomes to well-being and thriving of all students, communities and the planet.
Considering how our school and societal systems are currently designed, this is not going to be easy. Yet this is the most important calling of the moment.
Suchetha Bhat is CEO of Dream a Dream, an organization working towards empowering young people from vulnerable backgrounds to overcome adversity and flourish in a fast-changing world using a creative life skills approach. Vishal Talreja is cofounder of Dream a Dream.