Reopening schools & Building Back Better

The need for public provisioning in education

Photo Deleece Cook on Unsplash

When the pandemic started in 2020, as a precautionary measure, the Indian government ordered the closure of all educational institutions across the country. Eventually, schools were shifted to online platforms. However, the digital transformation of education has proven to be a severe setback for many students, especially those from marginalized sections of the society. Other than learning, the absence of schooling also had a long-lasting effect on the health and nutrition of these children, who are heavily dependent on public service delivery.

According to a survey by a community engagement platform named Local Circles in July 2021, almost 80% of parents said they are unhappy with online education. Their main concern was learning loss. However, while the resumption of schools was in question, around 48% parents, largely those, who can afford online education were skeptical about sending their children to schools because of health and safety concerns. The demand for school reopening was largely from the parents of the children with limited or no access to online education for the past 18 months. Even education and health experts’ opinion favored the urgent reopening of schools. 

From August 2021 onwards, with a reduction in Covid-19 cases countrywide, schools began reopening in a phased manner with certain restrictions. Initially, physical classes resumed for standards 9 to 12 and were eventually extended for primary and upper primary classes in most of the states.

ASER 2021 – migration to government schools

The recently released ASER 2021 report highlights that in rural India, there has been a spike in the proportion of children enrolled in government schools from 65.8% to 70.3% between 2020 and 2021, while in the private schools, the enrolment went down to 24.4% from 28.8% in the one-year period. According to the report, 62% of the respondents, including teachers and principals in government schools, cited financial distress caused by the pandemic as the reason behind the shift from private schools to government schools. Other probable reasons behind the reverse migration in school admissions are free facilities available at the government schools, and the private schools’ failure to conduct online classes. The migration of parents’ back to their home towns and villages in the lockdown is also a factor.

An Indian school girl on her way to school. Photo Dhiya Vignesh on Unsplash

However, enrolment does not always translate to attendance as schools across the country witnessed low attendance rates as they reopened. While the fear of the third wave of the Coronavirus and logistical challenges like school buses, hostels are the predominant reasons for the lower attendance of students in urban government schools, in rural areas plenty of benches are empty as many children have dropped out of the education system to provide support to their families.

Mitigating the learning crisis 

Various survey reports show that the incidence of dropping out is high among children from vulnerable groups including girls, children on the move, children with disabilities, and children from Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. For example, according to the Madhya Pradesh Commission for Protection of Child Rights (MPCPCR), nearly 40,000 children between Classes 1 and 12 dropped out of school in four of the tribal districts of the state after the second wave of Covid-19. Of them 10,500 left their schools as they migrated with their parents.

The pandemic has exposed the pre-existing fault lines in public provisioning of education. Now when the schools have reopened, the larger question is whether our schools are equipped to deal with the influx of students, bringing back those who dropped out – or in mitigating the learning crisis. 

A stock taking of the current scenario can only help in understanding where the gaps are and what needs to be done.

Basic school infrastructure

The key guideline for reopening schools is maintaining physical distancing in classrooms. This requires some basic school infrastructures to be in place. As per the DISE statistics, 59,400 elementary schools in India are single classroom schools. In 8% school, i.e., around 1.2 lakh (120,000) schools, more than 50 students sit in one classroom. In many schools, different classes are combined together to run the academic affairs, while the ideal Student Teacher Ratio should not be more than 35:1. 

Beside spaced-out sitting arrangements, WASH facilities, i.e, drinking water, sanitation, hand washing etc. is crucial for maintaining health and hygiene. After the launch of Swachh Vidyalaya Abhiyan, the coverage of separate girls’ and boys’ toilets have reached 94%, and 92% respectively; 89% of the schools now have a functional drinking water facility. However, if overall WASH facilities i.e, drinking water, functional toilets and hand wash facility are considered, only 54% schools qualify.

Mentoring and psycho-social support

Teachers are the key pillar of school education system. The pandemic has shown that whatever be the mode of education – offline or online, without teachers, it is impossible to run the system. Implementing guidelines like classes with not more than 50% students in one day and classes in different shifts need additional teaching time. This requires either overtime by the existing teachers or new recruitments. 

Unfortunately, a common characteristic of the Indian school education system is the shortage of professionally qualified teachers. At the elementary level, 17.6% posts for government teachers are vacant and the vacancy is 15.7% at the secondary level. Around 1,08,017 schools in India are single-teacher schools. It is not difficult to imagine how the reopening with physical distancing norms is working for the teachers in these schools.

The pandemic and associated school closure has impacted the mental well-being of children to a large extent. Teachers’ role is thus, no more limited to educators but they are also expected to play the role of mentors and counsellor of students to ensure their emotional well-being. This needs appropriate training. However, only 80% of the school teachers have any professional qualification, and among those who are trained, very few have training on how to provide psycho-social support and mental health support to students. 

All of these gaps indicate that a majority of the schools are not even equipped to implement the basic measures of physical distancing. 

Resilient and sustainable recovery

It is understandable that in this critical situation, for reopening schools, the steps the government has taken might not be implementable for all. But such needs may arise at any time in the future. Covid-19 has created an opportunity in policy lessons for governments to deal with such a situation and building back better. The sector demands additional resources across the various areas of provisioning in a manner that addresses the requirements more comprehensively.  

As the Union budget is now just two months away, it is the right time for the government to draw a fiscal plan for school education for the next five years. There is a need to ramp up investment especially on building infrastructures like additional classrooms, WASH facilities, residential schools, and hostels. Inevitably, the pandemic has shown how irreplaceable teachers are, for the education system. Therefore, filling the vacant posts of teachers and their training is crucial. Finally direct support to students through monetary and non-monetary incentives, especially for those in sheer need should be a policy priority, to retain them in the system.

Protiva Kundu works with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi

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