Consider the following. First, before Covid-19, 50 per cent of rural India’s school-going students in Class V could read a Class II textbook. This is data the Annual Survey of Education Report (Rural) has highlighted since 2005. Second, primary schools in some parts of India have been closed for over 600 days, even though it is recognised that early-age education is critical to the future learning trajectory of a child. My own primary school-going kids in Delhi last entered their school gate in March 2020. India today has earned the unique distinction of the longest pandemic-induced school closures in the world, with Uganda and Bolivia for company. Third, digital inequality is real and online education remains a privilege of the few. The 2021 ASER survey shows that households of only 68 per cent school-going students own smartphones. Over a quarter of these students do not have access to these smartphones, and therefore had no schooling for nearly two years. In September 2021, a survey of 1,400 school children in underprivileged homes across 15 states by economists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and others, found merely 8 per cent rural and 24 per cent urban children, had access to regular “online” education.
As a parent, I have witnessed the emotional, psychological and educational cost prolonged school closure has had on my young children. Studying in a Zoom room is no substitute for a classroom. We will never make up for what they’ve lost. But at least my kids have the Zoom room. Most of India does not have this privilege. An ASER survey in Karnataka, done before the second wave—the only comparative data we have on learning levels before and during the pandemic—highlights the gravity of what we face. In 2018, 19.2 per cent Class III students in rural Karnataka were at grade level (i.e., they could read a Class II textbook). It dropped to 9.8 per cent in 2020. In 2018, 26.3 per cent students could do simple subtraction. In 2020, a mere 17.3 per cent could do the same.