India has been strengthening its educational system since 2009 - when the Right to Education Act (RTE) was passed, mandating free and compulsory education. However, this progress has been significantly hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Observer Research Foundation, close to 250 million children in India were adversely affected due to school closures due to the early lockdowns imposed by the government in response to Covid-19. Several children from less-privileged circumstances ended up dropping out of schools, some were forced to take up jobs in order to support their families who were dealing with pandemic-related deaths and income loss.
Although private, urban schools in India were better adapted to new circumstances, government schools have struggled to transition from traditional in-person learning to an online ecosystem, especially in rural India. The challenges faced by the Indian education system were amplified during the pandemic, and include:
A divide based on technology and access
Uninterrupted education relies on the availability of and access to digital infrastructure including the Internet, laptops and phones. While students in urban schools tend to have better access than those in rural schools, inequalities across class and gender still impact who can and can’t use these tools. What’s more, access issues are further compounded by other constraints such as unreliable electricity supplies, home environments and study spaces, etc.
Delays in resuming in-person learning.
Resuming in-person learning has been delayed multiple times since the start of the pandemic as the government continues to respond to multiple waves of Covid-19 and as immunization efforts continue.
Ultimately, a return to school is dependent on vaccination in order to protect both students and teachers. Although some schools are being reopened for senior classes in some states with strict Covid-19 protocols, this is not a permanent solution given the possibility of the third wave of the pandemic and given that vaccinations for children ages 12-17 are still under evaluation for the final approval by the Drugs Controller-General of India (DCGI).
Lack of clarity on examinations
The grading system and the logistics of conducting examinations for students finishing their primary education has been considered multiple times, but this unprecedented situation has delayed the process in formalizing a country-wide procedure for allowing students to take their final exams. Consequently, many students haven’t officially completed their high school curriculum and have lost time as they seek to pursue higher education.
Education for children orphaned in Covid-19.
Nearly 15 lakh children have been orphaned since the start of the global pandemic, including 1.2 lakh from India. For such kids, their educational opportunities are at risk. Although a national solution is needed, several states such as Delhi and Andhra Pradesh implementing initiatives such as, child care institutions for kids who are in distress and need immediate attention. This comes in over and above the free education initiative by the government for kids who have lost parents owing to Covid-19.
We recognize that we are facing the biggest crisis of our time and that in order to ensure our citizens receive the education they’re promised, it’s critical that we respond with new approaches and partnerships. For example, Rotary has initiated the following collaborations:
Partnering with NCERT to provide educational content to students using mainstream media
The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has focused on digitizing textbooks and offering QR codes to students for easy accessibility, and most recently, Rotary and NCERT have started broadcasting online content for classes 1 to 12 through 12 NCERT TV channels across the nation. Under the Vidya Daan initiative, Rotary will provide high-quality e-content in Hindi to NCERT.
Working with state governments to increase literacy rates
Several private-sector initiatives, with support from state governments, aim to improve literacy rates among schoolchildren and adults, primarily through training teachers, supporting technology and infrastructure development and promoting the benefits of reading to all.
Similarly, Rotary India Literacy Mission (RILM) has also signed agreements with multiple state governments to increase (adult) literacy rates in Haryana, Assam and Maharashtra through student-led initiatives that will broadly aim to bring total literacy and improve the learning outcomes of primary education, in various parts of the country.
Though Covid-19 has disrupted the education ecosystem, we can look at this moment as an opportunity for change. If public and private sector organizations work together with the government of India to adopt new ways of teaching and learning and ensure that all students have access to the related tools and infrastructure, India will empower future generations for better livelihoods and fulfilling lives.
(The writer is the President of Rotary International. The views expressed are personal.)