Human Development

Covid-19 and mental health: Are children ready to go back to school?

  • Blog Post Date 24 September, 2021
  • Perspectives
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Previous parts of the I4I e-symposium on ‘Covid-19 and mental health’ have discussed the potential adverse effects of school closures on children’s psychological well-being – particularly those belonging to marginalised and vulnerable groups. In this post, Wilima Wadhwa presents ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) 2020 findings on children’s access to learning materials during this period. She contends that when schools reopen, the system will have to adapt to children and their current reality, rather than the other way around.

According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), in the beginning of April 2020, schools had closed across 194 countries, affecting 1.6 billion learners, constituting 91% of all enrolled students in the world. In India, too, school closures started as early as March 2020, and schools are just starting to reopen for some grades in some states in September 2021. 

The crucial question then is what will happen in classrooms when children go back to school? Since children in primary grades have been automatically promoted through this period, they are two grades ahead of where they were when schools closed1. As a result, a child who was in grade one when schools closed, will now be in grade three when schools reopen. Will teachers follow their usual brief and teach the curriculum of the current grade? Or will some attempt be made to figure out how much learning loss there has been, and help children catch up before moving on to business as usual?

A study by the World Bank simulates the learning loss due to school closures (Azevedo et al. 2020). In their most pessimistic scenario – school closures of seven months – globally, children will lose almost a year of learning-adjusted years of schooling2, with effects on lifelong earnings. The study suggests that the effects on learning are likely to be exacerbated for children from weaker economic backgrounds who are unable to access remote learning resources, and do not have adequate learning support at home. 

Closure of schools in India: Findings from ASER 2020 

In the case of India, schools have been closed for almost 18 months. During this period, government as well as private schools tried to provide learning materials in a variety of ways. Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020, a rural household survey conducted in September 2020, focussed on children’s access to learning materials during the period when schools were still closed, and provides estimates that are representative at the state and national levels. According to ASER 2020, while states have been very successful in providing textbooks, they have been less successful in providing other learning opportunities remotely like worksheets and online classes (live or otherwise) – 80% children reported that they had received textbooks of their current grade, as compared to 35% children who received any other learning material. In the case of textbooks, government schools performed much better as compared to private schools with 84% children in government schools reporting that they received textbooks of their current grade as compared to 72% children in private schools. On the other hand, government schools were slightly less successful at distributing other learning materials as compared to private schools – 33% children in government schools reported receiving other learning materials, as compared to 40% in private schools.

However, these differences become quite stark when we compare children from different economic backgrounds. It is well-established that children from economically weaker backgrounds typically have lower learning outcomes. If these children had relatively limited access to learning materials, then we are likely to see a widening of learning gaps, further exacerbating equity concerns.

Using parental education as a proxy for affluence, ASER 2020 finds that children with low parental education are less likely to have a smartphone (45%) as compared to children with high parental education (79%)3. Parents with low education are also more likely to send their children to government schools (84%), compared to children with more educated parents (54%). Further, parents with low education are less likely to help their children with school work – only 55% of children with low parental education received any learning support at home, compared to almost 90% of children with high parental education. Finally, only 23% children with low parental education received any material, as compared to 49% of children with high parental education, due to parents with low education sending their children to government schools and having low access to smartphones.

So, not only are school closures going to result in a significant learning loss as suggested by the World Bank study; these losses are likely to be much greater for already disadvantaged children, resulting in even greater learning gaps between the rich and the poor. This increasing inequality is a result not just of unequal access to learning material but also the quality of material accessed by different groups. Among the learning materials and resources shared by the State, the closest thing to ‘instruction’ were online videos and classes. Overall, only 11% children reported attending online classes in rural India. However, there are large differences in access to online classes across different groups – 8% government school children as compared to 18% private school children; 5% children with low parental education as compared to 20% children with high parental education. 

ASER 2020 was conducted as a phone survey and did not assess children’s learning levels. The latest available estimates of learning levels are from ASER 2018, which shows that only 50% children in grade five in rural India, were able to read at grade two level. Government school children were behind with 44%, as compared to 65% grade five children in private schools who could read at this level. Therefore, it is clear that all children will need some remediation, as and when schools open. However, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, typically studying in government schools, will need more help. According to ASER 2018, the proportion of children in grade five, with low parental education, who could read a grade two level text was 35%, as compared to 70% of children with high parental education. So, not only do these children have limited access to learning materials during the school closures, they also started with a much larger learning deficit.

The way ahead

Going back to ‘business as usual’ with teachers following the current grade curriculum when schools reopen, is not going to work. The already existing learning deficit is going to be much larger when children come back to school. If gaps in learning are not addressed in a timely manner, children do not catch up, and learning deficits accumulate, with more and more children getting left behind. We are in an unprecedented situation where children have had no formal instruction for almost 18 months. It is quite possible that teachers may have to start afresh with young learners, who were just learning to read in 2020. Similarly, children who started grade one in April 2020, have never actually been to school and teachers cannot possibly start them off with the grade two curriculum!

The first step should be to figure out where children are in terms of learning levels and start from there. Teachers must be given training, as well as the agency, to address the learning gaps of their students. Given the variation across states, a ‘one size fits all’ approach should not be followed – an approach that works for Himachal Pradesh which has higher learning levels to start with and has been relatively more successful in reaching children with learning materials while schools were closed, is not going to work for a state like Uttar Pradesh that has much lower learning levels and lagged behind in terms of distribution of learning materials. The system has to adapt to the child and their current reality rather than the other way around.

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  1. The school year in most of India is April-March.
  2. According to the World Bank, “learning-adjusted years of school are calculated by multiplying the estimates of expected years of school by the ratio of most recent harmonized test scores to 625”.
  3. ‘Low’ parental education is defined as both parents having completed grade five or below and ‘high’ parental education as both parents having completed at least grade nine; moderate parental education is a residual category containing all other combinations of mother’s and father’s schooling. In rural India, 22.5% of children have parents with low education, compared to 27.6% with high parental education. The remaining 50% are in the moderate parental education category.

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