COVID has led to academic learning gaps among kids, but there’s something more worrisome

Learning gaps in reading and writing are real, but many teachers find it even more difficult to get young kids to concentrate and interact with others in class.

Rakhi Sahu, a kindergarten teacher in Bhopal, is pleased that children are happy to be back in school. But where she sees worrying learning gaps from the two years of school closure is in basic manners or etiquette. “It has been difficult to teach them basic manners like sharing toys with other children or how to sit or conduct themselves in classrooms,” says Rakhi. “The children who are coming to school now after the lockdown have a blank slate in terms of social or behavioural skills”.

“Many children have had a hard time adjusting to being back in school full time,” echoes Jaya Kumaran, teacher of Class 3 in Corporation High School in Chennai. “We have found it harder to get them to concentrate for long stretches of time and are working on making lessons more interesting.”

The lost learning of the basics of what is popularly called the three R’s (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic) can perhaps be made up over time with innovative bridge course content and teaching. The pros and cons of online classes during lockdown too has been much debated. But there is general agreement among parents, teachers and educationists that the worst affected have been children in their early years who have been totally cut off from learning behavioural and social skills that children pick up in their formative years in a school/community setting.

Also read:  Younger generations may pay dearly for the learning loss from two years of school closure

At the same time, the learning of basics of the three R’s is also very real.

As students across the country return to school for the new academic year, Tarun Bhalla, a fourth grade teacher in a private school called Haji Public School in Jammu and Kashmir says “kids that got promoted over the last two years have a reading level of a grade or two lower than what they should have at their age”.

That opinion is not uncommon among teachers across the country. Especially teachers in schools like Bhalla’s, where students come mainly from underprivileged families. In fact, a learning assessment in March by the Orissa government among students in classes 1 to 8 found that none of the pupils in classes 1, 2, or 3 had attended a single class in school. A fact that is probably true of many students of this age group in other states too.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that some of these children have come straight to school from home learning and we have to be lenient with both them and ourselves,” says Bhalla. “We have to adjust the pace at which we’re teaching which sometimes gets a little exasperating”.

Bhalla however is quick to add that the kids enjoy being back in school and enjoy interacting with their peers though there was an adjustment problem in their early days in school. “The children had to adjust to the normal school hours from nine o’clock to three o’clock which they were not used to during the lockdown,” says Bhalla. “We have had to stress on general behaviour as well as classroom appropriate behaviour again and again”.

As a result, Bhalla is having to start at a very basic level for these children. For instance, the children at his school were not used to writing and he has to remind them often how to write neatly in notebooks.

Rakhi Sahu concurs. “We notice that many of them don’t have the basic numerical skills expected at that level and cannot speak fluently either,” says Sahu.

Parents’ role

Gopika Misra from Gurgaon, whose child is in the first standard echoes Bhalla, saying her child has difficulty in writing for long hours in school. “The biggest learning gap that we have noticed is in his writing skills,” says Gopika. And the biggest challenge she is now facing is the formalness of education where the children tend to display a lower attention span in classes.

The children are also finding it difficult to grasp concepts in a classroom setting with less one-on-one interaction with teachers. So some parents like Gopika have devised ways to help their children bridge the learning gap. Gopika feels her child is too young to attend private tuition. Instead, she has been in touch with the teacher about his learning development during the six weeks since the school reopened. 

“As of now, the plan is to make him write more, at least an additional 30 minutes every day,” says Gopika. “I also plan on putting him in a summer camp to make sure the routine of a formal classroom is maintained”.

Not all parents believe that online education has caused a setback in the education of their children. Manasi Pingle from Bangalore says that home learning has been a blessing in furthering the education of her young child who will be attending upper KG from June. “Parents had to be very involved in the child’s online learning which, I think helped in closing the educational gap that children in less privileged homes would be facing,” says Manasi.

Children attending online classes during COVID
Not everyone is unhappy with the outcome of online classes. Manasi Pingle from Bangalore feels that parents’ involvement, wherever it existed, helped bridge the educational gap created by absence of physical classes. Representational image/Pic courtesy: Mahesh V

Manasi has now opted for private tuition even though she and her husband do spend more time in home schooling their child. “One of my friends, who used to be a nursery teacher, was taking classes in her house, so I sent my son to her for a few months to get a substitute school experience, that is learning with other kids in a physical setting”.

The Way Forward

Rishikesh B S, who leads the Hub for Education, Law & Policy at Azim Premji University is emphatic about the adverse affects of the loss of socialisation skills.  “Basic literacy and numerical skills can be learned later,” says Rishikesh. “But socialization is something that cannot be skipped at their age and if left undeveloped, it can lead to issues later in life”. 

In countries like Finland, the government doesn’t want children attending school till they are seven years of age because their educationists are of the opinion that children of that age learn best when they are home schooled.

Read more: Reduced syllabus not enough help for govt school students

Rishikesh feels that the biggest thing most Indian parents overlook is the need to provide a learning environment at home. “What young children missed out on during the pandemic is the learning environment that school provides, where a teacher engages their various cognitive processes, where they socialize with other children and pick up on social skills,” explains Rishikesh. “These are the most important skills when it comes to young children, not basic literacy”.

According to Rishikesh, the Karnataka government has made progressive strides by launching the Kalika Chetarike programme in government schools. The state-wide programme, will support children who have struggled to learn in the last two years.

As all students were advanced to the next level of study in 2021-21 and 2021-2022, the programme’s goal is to help students catch up on academic material they’ve been missing during the previous two years.

The Karnataka initiative

To do this, a group was assembled which re-evaluated the course material and created new syllabi for every class. “The District Institute of Education and Training (DIET) has completely reconfigured the educational curriculum to support the children,” says Rishikesh. “This is the way forward that other states should emulate in their state education department”.

To help teachers in the classroom regain lost knowledge, a collection of Teaching–Learning-Materials (TLMs) has been created. Because of learning losses, children in the same class have varying degrees of learning; TLMs will address students at different levels.

Jaya Kumaran corroborates the addition of bridge courses in government schools. “We had a bridge course that would cover some basics and help students ease into the new class, this was prescribed for two weeks,” says Jaya. “But as we proceeded through the academic year teachers have noticed that we need to spend more time explaining new concepts being introduced to students so their understanding is cemented well.”

Overall, teachers, parents and the children are happy that schools have reopened and are hoping it stays that way. Their key concern is how the gaps in behavioural and learning skills of children would affect their future.

Though they are hopeful the kids will overcome these learning gaps. Like Gopika Misra who says she has noticed that her child could now talk to children of his age and became a little less reserved than he used to be during the lockdown.

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