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

Urgent remedial measures are needed to reverse learning losses, as affected students will face weaker prospects for securing employment in the future too.

On February 25th, a meeting of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority chaired by Lt Governor Anil Baijal decided to lift all COVID related restrictions, and announced that schools will be fully offline from April 1st. In less than 24 hours, Baijal received a representation from the National Progressive Schools’ Conference — an association of senior secondary schools across the country — welcoming the reopening of schools, but wanted him to advance the opening date.

Open the schools fully by March 2nd, they said, as they had observed a “huge learning gap in children from nursery to class 8”. In the letter, the Schools’ Conference argued that doing so would enable them to focus efforts in March to bridge that gap so that children would be ready for the next grade in April.

Various studies and surveys have affirmed what is described simply as learning loss, at the foundational, middle and high school level. Even as the different states are going fully offline given the fall in COVID cases and the positivity rate, many teachers, parents, and indeed the union education ministry are realising the need to address and make good this learning loss. There is finally a realisation that students of every class of 2022 have been adversely impacted by not going to school the way they did till mid-March 2020, when the first national lockdown was imposed.

The Delhi schools association had other reasons too for wanting to go fully offline without any delay.

“Teachers are also overburdened with online and offline teaching and assessment,” the letter said. “They are no less than frontline workers and warriors. Their mental health and well-being is of utmost importance for us to deliver quality education, to create a happy and joyful environment in school. We sincerely urge you to take necessary steps for unconditional reopening of all schools from March 2, 2022”.

As one principal pointed out, the most important thing was to bridge the students’ learning gap to the best possible level before they go on to the next class.

Read more: Preschool closures in Delhi: Where will our toddlers learn when the pandemic is over?

But that seems easier said than done. According to Gita Gopinathan, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, “(the impact of) school closures and job losses due to COVID has been very unequal across countries,” Gita told the media and tweeted. She cited a report and remarked “younger generations may bear the scars of the jobs and learning losses for decades”.

Weaker job prospects

The warning is not an exaggeration. In a paper titled “The long reach of Covid-19 Multilateral policy priorities to limit persistent divergences,” Gopinath along with co-authors Petya Koeva Brooks and Malhar Nabar, elaborate on how the learning loss will affect people for a long, long time.

“Beyond the medium-term, the COVID-19 crisis may continue to exert a drag on labour market outcomes long after the pandemic has abated,” the authors wrote. “This is because of the widespread closures of educational institutions during the pandemic. Unless remedial measures are taken to redress the learning losses that have resulted from school and university closures, affected students face weaker future prospects for securing gainful employment in high value-added jobs. Those individuals’ lifetime earnings and economy-wide labour productivity growth are both likely to suffer”.

The authors also noted that schools were closed longer in low-income developing countries than elsewhere, raising the possibility of wider gaps in the stock of human capital across income groups in the years to come. “The fiscal side priorities would be spending on health and education,” adds Gita.

Even before the Omicron variant engulfed Delhi, Atishi Marlena, an AAP MLA who is closely involved with education in the government sector maintained that the pandemic had taken the country back by 20 years in terms of access to education. “Even in Delhi, only about 50-60% of the population have access to digital technology,” says Atishi. “Learning has been hampered on all fronts”.

“In countries like India, where the inequalities in education were already prevalent before the pandemic and the learning poverty levels were already gigantic, there is a lot at stake,” said World Bank’s Global Education Director Jaime Saavedra. “The learning poverty in India is expected to increase from 55% to 70% due to learning loss and more out-of-school children.”

Even before the IMF economist sounded the warning bell, the Ministry of Education conducted the National Achievement Survey in November 2021 to capture learning outcomes. When the survey was being conducted, some states were trying to partially open schools for senior students, some conducting a hybrid model, but primary classes remained 100% shut across the country. The survey could well be like an education efficacy report card for the country, states and the the districts.

Though this was not a ranked competition like the Swachhata Survekshan, state governments were concerned about where they will stand. “Whose achievement will it test when most children are not coming to school?” tweeted Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister Manish Sisodia.

He was not far off the mark, as Delhi faced a double whammy: just when the positivity rate encouraged some states to open schools partially, Delhi and NCR were forced to shut schools due to the capital’s dangerous air quality.

Read more: Teaching entrepreneurial mindset: From the drawing board to the marketplace

But the survey did get done. In all, 37.86 lakh students of classes 3, 5, 8 and 10 across the country were to participate in the survey. The survey finally covered a little over 34 lakh students (89.79%) participated. While the survey report of this is expected sometime in March, a point to note is that almost 5,40,325 out of the 6,37,867 students of class 3 who were to  take the test did not show up. That translates to 85 out of 100 students abstaining from the survey.

According to Central Square Foundation (CSF), an NGO working to ensure quality school education, Class 3 is the inflection point by which children are expected to learn to read so that later they can read to learn. Those who fail to attain these basic functional literacy and numerical skills find it difficult to catch up in later years and risk dropping out of school. These skills enable children to learn more meaningfully in higher classes and acquire 21st century skills like problem solving and critical thinking.

Re-acquiring basic reading, math skills

“The future of our children and India’s ambition of maximising its demographic dividend depend on whether children attain these basic reading and maths skills by class 3”, according to the CSF. Their 2021 survey showed that 72.8% of class 3 students in the country cannot read a class 2 level sentence, and 71.9% of them cannot do any subtraction.

Students return to school in Delhi
File pic of younger students back in school. Class 3 is the inflection point by which children are expected to learn to read so that later they can read to learn.

In fact, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), one out of three children who should be in Standard 1 and 2, have never attended in person classes since admission. ASER, published by Pratham, an NGO working to improve quality of education, had said that just 44% of class 5 students can read text meant for class 2 and just 23% of class 5 students can do division!

Parents found that loss palpable. “I have not seen much discussion about the impact of school closures on children in Early Childhood Education Centers,” says Dr Suman Verma, former head of the Department of Human Development & Family Relations at the Government Home Science College, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

“Children in this age group were the most affected and unreached group, who were primarily in home care during school closures since parents were busy coping with the schooling demands of the older children. Early childhood years are developmentally crucial years and prioritizing their foundational learning is a key to reducing the potential damage that school closures will have on children, as these skills are critical to developing children’s competencies, subsequent learning and lifelong economic opportunities”.

Dr Suman is the only Indian researcher in a global study on education in COVID  times being spearheaded by the University of Vienna, with 18 nations participating in it. Verma is of the view that “The pandemic brought a state of educational crisis in the country”. According to her, this resulted in learning poverty due to ineffectiveness of remote learning in ensuring full learning continuity for children during school closures.

Like Gita Gopinath and others, Dr Suman believes the damage could be permanent. “Growing poverty and the shift to remote learning has made children from the poorest households and other vulnerable groups less equipped to participate, and more likely to drop out permanently,” she adds. “Several studies have highlighted that the pandemic is compounding pre-existing vulnerabilities to educational disadvantage, and that gender, poverty and disability are intersecting to deepen social inequities.”

Read more: The reality of online learning in Bengaluru’s govt schools

Many parents I spoke to haltingly opened up about the effects of learning loss from school closure. Kamala Sarin has two children attending online classes for classes 3 and 4, and a 3-year-old she sends to a play school near home in east Delhi’s Shreshta Vihar. Her big apprehension is whether her daughters will pass and move on to the next class when “proper examinations” are held.

“I am determined that I will make them repeat a year if they cannot pass,” says Kamala. “Why burden them?” She is happy that her son is able to “draw number 1 and say upto 10”. And this is a mother who took her husband’s laptop for her children’s online classes.

Sources say the National Achievement Survey will confirm our nightmares — that the inordinate closure of schools, poor quality of online classes despite everyone’s best efforts, sporadic testing of the waters by opening schools for senior students in a limited way, have resulted in steep learning losses.

Another survey

Even as the results of the National Achievement Survey  are out, the union government has decided to carry out another nationwide survey of Class 3 students, this time  face to face and interactive, before the end of March. The idea is the same — to gauge the extent of loss in foundational learning. The sample size will be 1.5 lakh students in 22 languages and the surveyors will be specially trained field investigators.

The recovery of ground lost in early education is the more important because the New Education Policy (NEP) proposes that all class 2 students must read and do arithmetic at the class 2 level as a foundation for further education. The NEP notes that over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs before age 6.

The two surveys should give a realistic picture on where the country’s young students stand on that score.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai”(First there should be life, and then all the world’s activities can continue) and shut down the country. As he opened the economy cautiously, he said “Jaan bhi, Jahaan bhi” (both life and the world are important). Education, though not specifically mentioned, is doubtless the pillar on which our economy rests.

Now the government has opened up to the idea of incentivising recovery of lost learning. On February 4th, it urged state governments and union territories to “reimagine” the teaching-learning process keeping in the context of COVID reality. It asked states to draw up plans and budgets for the upcoming academic year based on a “learning recovery plan”. This plan is about preparing district level strategies based on the “results” thrown up by the National Achievement Survey.

As of now, however, the learning recovery plan does not mention any consultation with all the stakeholders — students, teachers, parents, state education departments and boards, and even those in the ed-tech business.

Seven steps that can help recovery of lost learning.

  • Focus on basic reading and math relentlessly for children upto class 3.
  • Review and prune syllabus to cover three classes at a time, in schools. For example, one class lower (of 2019 revision), and classes students would have been in 2020 and 2021.
  • One extra hour of teaching daily.
  • Six day week for schools
  • Redesign test/exam system 
  • A superclass of the entire school for half a day — story telling, quizzes, thematic drawing, other non course subjects, involving a large number of children
  • After-class in-school interventions using ed tech for maths and language, in regional languages in addition to English/Hindi

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