It has been over four months now that schools in the country are shut, due to the lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been a big shift towards online schooling over this period, mostly through synchronous classes on platforms like Zoom or Google Meet, parents of schoolchildren have raised a red flag about the massive increase in screen time for their children when schools replaced classroom learning with online classes. The HRD ministry stepped in to assuage their fears and announced guidelines called Pragyata, which laid down a cap on the duration and the number of sessions in a day for students.
Several schools still have day-long classes, however. “In Mumbai schools have been conducting online classes from 8 30 AM to 3 PM,” says Sonali Kapadia* who lives in Goregaon, “ Long hours in front computer causes eye strain and tiredness in children. With everybody working from home, stress levels are high because we have to keep a noise-free environment. Errant internet connections add to the stress. Mumbai schools also expect children to undertake online tuitions! The focus is on completing the syllabus and not on concept learning. I am not happy with online studies,” she says.
Sonali’s son Akshay* does not mind online classes. Since they had not received some textbooks, e-books are a great help. Akshay is promptly in front of the computer in full uniform at 8 AM and classes go on till 3 PM with intermittent 5-minute breaks and a lunchbreak. He is however disturbed by connectivity issues and coordination problems. Apart from studies they also have yoga classes. “When nothing can be done about the situation, online learning is the best bet,” says Akshay.
Apart from his ‘school timings’ he also attends online tuition classes in English and Math, a reason for Sonali’s consternation. Akshay beats down ‘academic pressures’ playing cricket every evening in their complex.
Venkat Mehith is in his hometown during the pandemic and he sorely misses school! A student of standard 10 in Vellammal International School, Ponneri, Chennai, he has online classes from 9 am to 12 pm from Monday to Saturday. He practices guitar during free time. Venkat usually stays in the school hostel, and feels that classroom learning is better, and he misses his tennis practice sessions, Sunday movies and school camps. He was hoping to play in the state tennis cluster this year which he will be missing out on due to the pandemic. The school also organizes about 36 camps and study tours for his class every year. They have missed out on all these and more fun due to the new study-from-home regime!
Venkat’s mother Dr Kavitha Nanduri and his father are dentists who have a clinic in Nellore. “The problem is universal and all of us have to adjust to the situation. In any case, children spend some hours in front of the screen, especially now since they cannot go out. If it is used for online learning, it is good. My son engages with others through mobile, does homework, plays and watches news on the TV,” she says without any apparent complaint against the prevailing system.
Rashmi (name changed) is a 7th grade student in south Bengaluru and is quite okay with online classes. “I was missing school very much. Online classes help us meet our teachers. They also help set a routine for ourselves,” she says. Homework deadlines are not stressful. Online classes are recorded and are available in the school website for future reference. Her mother Revathi feels that schools are handling online classes very well. Families have to set daily routines and ensure there is ample physical activity for all.
“In some countries like Iceland, online learning is the norm. Going forward, technology will increasingly be a part of our lives. Online learning is new, and it is too early to judge its impact on children. Presently, it is important to make the best use of the situation,” says Revathi.
Impact on mental health
These are the different ways our children are reacting to the foray of schools into our homes. How do educational psychologists view this new trend ?
“Nutrition, security and belonginess – these are three needs important for human beings as they impact the neurotransmitters in the brain and also help reduce stress hormones,” says Aarti C Rajaratnam, psychologist and author, who is also an Innovative Curriculum and Education Design Consultant.
Aarti explains that it is important for these basic needs to be met during childhood for development of a balanced personality. When opportunities for meaningful connections, play, exploration and learning are deprived during childhood there is a likelihood that children may interpret these situations as Adverse Childhood Experience or ACE that will result in long term personality changes.
“The focus of all stakeholders in our educational system is on delivering content and not on connectedness. We must remember that connection over technology cannot replace live interactions with peers and teachers in school. But considering the present circumstances, something is better than nothing and children do get the opportunity to alleviate stress and anxiety through video calls with peers,” she says.
According to Aarti, the worst hit are children in the age group of 2 to 7, because they need a lot of movement and exploration to make sense of the world through imagination. They are the ones that schools have really not understood, and are unfortunately stressing on development of literacy skills rather than on creativity and imagination.
Between the ages of 9 and 12 years there is a need for understanding rules, routines and regulation. These needs are again completely compromised in the instructional online space. “I see more children today riddled with anxiety that erupts as tantrums and sleep disturbances because of digital fatigue and poor regulation. The importance of movement and play have been completely ignored by most educators and parents. Children need play and movement for both self regulation and emotional regulation,” she says.
Schools adapt to new normal, with doubts
Schools too are grappling with the sudden change in the educational ambience as the demands on their teachers have increased manifold due to the new requirement for online methodologies to impart learning. Moreover, they are trying to battle ennui on the part of the children, as well as create enough interest in them so that they can be engaged in online instruction effectively.
Simrit Khatra, In charge, Junior School, Yadavindara Public School, Patiala, Punjab says, “There is no comparison between classroom and online learning because in the real situation, interactions between the teachers and the children are spontaneous. During online teaching, the teacher is not able to deviate from the lesson plan due to paucity of time and logistical issues, which is not the case in classroom teaching.”
Simrit points out that the teacher is not able to monitor all the children equally. The directive issued by the HRD ministry to reduce the syllabus poses problems for schools as the syllabus for the primary classes is already minimal and there is no scope for further reduction if children have to learn the basic concepts.
To mitigate stress levels of students, the Yadavindara school offers exclusive classes with a special educator. The school believes stay-at-home situation is the best time to help children develop life skills and teaches children yoga, aerobics, cookery and other hobbies online.
Shashibala Kishore, Vice Principal and de-facto Head of the Government School, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi, says that the children who study in her school live in restrictive environments, hailing from communities that rarely permit their children to go out of their homes even during normal times other than to school. As in all other government schools in Delhi, the Pahar Ganj school too is providing students access to a link given by the Directorate of Education, Delhi.
“Most children come from rural areas and their families share a smart phone or have no phone at all. Only a small number of children attend these classes and they are happy to attend,” says Shashibala, but “considering that Delhi government schools today have upgraded infrastructure including RO Water, WC toilets, sanitary napkins, decent classroom and staffroom infrastructure, they would be happier attending classes once schools reopen.”
Tanuja Mehra, Principal, Sand Dunes Convent School, Jaipur, says that online classes can be interesting if they are creative and are able to get the children involved. Their classes for the primary section present activities using props and objects of everyday use found at home. Since children come mostly from the rural belt, they attend classes using mobile phones and for young children parents sit with them. For senior children role play, drama, demo of experiments are used to impart learning.
Manvinder Kohli, Principal, Skonis World School, Kharar, Mohali, Punjab opines that while schools are trying to make the best out of the circumstances, technology will play a major role in education in the future, and we have made a good start now. Manvinder believes that online learning has paved the way for development of other skills and behavioral modification among children.
Online learning has impelled the need for children to be self-disciplined, self-reliant and confident. For parents, this is the time to strengthen their bonds with the children and open up channels of communication. They should also monitor the child when they are online and teach the importance of responsible use of technology for their growth. Manvinder feels the positive aspects far outweigh the negative aspects of online learning.
Given the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will continue, Aarti Rajaratnam’s counsel makes sense. “The best way to reduce any negative consequences of the lockdown is to offer children opportunities for free play every day, improve connectedness with family and peers at least over video calls, encourage hands-on exploration and play, model emotional regulation, and create an ambience for the home to be a safe space for the child to experience meltdowns that can be understood and regulated over time.
*Names in the article have been changed on request