The United Nations has described the global scale of education disruption from COVID-19 as “unparalleled.” According to UNESCO monitoring, at the peak in early April, national and local closures have impacted about 91.3 percent of the world’s student population.
While students across the board have been impacted, it is important to understand the impact on children from marginalized communities in many developing countries, including India, which at 260 million children, has the largest school-age population in the world.
As we reached out to students from marginalized communities, stark and growing inequities emerged, including:
- Loss of income and livelihood due to the extended lockdown.
- Migration—the emotional toll of this on children will be manifold. Moreover, post-lockdown, many of the migrants may decide to stay back in the villages, which could lead to children dropping out of formal education.
- Forced to take on adult responsibilities, like taking care of their younger siblings, managing household chores, organizing food, and making decisions on behalf of the family.
- Misinformation spread through fake news and rumors. There is widespread fake news and rumors floating around that has caused tremendous stress and confusion. Children are asking ‘What will happen to me and my family? Will my parents die? What happens to me if I lose my parents?’
- Heightened Violence and Abuse. The Childline India helpline received more than 92,000 SOS calls asking for protection from abuse and violence in 11 days, a somber indication that the lockdown has turned into captivity, not just for women, but also for children trapped with their abusers at home.
- Gendered Impact. Girls would be expected to take on more adult roles in their families, their education will be deprioritized compared to boys, and they are more likely to face domestic violence and abuse at home.
- Loss of academic learning. As marginalized populations do not have access to digital resources and tools, there is also the loss of academic learning, furthering the learning gap.
- Impact of Trauma resulting in Failure to Thrive. The recent news of a 35-year-old migrant laborer who committed suicide because he could not provide for his family (aged parents, wife, and four children) has sent shockwaves across the country. One can only imagine the long-term emotional and mental trauma his children are going to grow up with. All the above outlined challenges faced by children/young people can and will cause tremendous trauma — mental, emotional and psychological.
We know that sustained trauma in early-years (0–10 years) results in stunting and failure to thrive and the impact of failure to thrive can be seen for life. Children are going to carry this trauma into schools, and it is going to impact their ability to access content, engage in learning and build healthy relationships.
As the impact of the pandemic unfolds, it is becoming abundantly clear that traditional learning models have ill-equipped our children to respond to the current crisis. Some of the structural and systemic challenges in our education systems that have come to the forefront include:
1. The future is already here!
The oft-repeated assumption that children would have to face an uncertain job market and a fast-changing world a few years from now is already amidst us, and this uncertain future is unfolding as we speak.
2. Economic growth vs. prioritizing well-being.
Today we are rightly being forced to prioritize well-being over economic growth, for ourselves and the planet. Could this be the turning point that decides the new purpose of education in the face of this new reality?
3. Entrenched systemic inequities.
When an eighth-grade student who shares one smartphone in a family of four makes a tough choice to buy an internet-pack versus groceries and is then not allowed into her online class for being five minutes late, are we not perpetuating the same systemic biases we held offline to the online world? What could be the role of education in changing this reality?
Before we rush towards reactionary solutions, there is a need to pause and reflect on these structural and systemic challenges within our current education system. While it would be easy to replicate old offline models and repurpose them towards the online mode, we must pause to ask the tough question—is this what is needed right now?
The way forward: The Need for a Pause
Schools cannot go back to “business as usual” at the end of this crisis. They cannot double down their efforts to catch-up to lost time by stuffing syllabi down students’ throats. There is a definite need to re-imagine the role of schools and teachers in the life of children coming from marginalized communities, with the entire ecosystem becoming trauma-responsive and invested in the well-being of all learners.
For instance, Dream A Dream has developed the Happiness Curriculum in which mindfulness- and play-based approaches have benefitted 800,000 children across 1024 government schools in Delhi. Each child gets 35-minutes every day of a Happiness Class. During the lockdown, it has been the stories, activities, and mindfulness practices from the Happiness Curriculum that have helped children deal with the anxiety.
The mindfulness practices have helped kids to stay grounded and created a sense of calm in their communities and in the lives of their families. To continue to support learners during the lockdown, the government has introduced a new initiative called, “Every parent a teacher, every home a school” and lessons are delivered using a unique Interactive Voice Response (IVR) based system where parents /children can give a missed call to a particular number and then they get a call-back with a story or activity or a mindfulness exercise that the whole family can do together. For instance, when a parent gives a missed call (at no cost to the parent), the parent might get a call back with a recorded voice sharing a Story around friendship from the Happiness Curriculum. This will also include some reflective questions at the end of the story. The whole family can listen to the story together and then reflect on the questions being asked and discuss with each other. Parents and students have loved this idea.
As we start preparing ourselves for the post-pandemic world, our invitation is to use this pause to re-imagine how schools and learning ecosystems can be truly transformative for all children.
For example, what if learning ecosystems decide to:
- Spend the first three months when children come back to school only on re-integrating them into the post COVID-19 world, while deprioritizing academic subjects.
- Have no examinations across the board for one year.
- Invest in targeted trauma-healing of teachers, resulting in schools becoming more trauma responsive.
- Support school leaders to re-imagine the school calendar to integrate life-skills and SEL as core components to prepare children for future uncertainty.
- Change the metric of success of our education systems from academic and economic outcomes to well-being and thriving of all students, communities, and the planet.
Considering how our school and societal systems are currently designed, this is not going to be easy. Yet this is the most important call of the moment.