School closures and lack of online classes threaten to create greater inequality
AMY KAZMIN AND JYOTSNA SINGH NEW DELHI
Outside the locked and deserted Vidya Sagar Public School, the eight-year-old daughter of a snack vendor sits forlornly on her father’s disused pushcart.
Before coronavirus, Rachna Kashyap was one of 200 pupils whose working-class parents paid Rs400 ($5.40) in monthly tuition to send their children to the no-frills, English-medium private school instead of underperforming state ones. But the school, which employed nine teachers, collapsed during India’s lockdown that cost millions of jobs. Parents could no longer afford the fees and the school lacked the wherewithal to transition to online learning.
For Rachna, her education ground to a halt. “I can’t study because my mom can’t pay,” she said.
Vidya Sagar, the school’s founder, is pessimistic about any imminent revival. “All of the teachers have left,” he said. “People are busy finding some means of livelihood to survive: parents, teachers, all of us. My business has been destroyed. The story of education for children like those at my school is over.” The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on India’s estimated 270m schoolchildren, who have not seen the inside of a classroom since March, and may not return this year.
For decades, India has struggled to teach basic skills, while poor families have embraced education as a ticket to greater prosperity. Many paid for low-cost private schools. Coronavirus has set back those efforts. Elite private and top government schools have made a transition to virtual classrooms, though concerns about excessive screen time have curbed instruction. But millions of less privileged children have had their education disrupted. Neither their families nor their schools are equipped for remote lessons. The World Bank has warned of a surge in dropouts and learning losses, which “will have a lifetime impact on the productivity of a generation of students”.
Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, said the disruption would weigh on India’s prospects. “If there is a breakdown in education, you are seriously hobbling the future,” he said. India will permit schools to reopen after October
15. But whether, when and how to resume classes will be decided by state governments. With coronavirus still circulating, many authorities are wary of restarting. Surveys suggest most parents are reluctant to send their children to school until there is a vaccine.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is touting a “culture” of online classes, and new education ministry guidelines state “online/distance learning shall be the preferred mode of teaching” even if schools partially reopen.
But experts warn school closures and remote learning will exacerbate educational disparities. “If you are a first-generation learner, without access to technology and without educated parents, school is everything,” said Karthik Muralidharan, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. “If you have lost that, you have nothing. It’s almost inevitable that we are going to see an increase in inequality.”
Long-term school closures also put children at risk of losing skills they had developed. “There is genuine learning loss from not being in school,” he added. “These could be long-lasting losses.”
India was among the least prepared of any big economy for virtual learning, Mr Chakravorti said. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, internet penetration was just 40 per cent at the end of last year.
In rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live, just about a quarter of the population has internet access.
“The online stuff is only for the elite,” said Rukmini Banerji, chief executive of Pratham, an educational charity.
Before the pandemic, nearly half of India’s pupils were in private schools, estimates Gaja Capital, a private equity firm that invests in education businesses. Of those, about 80 per cent paid less than Rs40,000 a year in tuition. But like Vidya Sagar, many of these low-cost private schools have suspended operations, hit by the economic shock and mass exodus of migrants from cities.
An Oxfam India survey of 1,158 families in five states found 80 per cent of government school students and 60 per cent of private ones got no instruction or educational support during lockdown.
Yamini Aiyar, president of New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, said free government schools would be inundated when the virus threat receded. “The school system is going to look very different,” she said.
‘If you are a first-generation learner, without access to technology and without educated parents, school is everything’