I am sharing my thoughts from the confines of my home during the very needed clarion call to self – curfew to push back the threat caused by the Novel Corona Virus (COVID-19) outbreak. While many seem to have felt the severity of the problem on 22nd March, our younger citizens , our school students and children and their parents and guardians had felt the impact for over a week now when the governments decided to shut down schools and educational institutions. According to world bodies like OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development) and the UN (United Nations) , 39 countries across 3 continents have closed schools due the Virus Outbreak. This has led to more 500 Million students (and counting at a rapid rate) being kept away from school to ensure social distancing and to stem the spread and cuts across countries like Japan, Italy, Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, France, Germany….the list is endless.
India too had no choice but to enforce a school lockdown to ensure protection of one of our most precious young human resources. This was one area where there was unity in decision across governments, bureaucracy and politico – Education ministries and departments across the world, the diverse set of school boards that govern school education in India both in state capitals and urban cities or rural towns and Schools that continue to impart Rote Learning as philosophy and Schools that have progressed to experiential learning …all unanimously concluded shutting down of schools till 31St March 2020.
The common approach unfortunately stops with this ie. shutting down of schools and ensuring children remain at home. The after effect management is what is missing today. We all know that when a school closes a cascade of adverse effects follow. These vary from a disruption in lesson plans continuation to half baked information that may have parents allowing children to play in the building compound during this period instead of following social distancing norms to a sudden breakage in the Teacher – Child – Parent interaction to disturbance in the flow of students who have been toiling hard to prepare for annual examinations to even something as rudimentary as explaining to smaller children about what has really caused the school to shut down.
The stoppage of the physical classroom has encouraged the Ed Tech companies to surge their offerings in the online education space. Leading known players as well as relatively unknown start ups have all started positioning themselves as the ideal alternative to ensuring that the child continues to learn during this period and does not waste time. Some of these well meaning organisations have digital platforms, others have content, some are heavily dependent on the internet connectivity, others have platforms that are single directionally interactive. The prerogative to run these online alternatives remain with the schools and hence one finds some schools doing it, many others not and a third set watching by the side. Not one government school seems to have adopted this approach as yet and hence clearly the whole online platform alternative to schooling is
(i) Very discretionary and restricted to few private schools who can afford this program
(ii) Non Standardised and hence content / teaching approach vary from school to school
(iii) Accessible only to the privileged entitled few due to unstable internet connectivity.
So while the environment gets challenging and disruption rules the day, the government which incidentally has been exemplary in demonstrating their preparedness and approach to fighting COVID-19 on healthcare & state administration may wish to also set up a High Powered Special Education Task Force on the lines of the Economic Task Force to tackle the disruption this virus has caused to lakhs and lakhs of young minds of the country. The task force can be a good mix of bureaucrats, educationists, school owners and Policy Makers from across states chaired and led by the MHRD Minister. This task force should quickly draw up guidelines and FAQs on 5 critical areas for both K-12 and Higher Education sectros.
1. Curriculum continuity rules and regulations just as one would have in the physical teaching world
2. Method of teaching – How does one replicate the classroom experience to the maximum ?
3. Hub & Spoke model for better access into tier 2/3 private schools and government schools.
4. FAQ to parents and teachers on how to communicate to the children during this period – A child who asks “ what is happening and why are we all sitting at home instead of going to school “ must have a credible yet positively laced response.
5. Financial intervention to allow better connectivity and financial sops to enable the digital platform provider, the content provider, the deliverer and the beneficiary together.
Students are the future of this country. Students going to government schools still far exceed that going to private schools even today and down the decade when these students become adults, they need to be ready to shoulder responsibility to make this country better than what it is today. Preparation for that starts today and disruptions like the COVID – 19 should not be allowed to come in the way.
In conclusion, while alternatives exist to ensure continuity to teaching children during this disruptive phase, a bit of structured approach and advisory by the Education Regulator will help actually ensuring an effective learning outcome for the 200 million odd children who are counting on our education system to sail through their 14 years of learning uninterrupted.
(Vinesh Menon, Chief Executive Officer, Education, Consulting & Skilling – Government Services, AMPERSAND Group )