Thursday, February 22, 2024

Education in times of pandemic

Lockdown and pandemic scare has taken a toll on all children who are asked to stay home for over a year. Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

Educational institutes across the world have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardizing the academic calendars. Almost all countries announced a temporary closure of schools, impacting more than 91 percent of students worldwide – around 1.6 billion children and young people, according to the United Nations.

At no other time have such countless kids been out of school simultaneously, disrupting learning and upending lives, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized. 

Institutions have arrived at a practical stop since they needed to shield their students from the virus spread. Offline classes have been shifted to online learning platforms to keep academic activities going. At the start of February 2020, schools just in China and a few other nations affected were shut because of the multiplying Covid cases. Almost a month after that, around 75 nations have declared the closure of educational institutions. As of 10th March of 2020, the shutting down of the schools and universities has left one in five students out of school around the world.

As indicated by UNESCO, before the finish of April 2020,186 nations has executed cross-country terminations, affecting around 73.8% of the total enlisted students. 

Despite the fact that the lockdown and social distancing are the main approaches to slow down the spread of the COVID-19, shutting down educational institutions has influenced a huge number of students. Most importantly, the shift to online mode has been a startling one in light of the unexpected lockdown compelled to manage the pandemic, and none of the institutions has got a chance to plan and prepare for the online mode education. 

As the schools and colleges are closed for an indefinite period, both educational institutions and students are exploring various roads in regards to methods of completing their endorsed syllabus in the specified time span in accordance with the academic calendar. These actions have certainly caused higher risks, yet they have been trying to adapt to the new learning platforms. 

Quality of learning depends on the level of digital access and efficiency. The online learning environment varies significantly from the conventional classroom atmosphere when it comes to the students’ motivation, fulfilment, and collaboration.

Soon after Union Government’s decision to impose a nationwide lock-down for 21 days from 25th March 2020, India has also made a transition to an online teaching environment. Most of the colleges have wholly moved to online mode utilizing Google classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or other digital platforms. 

Nevertheless, the questions about the preparedness, designing, effectiveness, and adequacy of e-learning are still not clearly understood, especially for a rural country like India, where technical constraints like the availability of gadgets and internet accessibility pose a serious challenge.

In any case, the prime concern is about the idea of acknowledging how well the plans are designed and executed. The effectiveness of adapting also depends on how the content is curated in the online environment and also in recognizing and addressing the various constraints faced by students. In the case of India, the system of online education has never endeavoured at this scale and this is like a massive social experiment.

Transition

“We only have a smartphone at home which have been used by our father. It is the only way to attend online classes properly for me and my sister. There are times when our class timings clash and one of us has to give up on our class.” Athulya, a 7th std student from Kerala describes her online learning experience. “We are still clueless about adapting to this new mode of learning”.

Students’ access to educational opportunities was significantly impacted by COVID-19. It’s been the most challenging year for the students across the country, due to various battles brought about by the pandemic including physical and mental illness or the ailment or demise of relatives or family members, encountering unexpected school closures, to feeling fear, grief, stress, and anxiety as the virus spread.

“It’s a year of uncertainty. Don’t know how to reduce the stress and struggle we have. It’s really difficult to share our emotions and internal struggles as all of us are going through the same. Online classes are not effective at all, teachers have just been introduced to the online platforms, so they are also confused as well as the students”. Says Nihal, a student at Delhi University.

COVID-19 has been deepening divides in educational opportunity across the nation’s classrooms and campuses along with all of its tragic impacts on every student. The educational gaps that existed before the pandemic—in access, opportunities, achievement, and outcomes are also getting immense. 

Also, we can see currently that a significant number of these effects are on students who went into the pandemic with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities—many of them are from historically marginalized and underserved groups. These disparities can be a reason for an extraordinary concern, particularly whenever they meddle with students’ chance to learn, develop, and add to the country’s future. 

 “Some of the students are still unable to attend online classes properly as they are having a slow internet speed. We are also new to these digital classrooms, and that is surely going to affect the academic performance of students,” says a higher secondary school teacher.

Those who went into the pandemic with the fewest opportunities are at risk of leaving with even less. For the students from historically marginalized communities in India, who already faced challenges in accessing basic educational resources, even before the pandemic, there was already a crisis of educational opportunity—a crisis that COVID-19 seems to have made even worse. 

For the past year, students have had to learn in front of screens at home and in other settings, affected by illness, loss, and economic hardship stemming from the global pandemic. 

Gayathri, a graduate from Calicut University, Kerala who is now pursuing her masters from Madras University, says, “It was a stressful period, for me the online classes were disastrous as I’m a student who depends on teachers and their classes very much”.

“But I was lucky to have a laptop to study with which many of my friends didn’t even have, Also, I had so many health issues on having longer screen time. I had to visit an eye doctor many times as I had high eye pressure troubles. It was really hard to concentrate when studying, after the long online lectures. We missed our college life for sure”.

“There was such a big group of Friends for me it has significantly reduced, I think. College life cannot be substituted by these online modes that are for sure! I think there Will be a great change in careers. More than knowledge all the fields would expect skills so one who is ready to accept this change and move on with this will survive. It’s tough but I think we don’t have any other choice”.

More than a year of “faltering” loss, distress, isolation, and uncertainty have taken a toll on many students’ mental health, worsening the challenges they face in the classroom, whether online or in person.

Shutdown and social isolation undermined many students’ mental and emotional well-being. An increase in negative feelings among most of the students and parents have been reported during the pandemic. Furthermore, educators, parents, and administrators across the country cited that the social and emotional wellbeing faced by the students are the major challenges.

“The first pandemic academic year was an innings of uncertainty. There was a flow in the entire education system before the covid screwed the things. So, the sudden drift along with the ever boring lockdown created a fear of missing out, anxiety about college life. The biggest tragedy is when the teaching mode changed into online, it has deeply and negatively affected the quality of education”.

Also, we are lacking the social connections and skills which are supposed to flourish in this golden age of life on campuses. This created loneliness, solitude, social withdrawal and it has a tremendous impact on the behavioural formation and communication skills one should acquire by imbibing the exposures of educational institutions.” Mubashir, a first-year MA Psychology student from Delhi University responded.

As students have suffered throughout the pandemic, so too has their learning. Over the last decade, learning outcomes for children in India have steadily declined.  According to The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), conducted annually by Pratham and the National Achievement Survey (NAS), carried out every three years by the central government, Indian schools have been facing high dropout rates and declining enrolment rates even before the COVID-19 pandemic. These reports reveal that while children are graduating to a higher class every year, very few are performing at their expected levels. And the unexpected shift to online education is likely to further impact these trends.

 “I always failed to give enough concentration to online classes. Not seeing my friends for a very long time that was too unexpected was really hard for me. We have to use our parent’s smartphones most of the time for attending classes, also we are losing all the chances of being active in extracurricular activities,” says Arjun Harish, a 10th-grade student.

“I would say offline classes and exams motivated me more than the online mode, which definitely affects my scores. I never expected the pandemic would last this long”.

COVID-19 has deepened widespread inequalities in access and opportunity. It had begun to widen gaps in academic growth. Also, students have no chance to be in any extracurricular activities.

This negatively impacts the students who excel in arts and sports. Academic progress for students from underprivileged categories appears to have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, even before the pandemic, many students from socially backward communities faced significant barriers to educational opportunity—barriers that the pandemic appeared to be making even steeper. Many of these students and their families also experience fewer resources at home and this leads to the inaccessibility of essential learning tools like broadband internet facilities.

Students in crosshair

Pandemic has led to many misconceptions also, thereby spreading hatred among the student community. The remarks made by a Professor of Delhi was one among them. The Professor accused the Kerala board of implementing ‘marks jihad’ with reference to the highest marks scored by the Kerala students.

“This is so sad and distressing. We have studied well and worked really hard for getting such good marks, amidst the pandemic, dealing with our mental struggles. It’s true that online classes turned everything upside down leaving us in a very confusing stage with mental traumas and anxiety. I always dreamt of studying at the University of Delhi where the cut-offs are usually too high. I tried my best and because of that, I got my admission at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. And when we hear statements like these, that also from our teachers, that’s really heartbreaking,” said Mufeedha Afra, a first-year Psychology student from the University of Delhi.

COVID-19 significantly disrupted the education and related aids and services needed to support the academic progress of differently-abled students. The pandemic has exacerbated academic achievement disparities for them. Students with disabilities experienced more difficulties transitioning to remote education than their nondisabled peers. And during that transition, students with disabilities continued to report difficulties navigating the procedures for documenting their disabilities. Those difficulties may also have been translating into more hardships. Remote learning also challenged parents from all backgrounds to become educational facilitators for their children. 

 “Every student has unique educational needs and specialized instruction. It’s really difficult to take online classes for intellectually disabled students especially when they require individual plans for their studies. Girija, a special school teacher from Kerala is describing the difficulty of the situation. They have worksheets and other classroom activities which have to be done only in the physical presence of a teacher. Students need their parents at home to support every single activity happening in digital classrooms. And this is making the conditions even harder in their houses as most of the parents have to go to work.

It’s high time to ensure students with disabilities receive needed academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services, as appropriate, and make reasonable modifications to any policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discrimination based on disability. The pandemic has amplified mental health challenges for every student, and for the differently-abled students, it’s even worse.

Well before COVID-19 upended life for students across the country, those who identified as LGBTQ+ faced heightened risks for anxiety, distress and abuse, with lesser places to turn for support. Loss of access to needed services may have heightened pre-existing challenges, peculiarly for students who are struggling with their identity or enduring rejection from family or friends.

Online learning platforms may have added more distressing hurdles to their living situations. There are reports showing that LGBTQ+ students experienced psychological distress more frequently than did their heterosexual peers. They have to use mental health services, which is difficult to access and they have been avoiding because of the stigma. The pandemic appears to have added to the toll.

Mental health has always been a real and less discussed challenge faced by students worldwide. It is an intensifying, pre-existing issue that has got worsened by the effects of Covid -19. During the Pandemic, Mental health services are an ongoing need for many students. It’s a tough phase for the students who disproportionately rely on their schools for those services, the pandemic has only compounded that need. 

“When we came to IITM especially with a 600-acre campus. We had an idea of what our life would be like. So, there is this constant frustration of things not going as we thought they would,” says Ridha, a second-year student from IIT Madras.

“In the case of MA students. We don’t have practicals as such but the very essence of our understanding and learning process is through efficient interaction both with other students and with profs.” 

She explains that “in the case of BTech students, they spent like 2-3yrs in coaching centres (or factories as they call it) and then came here only to spend their time in a closed room studying again, without practicals”.

“Virtual practicals are useless and they don’t learn to use anything. There wouldn’t be that fun of using instruments as well.  All of us were looking forward to spending our time in the huge library with thousands of books and calmness. 

This situation has certainly taken a toll on our mental health. But even when we say we want to go back, we are still afraid of contracting the virus and it’s more or less of a dilemma.”

The shift to online learning had a profound effect on students’ lives, including their decisions to enrol or remain in school. Students are confused and there is a lack of clarity going forward and what the plan of action would entail, especially with respect to the classes, examinations, results, internships, and placements.

While many students put college plans on hold for financial or other reasons—at least for now—others who enrolled or who continued with their studies experienced unprecedented financial challenges, deepening fears about whether they could continue their education at all.

High-quality education was already out of reach for many students long before the COVID-19 pandemic and could slip further away if we don’t act altogether giving attention to equal opportunity for every student. Even after lockdown is revoked, life after the COVID-19 pandemic will not be like before and online learning is here to stay, though in combination with regular offline classes.

The world is yet unsure of the length of the pandemic and chances of reinfections. To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, educational institutions will not only have to rebuild and reconsider the way of teaching and learning that have happened so far but will also need to introduce a suitable method of delivering quality education that is accessible to all.  Ensuring all children in India have access to inclusive and equitable quality education is indeed a great challenge in front of the government and authorities, along with addressing the severe mental health issues that have been faced by each and every student.

Throwing away the stigmas around mental health, we need to consider the mental-emotional wellbeing of students as a major concern in our educational system.

Aliya Muhammed, an independent contributor from Kerala, is now studying Psychology at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.

Aliya Muhammed
Aliya Muhammed
Aliya Muhammed, an independent contributor from Kerala, is now studying Psychology at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.
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