Students in India are facing a double pandemic
Illustration: Palli Kheni

The Background

A little over three months have passed since a nationwide lockdown was imposed in India. At present, most of the states have lifted restrictions on public movement, transportation facilities, and functioning of some government offices; certain Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in factories and workshops are still in operation. However, controlling the transmission of COVID-19 will prove difficult whilst simultaneously salvaging the education system.

India accounts for 675,453 of the total number of global cases, making it the country with the 4th highest number of cases and recoveries. With the recovery rate at 58%, India’s death toll stands a little above the 19,000 mark. However, the situation is far from under control, since the number of daily cases climbs higher and higher, and overtaking Russia’s cases seems increasingly likely. The number of samples tested is increasing. However, some days these numbers fall. 

Scaling down the picture brings us to the lives of the Indian populace. COVID-19 has broken the spirit of a nation looking forward to  a halcyon year, after the number of protests and counter-protests that happened last year. The nationwide restrictions enforced on the 25th of March, prohibited all forms of movement, except in the case of medical emergencies, including public transport and education. Students and migrant workers were left in a foreign state with little chance of commuting to their home states. 

All such restrictions have been lifted now and public transportation is in function, with certain precautions, in most of the states. Be that as it may, if you ask a student in India about the present and future of education, their answer will revolve somewhere around the word ‘uncertain’. 

What about the students?

In January, Grade 12 students had attempted the JEE Mains examination – conducted as an entrance test for admissions into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology’s 16 campuses all over India – and some were waiting for a second attempt, which was supposed to be held in April. In March, when the lockdown was imposed, the pending Grade 10 and 12 Board Examinations were temporarily suspended. Upcoming JEE Mains and NEET-UG examinations were also postponed. Law college entrance examinations such as CLAT and AILET were delayed as well.

Students across the country, most of whom had dedicated their high school years for a chance at these exams, were left devastated. Whilst the Ministry of Human Resource Development under Mr. Ramesh Pokhriyal, had repeatedly assured the students that there was no way these examinations would be cancelled,  students were far from relieved. The number of COVID-19 cases was sky-rocketing and the possibility of their hard work being spoiled was looming. 

India, after a series of consecutive lockdowns, needed an exit strategy. This meant issuing compulsory precautionary measures to be followed by people who would come to the streets. Especially after the sudden spread of the virus among those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat in the Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, further community transmission had to be prevented. Any prospect of schools being opened for the new academic year was dissolved. Without their high school Board results, admission into the highly esteemed universities such as the Delhi University, Benaras Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is  also delayed. 

If the schools or colleges were not opening, the only choice the authorities had was  to experiment with the new idea of ‘online learning’. The best  option was ‘video-conferencing’ through applications such as Zoom, WebEx, or WhatsApp. However, some states banned online classes for children in classes fifth and below, since the parents expressed their displeasure at  the idea of  their eight or nine-year-old child spending hours on the internet. 

The turnout for these classes was extremely low. ‘Online delivery’ was an easier option for schools. So, some teachers prepared a bunch of PDFs, recorded a few videos on some lessons, took pictures of the syllabus, and sent those to the students on WhatsApp groups, completely demolishing the concept of interactive pedagogy. On the other hand, coaching  institutes for medical and engineering entrance examinations conducted three to four hours of online classes every day, completely draining the student by the end of the day.

Distance learning has created yet another situation for Indian students. India accounts for 300 million of the 1.26 billion children around the world who had their education interrupted because of the pandemic. Millions of these children, due to conditions of poverty and poor living conditions, do not have access to technology. They lack mobile phones, laptops, a stable internet connection, or televisions. Since the necessary prerequisite for online learning is technology, these students either miss out on classes, leading to a low turnout, or have to visit the nearest Common Service Centres (CSCs), which are absent or impossible to access in rural areas. 

The impact

The human cost is clear, seen in Kerala, where a schoolgirl committed suicide because she had neither a TV nor a mobile phone to access online classes. Students in Kashmir are also struggling. The internet connectivity is snapped in some areas whenever gunfire starts in a particular district and many students struggle with slow internet speeds. 

The University of Delhi had proposed open book examinations (OBEs) for its students met with opposition. The DU Teachers’ Association had conducted a survey with 51,000 of its students, and its results showed that 85% of them were against these OBEs. Once more the root cause was that many students did not have access to technology. Many live in rural areas where access to the internet is uncommon. Accessing tests online and uploading answer sheets is especially difficult for visually challenged students. 

When we pull away from these problems, we cannot help but notice the toll this has taken on students’ physical and mental health.  Mental health remains a stigma in many parts of India. Most students suffer from anxiety, depression, sadness, loneliness, lack of motivation mainly during the school year. They suffer in silence because there is no education on mental health. For many asking for help seems like a herculean task. 

During these times, when they are forced inside their homes, many feel lonely because they haven’t met their friends in months. Staying inside homes has heightened anxiety and depression in them. Teenagers – for whom privacy is valuable – feel trapped surrounded by family all day. 

Students’ plight needs redressal. 

The Indian education system needed reforms even before the pandemic. However, the experience students had after the pandemic set in suggests that the situation is critical. If the Indian government does not realise the need for urgent changes it probably never will. 

The use of technology in classrooms is minimal in Indian schools. Some schools have  turned their classrooms into ‘smart-classrooms’ but a majority of Indian children study in schools funded by the central government or the state government. In these schools, the teacher to student ratio in classrooms is very small. Very few schools use technology such as smart boards, projectors, and tablets to teach the students and the use of chalk and duster remains the norm. Though there is nothing wrong with the use of chalk and duster, children’s familiarisation with the technology for ‘educational purposes’ should start within the classrooms. We must teach children to see how the words ‘internet’ and ‘technology’ are not synonymous with ‘video-games’ or ‘social media’. They will realise that the internet has so many other uses. It can teach people, give them diplomas or degrees, and enhance one’s knowledge. 

The concept of online classes was implemented a bit too soon for some Indian students. To them, studying through the internet sounded like an oxymoron. Some were finding it difficult to grasp what was being taught in these classes; some were not properly equipped. Some did not have an internet connection; some parents believe their  child would not be able to study in a non-classroom setting. It was a new concept. It was hard to take in. 

There are some ways out.

It is time we made our education system truly ‘inclusive’, by putting different mediums to use for learning. It is crucial for schools to use technology while teaching. The government must consider steps to support poorer communities to reach their full potential.

Indian society needs to rethink the status it has given to mental health and schools  need to talk about it. If the Indian populace continues to synonymise ‘being depressed’ with ‘being crazy’ or ‘insane’, chances are, we will never get to a point where everyone will feel free to talk about their issues.

Parents need to be liberal. Some are dubious about their child’s whereabouts on the internet. They need to reassess their stance, be more trusting. 

Indian teachers and students must relieve the importance they give to textual information – books, guides, and notes – and stress on discussions, debates, and modes of visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learning. 

In May, the Central Board of Secondary Education notified the students that the pending examinations of classes 10 and 12 would take place in the first two weeks of July. However, if the government does not control the number of cases, holding examinations in such a situation would mean risking the lives of many students and their families. 

Due to these reasons, a  petition was filed by a group of parents in the Supreme Court demanding the scrapping of these examinations. They claimed that many students who were living in containment zones or red zones would not be able to reach the examination centres. Furthermore, gathering of children – even if backed with sufficient precautions – would endanger their lives. 

Thus, on the 25th of May, the HRD Ministry released its order on the cancellation of all remaining board examinations. JEE and NEET-UG examinations are arranged to be held in July. Though holding these examinations is a risk too, instructions are expected from the Ministry regarding these. 

COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown have indeed brought into light some deep ills in the Indian education system. Being a country with a momentous potential for human resource, India needs to ramp up its education sector before it further jeopardises everything. An educated youth is far more beneficial to the country than an uneducated one. 

India needs change.

Radical changes are requisite. Reformation is essential. Revolution will follow.