Reclaiming Education in Pandemic Times

A virus may be apolitical, but our response to it reveals biases and inequities in our systems. As we all adapt to the new “normal”, it is critical that we look at the stated and unstated assumptions, and implicit and explicit changes being made to our social welfare systems, which impact people differently.

Millions of children have been out of school and anganwadis since March, at a great risk of falling behind on nutritional, immunization and educational goals; many pushed into child labor and early marriages. The response of the education system so far largely focused on conduct of exams and on-line education. However, there is an urgent need to look at this issue from the standpoints of access, inclusion and equity. What are the contexts of different schools and children? What kind of learning experiences are appropriate? What should the curriculum be? What is the role of a school?  What support do teachers need?  What resources are needed?

Schools as community institutions

Schools are community institutions, playing an important part in the socializing of the young. For a vast majority of children, schools are also a safe space – physically and emotionally; millions also depend on schools for their nutritional needs. Shutting schools invisibilizes the contexts of these children, leaving them and their families with no recourse. The public health benefits of school closures, therefore, need to be balanced with the larger social costs they entail.
Schools can go beyond the imparting of the “3Rs” and need to be envisioned as places of community education. Awareness about prevention, early identification, support for the elderly, quarantined, sick and infected, seeking accountability from the public health system are critical pieces of community education, essential for meeting this or any other public health challenge. This requires us to imagine the school as a community learning space. As the pandemic forces us to examine the idea of the local in fundamental ways, it provides opportunities for us to shape and strengthen local institutions, the school being foremost, supporting as well as benefiting from the community.

Meaningful learning experiences

This is not the time to substitute classroom lectures with video lectures and downloaded digital content. Isolation at home with limited physical activities is developmentally inappropriate for children to begin with. For students from an impoverished background, self-learning possibilities are even more limited.  Building collaborative learning experiences that allow children to learn with one another, with the adults in their community and with the teacher should be the way to go, with age-appropriate and meaningful integration of digital tools.
The current context requires us to bring into school education, a discussion on the underlying causes of the pandemic, including the trajectories of our economic models, lifestyles, environmental degradation and their disproportionate impact on the living conditions of the majority. Ignoring the disruptions in the students’ lives brought on by the social and economic impact of the pandemic, while focusing on a given syllabus, with reductions in “portions” would be as insensitive as it is meaningless.  
A project-based approach can allow a meaningful combination of content-based learning and skill-based contextually relevant activities. The school becomes more relevant and the curriculum more alive when it addresses the real life challenges of students. Teacher interaction is essential and can be in the form of videos, small group interactions through online forums and in small groups when schools reopen.  Reinforcing foundational literacy and numeracy will be a high priority and can be taken up with support from facilitators from the local community. Such a hybrid model of physical and digital learning, text-based and activity-based learning, can also provide a more flexible approach to address potentially iterative school closures and re-openings, responding to public health challenges, as they emerge. Developing modules for internet safety is a high priority, along with mandatory limits on screen time.

Teacher capacity-building

The travails of the teacher in an on-line environment have become the butt of many jokes, adding to the negative image of a teacher as a technician. How else can one explain the sanction of “pay-by-class” method adopted by some schools, destroying the very nature of teacher-student relationship, the core of any meaningful learning experience? Teachers must be supported in ways of re-looking at curriculum and in the acquisition of new skills, including felicity with digital tools and processes. Teacher agency and autonomy are critical for this. They must also be equipped to respond to the emotional and psychological needs of the students. School administrators must use this opportunity to explore fundamental ideas in education and invest in teacher capacity-building.

Public provisioning

Education is a fundamental right; shifting to e-content delivery does not count. With patchy infrastructure availability, this will leave out many children exacerbating further the systemic inequities. Designing inclusive learning environments is a non-negotiable. Digital infrastructure must be seen as an essential public utility, similar to public education or health. Provisioning for working computers, stable internet, television and radio in schools, alongside convergence of the digital infrastructure at the community level – with the panchayat, libraries, local knowledge centres or other community spaces – is essential for equitable access. Proprietary digital platforms eroding teacher and student privacy and compromising teacher curricular agency must be replaced with publicly funded open source alternatives and open digital content.

Reclaiming education

Schools need to resume. If we can devise safe opening for temples and malls, we can surely do the same for schools. Strategies for safe re-opening could include staggering classes, regrouping into smaller cohorts, facilitating transport for teachers, combining in-school and out-of-school activities, support from community facilitators, clear guidelines for physical distancing, hygiene and infection control and community education. Re-imagining content and teaching is inevitable; as is an enhanced focus on infrastructure access.   
The pandemic is merely a proximate trigger for the re-imagining of education, long hidden in our policy and curricular documents. Education is the making of society, and we need to rise to the occasion and respond with approaches that are equitable, flexible and resilient.

This article was originally published by the Deccan Herald.

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