Notes from the Field: How Has the Pandemic Deepened Inequalities in India’s School Education?

Even as the Covid-19 pandemic continues into its second year, we are yet to put in place a system that addresses students’ needs and concerns during the pandemic. While shutting down schools and switching to online learning seemed inevitable when the pandemic began, it soon became clear that the decision neglects students who lack access to digital infrastructure — a digital device and the internet. The shift to online learning also raises questions about its ramifications such as loss of learning, increased school dropouts, child marriages, child labor, and malnutrition, and what plans have been put in place to address these issues.

IT for Change’s field center, Prakriye, builds supportive techno-social systems to further socio-political empowerment of marginalized women and adolescent girls in rural areas of Mysuru district, Karnataka, India. The Prakriye team has been undertaking Covid relief work since the beginning of the pandemic and has gained on-field insights on the impact of school closures. This article weaves findings from Prakriye’s fieldwork with theoretical insights from academics and educators to elucidate the impact of school closures on students in rural Mysuru.

Why Does Infrastructure Matter?
Infrastructure includes technological and social systems that enable development processes. For instance, railway lines and staff are components of the railway infrastructure that facilitates travel, transport, and trade. Susan Leigh Star, argues that the concept of infrastructure, “becomes more complicated when one begins to investigate...the situations of those who are not served by a particular infrastructure”. For Star, infrastructure is always relational and often perpetuates social inequalities based on race, ability, class, gender, etc. While a flight of stairs may seem like a suitable infrastructure for many, it is an impediment to a person in a wheelchair. One person’s infrastructure can be another person’s barrier.

Access to the Digital: Infrastructure for Some, Concern for Many
Some elite private schools had adopted Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)-integrated pedagogies much before the pandemic. Such schools are equipped with computer labs and use audio/visual learning modules as part of their teaching processes. Star asserts that one of the most important characteristics of infrastructure is this embeddedness. Infrastructure is said to be embedded when people cannot distinguish between its several coordinated aspects – when it is rooted into processes and activities.
To function effectively, infrastructure must also be regularly used by the people it aims to serve. Students belonging to upper-class and upper-middle-class households are already familiar with digital devices since they use their parents’ smartphones and laptops. The parents of such students are also in a better position to support the children in completing their academic activities. According to Star, this naturally-acquired familiarity with components (here, digital devices) is also a characteristic of embedded infrastructure. However, for the majority of India, embedded and familiar digital infrastructure is missing.

Meaningful Access to Digital Infrastructure
Gurumurthy Kasinathan argues that even if access to digital infrastructure is secured, it is necessary to distinguish between access and meaningful access. He highlights that the availability of devices and the internet is not enough. For effective online learning, one needs an ‘independent’ device (preferably a computer or tablet) and uninterrupted access to the internet at least for few hours of the day. Electricity supply to charge devices and proximity to repair shops are equally important. Among the currently enrolled students in India, 75% do not have access to the internet through any device. This population primarily includes socially marginalized groups such as girls, students belonging to poor families, rural areas, and SC and ST communities. Thus, the strain of the pandemic, in terms of educational outcomes, is disproportionately borne by children who belong to an already vulnerable community.

The Story of a Government School in Rural Karnataka
Sowmya* and Shruti* study in a rural government school in the HD Kote block of Karnataka’s Mysuru district. They were preparing for their 9th-grade exams when their school closed in March 2020. In an interview with the Prakriye team, Shruti said, “Our teacher told us that exams will be conducted after the lockdown. He suggested we study [by ourselves] until then.” Sowmya added, “Initially, I was happy about getting a few days off from school. I thought we will go back to school soon. But things only got worse.”
In early 2020, Sowmya and Shruti’s school conducted in-person classes since the Covid-19 cases were relatively lower in India. In June 2021, just before their 10th-grade board exams, online classes were conducted for English and Mathematics. This is the only formal schooling that they have received in 2020-21.
Government teachers and staff have not been given any computers, tablets, and internet facilities to conduct online classes either. Harini*, Sowmya and Shruti’s school teacher said, “I taught English to 10th-grade students during the pandemic, and I used my own internet data. I used to often run out of data while teaching my class. Another challenge I faced was that I could not reach all the students at once. Only some students had a feature phone and even fewer students had smartphones. I started by teaching only 9 students. Some children joined after their parents bought a phone for them.”
Many parents were financially stretched to buy smartphones to support their children’s education. About 1 in every 10 households in India, with children studying in both government and private schools, bought a new phone to support their children’s education after schools closed in March 2020. Sowmya said that after saving up for months, her father bought her a phone in January 2021. Shruti bought one as well but could not afford to recharge it regularly. “My mother had to repay loans she took from her self-help group”, she explained. Both of them reported that several of their classmates did not have access to any device. The unreliable phone network in villages was another issue that students and teachers faced.
During online classes in June 2021, only 15 of the 53 students in Shruti’s class were able to attend. “Mathematics was most difficult for me. I could not understand Trigonometry. Even after clearing the exam, I am not confident about it”, shared Shruti.

Building Alternatives: A Hobson’s Choice
Eduordo Marisca writes that alternative infrastructures are like ad hoc constructions “that emerge at locations where existing infrastructures become ineffective, inaccessible or unjust”. When the current education system failed to meet the needs of students and teachers during the pandemic, local alternatives were inevitably created.
Sowmya and Shruti gathered all the possible resources they could access to continue their studies. They built informal networks at the village level, where students with smartphones became anchors for those without devices. “I used YouTube videos to study. I am not fluent in English, and only a few channels upload tutorials in Kannada. I looked for them and learned certain difficult concepts. I usually met my friends in the evenings, and shared the methods and tricks I learned through videos”, explained Sowmya.
Students who had a feature phone called their friends and teachers to clarify their doubts. But this was not always possible. “Parents often carried their phones to work. The students had to wait until evening for their parents to return”, Shruti shared. Some also watched learning modules conducted by subject experts on Doordarshan Chandana, Prasar Bharati’s Kannada television channel. “These programs helped us only to some extent...we could not ask doubts or revisit topics whenever we wanted. So, it was difficult to retain what we had learned”, Sowmya clarified. Sowmya and Shruti also reached out to teachers from 3 private schools in the Mysuru district. “We asked the teachers who took online classes to share their Zoom links with us. We told them how difficult it has been to study without classes, and they agreed to help us; 15 of us attended these classes and taught the rest who couldn’t”, Sowmya elaborated.
Although these alternative infrastructures were built to meet immediate learning needs, they did not offer the same support embedded infrastructures would have. And when one section of the society has continuous access to established infrastructures and the rest are forced to depend on alternatives, inequalities only deepen. As Harini expressed, “Private schools already conduct smart classes whereas there are no such facilities in public schools. How can our children compete with students studying in cities, receiving hi-tech [ICT-enabled] private education?”

Ramifications of Prolonged School Closures
Apart from unstructured and inadequate learning due to broken infrastructures, school closures also affect children’s social security. Students’ nutrition has taken a massive hit since they have not been able to access cooked meals as part of the mid-day meal scheme since the school closures began. Although an equivalent ration is to be distributed to school-going children, states are still struggling to implement this consistently.
Mysuru district alone saw child marriage cases double during the pandemic. Until 2020, the average number of child marriage cases recorded was 120. This number jumped to 260 between March 2020 to April 2021. Hunsur block reported the highest number of cases (52), whereas HD Kote block reported 22 cases. “Parents are insecure about allowing girls to stay home after a certain age. They want to get their girls married off. With no schools to go to, the fear has increased”, said Kavitha*, a parent from a village in HD Kote.
Many children, especially boys, are made to join the labor force to supplement the family’s earnings. Students who used to attend schools now work on farms or at shops, sell farm produce, and help graze animals. Parents are under immense financial stress and need children’s help to make ends meet. “Parents also fear that boys will waste their time and engage in activities such as alcohol consumption and eve-teasing. And society expects girls to contribute to household chores, care for their younger siblings, and earn money, if possible. Parents want their children to work instead of whiling away their time”, added Kavitha.

A Glaring Emergency
With schools now opening up, students who have joined the labor force or married may not return to formal education. V. P. Niranjanaradhya estimates that the number of out-of-school children in India will double in a year’s time. UNESCO’s study across 180 countries projected that 24 million children may not return to formal education in 2020 due to the pandemic. Given the overwhelming loss of learning during the pandemic, even the enrolled students might struggle to cope with the academic demands in the coming years.
While students across socio-economic groups have been impacted by the pandemic, those from marginalized communities are left to fight the hardest battles. There is a need to transform the current educational and digital infrastructure, in tandem, to address this emergency.

* Names of all the interviewees have been changed to protect their privacy.

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