Once schools reopen, help children reconnect| Opinion

This phase too will pass. In a few weeks or months, schools will open again. What will it be like when schools open? What should be the first set of priorities to focus on? How should schools proceed?

Looking through the fog of uncertainty and disruption brought on by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) crisis, I see opportunity. A chance to do things in a new way. When schools open this year, it will be the most anticipated school opening of all time. Children, parents and teachers are all waiting for that moment. Schools were among the first institutions to shut in India. They shut even before the lockdown. The reopening of schools, therefore, will be a clear announcement that normal routines can restart and the daily schedules of life can resume.

Schools can restart in several different ways. It can be “business-as-usual”. Worse, the system can go into an “accelerated” mode, trying to cram in all the things that did not happen since March. But what is needed is a time for welcome and a period for settling down. This is not just any “back-to-school” moment. This school opening should be treated as the start of a brand, new chapter.

Children need to reconnect with friends. Schools and students need to get reacquainted. Teachers need time to understand the impact of the long unplanned school closure on where children currently are — socially, emotionally, and academically. Helping them to settle in and “catch up” will go a long way towards rebuilding foundations and strengthening basic skills. While urban educated families have been able to support their children’s learning activities through the lockdown period, this has been difficult for many households in slum communities and vast parts of rural India. For primary school children, especially in government schools or in low-cost private schools, school closures may have weakened their ability to read or to do basic arithmetic. For older children, boosting reading and comprehension skills, sharpening communication, and the capability to apply language and math skills to actual texts and problems may be needed. In both cases, putting aside the usual age-grade curriculum and focussing on relevant foundational skills, for a few hours in each school day for the first few months, will be an excellent way to start the school year for 2020.

The severe economic blow to many families is already visible and is likely to worsen. In such times of hardship, the already vulnerable and weak become even more disadvantaged. We must closely watch and reach out to children who are “at-risk”. Ensuring continuous and steady attendance in school is a must for a real return to normalcy. Girls in upper primary grades may be especially prone to being pulled out. As adult women seek work in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or hunt for other local livelihood options, the pressure on teenage girls to help with household chores is likely to intensify. Years of work to ensure universal elementary education cannot be undone by the Covid-19 crisis. Specifically, I worry about girls who have reached class 7 and 8 but whose academic standing is not strong. Rather than demanding stronger and longer remedies in education, poor parents may be tempted to withdraw such girls from school. We certainly n
eed “beti padhao”, but more than that we need “beti padhey” and “padhtey rahe”.

Parents have played a very central role in the lockdown period. Schools must recognize their contribution and support. While the national media has been preoccupied in discussing the pros and cons of on-line education, in the last six weeks, we, in Pratham, have embarked on an interesting adventure. In about 11,000 rural and urban communities across India, we have been sending phone messages to parents with a few activities that children can do that day. We started with WhatsApp messages, but it became clear very quickly that many children do not have access to smartphones. Hence, an entirely new wave of SMS messages was quickly developed and are being delivered daily. Thanks to ongoing relationships in these communities, we are also able to call and talk to parents and children at least once a week. Families send back videos and photos of their children’s handiwork; boys and girls phone us frequently to share their experiences. This two-way communication provides excellent feedback for understanding what children and parents can do together even with simple, sparse instructions. We have learned that parents participate in activities that they can engage with, and that continuous discussion and follow up results in energetic and enthusiastic involvement, even from parents who are not highly educated themselves. Parents play a critical role in their children’s lives; we have seen how the lockdown has led to their active support in children’s learning. Now it will be important to keep parental participation high even after schools open.

The year 2020 is not a year for ambitious learning targets; nor is it a year for moving rapidly through what is already recognized as an overambitious curriculum. The new 2020 school year should be spent in reconnecting, settling down, “catching” up, rebuilding foundations and in enjoying school. We must do this to ensure that our children emerge strong and ready for tackling the 2021-22 school year.

Rukmini Banerji is with Pratham Education Foundation

The views expressed are personal

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