India has suffered one of the longest school closures in the world. For close to 18 months (in some states more than that), 265 million students have not been to school. The education inequalities that existed before the pandemic have deepened to an unfathomable extent. Unless a sustained education recovery effort is organized over multiple years, the effects of these widening inequalities will become glaring in the years to come.

All surveys and research done during the period of the pandemic between May 2020 to July 2021 show that there has been no meaningful teaching-learning for the children of the rural and urban poor, dalit, Adivasi, OBC, minorities, migrant workers and other vulnerable groups. Together, these sections comprise over 70 per cent of the population. Remote learning was completely remote for them, as many lacked access to online learning, materials and teacher support. 

An education emergency

The recently completed SCHOOL survey done in 15 states and UTs found that over 72 per cent of elementary age children were not studying regularly (or not studying at all) at the time of the survey using any method, and only 8 per cent of rural children were studying 'regularly' online. A majority of children had not had any interaction with their teacher during the 30 days preceding the survey. An overwhelming share of parents said that teachers had not helped their child to study over the previous 3 months. Nearly half the children in the sample were unable to read more than a few words of simple text. These findings are confirmed by many other state level studies. 

Imagine these students who were in grades 1-8 during the 18 months of the pandemic lockout, who may now re-join the school system. After such a long period of disconnect, they will encounter difficulties which will accumulate as they pass from one class to another. Tens of millions will therefore arrive to the end of the schooling cycle, ill prepared and with few skills. But millions of others are likely to abandon schooling altogether, either due to disengagement with education or rising poverty, or both. Many children in 'low-cost' private schools have either dropped out or rejoined government schools, due to the inability to pay fees. Even the gains in enrolment of recent years are in jeopardy. A shock of this nature to the education system usually requires years to recover from.

This education emergency comes on top of the health emergency and livelihood crisis. Children have lost parents or other caregivers and unemployment is at an all time high. Faced with emotional trauma, forced to take up jobs to support the family, or look after younger children, children from the poor and disadvantaged sections face adverse conditions for learning. Schools must compensate for and remedy these heightened disadvantages, by providing a caring environment and focused academic support. "

Teachers have also suffered death and losses and require support. Unprepared and unequipped for remote learning, many have tried to keep in touch with their students through phone messages and other means. Many are conscious of the deep damage done to their students. Meanwhile, hundreds of low cost private schools are no longer financially viable, threatening the livelihood of thousands of teachers. 

An opportunity for renewal

The crisis can be an opportunity for renewal of the education system. This is the chance to allow greater flexibility in the curriculum and local level adaptations, providing a rich variety of learning materials for children at various levels and providing continuous pedagogical support to teachers as they confront the daunting realities of children who have lost foundational skills. 

Addressing the education emergency and renewing the system cannot be done without additional resources. The cuts in the education budgets of the Centre and of many states are ominous. Other countries are infusing funds into their education system. India's children, who have been battered by COVID, need more support, not less at this time of crisis. The recovery and renewal effort also requires a major, sustained organizational effort and high level monitoring and leadership. Anything less will mean condemning India's disadvantaged children to a grim future and a deeply unequal society.

To help state governments and education professionals address this grave situation, India's National Coalition on Education Emergency, which comprises individuals, organizations and networks across the country, has released "A Future at Stake – Guidelines and Principles to Resume and Renew Education" along with other essential resources to help with the reopening of schools. Research has revealed the particularly devastating loss of the most basic language and mathematics skills among children of the rural and urban poor, Dalits, adivasis, minorities and migrant labourers, leading to millions of drop-outs.

"We have wronged our children in a terrible manner," said Padmasree Shantha Sinha, former head of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, speaking at a press conference organized by the NCEE. "For 18 months, the entire education system has been inactive. Online education has been a disaster. Children have lost the habit of reading and writing. Treating our children's return to school as business-as-
usual would be an irreparable loss to children and their lives and puts India's future at stake."

The NCEE publication argues for focusing the education recovery effort on language competences and mathematics competences, adopting a socio-emotional development approach. This will allow students to make progress across multiple subjects. It means adjustment to the syllabus and timetable to give adequate time to these curricular areas. "Countries across the world are modifying the curriculum and teaching methods to enable children to re- engage with education, focusing on core competences, and providing extra resources and budgets, instructional time and effort to help the disadvantaged," said Sajitha Bashir, former Global Adviser for Education in the World Bank, member of the NCEE core group and primary author of the publication.

Drawing on lessons from India and globally, A Future at Stake argues that adopting its recommended approach is both necessary and feasible. It recommends a comprehensive set of actions covering regular coaching and mentoring of teachers; provision of additional learning materials for the re-organized curriculum; back to school enrolment drives; health and nutrition for children; regular and simple two-way communications with parents, school management committee members, teachers, members of local authorities and other primary stakeholders; proactive management through district education emergency units, and additional funds.

"Catapulting children two or three grades ahead of their initial level without any major adjustment in curriculum or pedagogy does not make sense. The National Education Policy 2020 includes a commitment to simplifying the curriculum, this is a good time to do it," said Jean Dreze, a development economist and visiting professor at Ranchi University. The NCEE is also compiling and curating teaching resources to help teachers and educators address the teaching of language and mathematics competences at different grades, as well as to support the socio- emotional development of students.

Education Emergency Policy Tracker

To encourage public awareness and engagement, the NCEE has developed an education emergency policy tracker to record progress on the ground on key aspects of the education recovery. The first tracker focuses on school re-opening across states by level of education. Most states have prioritized the opening of higher secondary and high schools, while primary schools have remained wholly or partially closed until the end of October. The tracker will also track other key indicators such as the availability of textbooks, learning resources, re-organized curricula, teacher support, and additional funding.

NCEE's first survey of high school teachers in a sample of Karnataka's schools, including metropolitan Bangalore, conducted in October 2021 showed that only 15 percent of Grade 8 teachers, 20 percent of Grade 9 teachers and about 25 percent of Grade 10 teachers felt that their students were at grade level in language and mathematics. These findings highlight the urgency to address the large gap between students' learning levels and the curriculum. 

"We are planning regular surveys of households, teachers, school leaders and students to collect information on how different states are addressing the education emergency," said Gurumurthy K. of IT for Change, who is a member of the core group of the NCEE. "Collecting and reporting data frequently from multiple sources should galvanize public discourse on how to recover from the disaster facing our country." These tools, along with a regularly updated research compendium will provide resources for journalists to report on the education emergency and recovery process on a regular basis. 

"Tens of millions of Indian children are stranded on the other side of a yawning chasm," said Sajitha Bashir. "The bridge to cross this abyss is flimsy and is being drawn up too fast. Many of our children risk falling, and most won't even get on the bridge if we don't act immediately."