For 13-year-old Sadananda Bhurgi from Jidikia village of Kandhamal district, nothing could have been more joyful than going back to school. However, COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown turned his hope to despair. With the schools being closed since mid-march, his classroom learning has stopped.
The case of Abinash Kumbhar, a class V student of Beniabandha Project Upper Primary School in Balangir district, is the same as that of Sadananda Bhurgi. Abinash Kumbhar was set to enter his new class and was excited to meet his new class teacher. But he could not as schools were closed.
Not only Bhurgi and Kumbhar, but lakhs of rural children, who study in government elementary schools in Odisha, lack the resources to access these classes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has ingrained structural disparities between rural and urban areas. It also has a critical impact on the education of children, especially the disadvantaged ones,” Anil Pradhan, convener of the Right to Education Forum, Odisha, told VillageSquare.in.
“Though private schools in urban areas have started teaching through online classes, the severe digital divide is obvious as the situation in rural areas is dismal. If these children stay at home for a longer time, child labor, child marriage and violence will continue,” said Anil Pradhan.
Though the Odisha government has initiated classes for weaker students during the lockdown period, online classes are unviable for them, as they do not have access to a laptop or a smartphone. Therefore, classroom-based learning remains their only hope.
Economic Survey 2018-19 revealed that more than 20% (11,000) villages in Odisha do not have mobile connectivity. The state has just 28.22 internet subscribers for a population of 100, compared to the national average of 38.02. The survey report further showed that the number of internet subscribers is 16 per 100 people in villages, whereas it is 83.3 in urban areas.
Out of 67,128 government elementary schools in Odisha, only 27.68% have initiated online education so far and children who attend online classes using a smartphone is 31.95%, said the report. With the existing digital divide, relying only on online education will push the have-nots out of the education system, increasing the inequality in educational outcomes.
“The disparity and inequality in imparting lessons online may have long term implications among those have-nots. And most importantly, it is also violating the fundamental Right to Education Act,” Ruchi Kashyap, executive trustee of Atmashakti Trust, an NGO that creates awareness on rights and entitlements among the most marginalized rural community, told VillageSquare.in.
By definition, learning outcome states that the substance of learning and how it is attained are to be validated. Recently, Odisha Shramajeebee Mancha and Mahila Shramajeebee Mancha, Odisha, two state-level collectives, working on several issues including education, did a study of 2,851 school children of class III, Class V, and Class VIII, to assess the learning outcome of the children studying in government schools in 17 districts of Odisha.
The study reveals that out of 845 school students of class VIII, who took the English language test, 48% were below the expected standard. In mathematics, it was 45%. Learning level of children in Odia, seems better, at 79%. It’s a big problem, as many children have not had class-appropriate learning, despite Odia being their mother tongue.
“COVID-19 has made us realize again that we are far behind in fulfilling the norms and standards for our schools as envisaged in RTE. It has been the major bottleneck in achieving minimum level of learning,” Ghasiram Panda, national manager of ActionAid India and an advisor on right to education (RTE) with Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR) told VillageSquare.in.
The learning level of class III and V of the state is also equally worrisome. Out of 1,088 students in Class V, 59% failed to meet the required learning level in English, 53% in mathematics and 31% in Odia language. Similarly, out of 918 students of Class III who appeared for the test, 43.42% and 26.54% of them need remedial lessons to have class-appropriate learning level in mathematics and Odia respectively.
In 2017, the Odisha government launched Learning Enhancement Programs (LEPs) Ujjwal and Utkarsha for improving learning levels of children in primary and secondary classes respectively. The program had a target of reaching around 40 lakh students from class I to VIII. However, it has mostly been unsuccessful.
The government has also developed mobile applications Ujjwal and Utthana, to help teachers engage students in remedial classes. As the applications can be accessed only on a smartphone, it has posed a challenge in implementing the program in rural areas, due to the existing digital divide.
“We have a smartphone but the phone network and the internet connection are poor most of the time. Also, my parents cannot afford a monthly data pack of Rs 300 to 400,” Diptimayee, a Class VIII student, told VillageSquare.in.
Concerned over the apathetic state of the rural children, Rampal Singh, national president of All India Primary Teachers Federation (AIPTF), said, “Around 80% of children in government schools in our country hail from rural areas and most of them do not have any electronic gadgets in their homes, to access online classes.”
“Attending digital classes beyond limited hours will create psychological stress among children, especially for first-stage learners. Therefore, the government should think of initiating remedial classes for them, maybe with a small group that consists of five or six students,” said Singh.
“We have neither a television, nor a smartphone that would have helped my child to participate in online classes,” said Elio Pradhan, a parent in Dakarabadi, a remote village in Kandhamal district. “The school is the only option where our children can learn. But the government is turning a deaf ear to our needs.”
Malaya Pradhan of Sikaketa village in Badabanga panchayat of Kandhamal district also said the same. “Offline classes are our only hope. Why is the state government not instructing teachers to bring small groups of children together and teach them,” he told VillageSquare.in.
Rachana Pradhan is a student of class VIII in Dakarabadi Primary school of Daringbadi administrative block in Kandhamal. She didn’t think that her school would be closed for so long. “School is not only a place to read. But it is also a place where I can have fun with my classmates,” she said.
“Now, as our schools are already closed for more than four months, I get bored sometimes. Our parents are also not allowing us to go outside of our homes due to the COVID19 situation,” Rachana Pradhan told VillageSquare.in.
“I am studying my Class VII lessons again, especially mathematics and English, to be in touch with my learning. But my interest is gradually fading. I am thankful my parents never force me to do anything besides my study. But many of my friends are already being pushed into work, which was not there earlier. I want our learning to continue,” she said.
“While private schools manage with the new alternative of digital classes, the evident digital divide has left the education of government school students in the lurch. Inadequate digital infrastructure and the rural-urban divide are issues the government needs to address as classroom learning is the only hope for millions of children,” said Anjan Pradhan, convener of Odisha Shramajeebee Mancha.
“Government should also make plans to engage children in creative activities in collaboration with voluntary organizations working in the education sector so that children will be in touch with education. If government starts this initiative, chances of children dropping out of school will be less,” said Anil Pradhan.
It is now more than clear that the pandemic would prevail for a while. Therefore, the state government should take steps to implement remedial classes for government school children. If we nurture and enrich their mind, it will have a lifetime impact in curbing the disparity in educational opportunities.
Naba Kishor Pujari is a researcher, development professional and freelance journalist based at Bhubaneswar. Views are personal.