Over 250 million children enrolled in primary and secondary schools in India have not stepped into their classrooms since March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic triggered an abrupt nationwide lockdown. Today marks 500 days of school closure.

While a few states have recently announced plans to reopen schools for Classes 9-12, there is no word on when younger children will be able to return to their classrooms.

“Malls, cinema halls and marriage halls have been allowed to open,” said Niranjanaradhya VP, a development educationist who guides school development and monitoring committees in Karnataka. “But there has been no talk of schools reopening.”

The delay is having catastrophic consequences for India’s children, say educators and child rights activists.

For one, most children haven’t had any exposure to formal learning for more than a year. Only one in four children in India has access to the digital devices and internet connectivity required to transition to online education, according to a Unicef report released in March 2021.

Even schools lack infrastructure to relay lessons digitally. In the run-up to the pandemic, less than 12% of government schools had internet facilities and less than 30% had functional computers, according to 2019-’20 data released by the education ministry.

Some states have been broadcasting classes on television. But educators say such efforts have not been successful in keeping children engaged.

Researchers at Azim Premji University surveyed 16,067 children from Classes 2-6 in 1,137 government schools across five states in January 2021. They found on average 92% of students had lost at least one specific language ability and 82% had lost at least one specific mathematical ability compared to previous years.

Between May to June 2020, the non-profit Oxfam India surveyed close to 1,200 parents and 500 teachers across Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh. Eighty percent of the parents said their children had not received any education during the lockdown. Four of five students had not received their textbooks for the academic year 2020-’21. More than one-third of the children had not received midday meals despite government orders.

Most teachers surveyed by Oxfam said they had faced difficulty in teaching through the digital medium. Worse, they feared 30% of students might not return to classes when schools reopen.

Dropping out of school

Already, data from Haryana shows 12.5 lakh students may have dropped out of private schools in the current academic year. Job losses, pay cuts and reduced income levels have made it hard for many parents to pay private school fees. In several instances, schools have blocked children from accessing online classes because of fee disputes.

Read Vijayta Lalwani’s report on the experience ofa 13-year-old in Gurgaon, Haryana, who was locked out of online classes for a week.

Children from affluent families, who have no paucity of resources, are battling exhaustion from spending long hours in front of the computer screen. Protiva Kundu, a researcher at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, conducted a virtual survey among children between the ages of five and 18 in May 2020. About one-fourth of respondents complaining of frequent headaches, strain on their eyes, ears, neck, shoulder and back.

Read Aarefa Johari’s report on how a working mother in Mumbai is struggling to ensure that her seven-year-old copes with the heavy burden of school work.

For a majority of children in India, the situation is grim. Lack of access to schools is fundamentally reshaping their lives for the worse. A survey in 24 districts of Tamil Nadu conducted by the Campaign Against Child Labour found that child labour had increased by 280% among vulnerable families. In a slum in Bengaluru, I met a 13-year-old girl who was an avid learner in school until last year. Now, she is the sole earner in her family.

“A school is a place of protection for children,” said Virgil D’Sami, executive director, Arunodaya, Centre of Street and Working Children. “If they are at risk of child marriage, abuse or trafficking, the child will always confide in friends or teachers. Most of the complaints we receive are from children’s friends. Now nobody is aware of such incidents taking place.”

Globally, Unicef has warned that nine million children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by 2022 as a result of the pandemic. Unicef also predicted that over the next decade, 10 million girl children are at risk of becoming child brides because of the pandemic-linked devastation.

Fears vs reality

Despite mounting evidence of the cataclysmic impact of keeping children out of schools for a second year, governments in India appear reluctant to open them.

One reason is the widespread perception that children could be particularly vulnerable to infection in the event of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic striking India. Experts, however, say these fears are unfounded.

“There is no scientific reason to keep schools closed for so long,” Niranjanaradhya said.

An expert committee constituted by the Karnataka government has, in fact, recommended that Class 1-5 be given priority, if the government decides on opening schools in a phased manner, since younger children learn best through face-to-face interactions.

Most parents appear to support the reopening of schools. A survey conducted by Azim Premji University among 1,522 teachers and 398 parents in the public school system across five states in 2020 found that “contrary to popular beliefs, most parents are eager to send their children to schools with necessary health safeguards and do not think that the health of their children would be affected in such an event.”

Even the more lethal second wave of Covid-19 that struck the country this summer hasn’t changed the perception – most parents that Scroll.in spoke to want to send their children to school.

The road ahead

Child rights activists say India can’t afford to delay reopening schools. The failure to do so threatens to reverse all the progress made in the last three decades in reducing child malnutrition, child labour and child marriage, said Niranjanaradhya. This had serious social, cultural and economic consequences, he added, as it impacted “the overall development of one-third of the population”.

To balance pandemic-control measures with the need to revive schools, activists have suggested decentralising decision-making to local authorities. Chhattisgarh government, for instance, has in principle allowed the reopening of Classes 1-8 in areas with zero Covid cases, but left the final decision to local representatives – village panchayats in rural areas and councillors in urban areas – who have been asked to act in consultation with parents.

The Karnataka government is also contemplating introducing a decentralised method where local authorities can take decisions on resuming regular classes in schools, instead of imposing a uniform policy across the state.

The longer the delay in reopening schools, the more challenging it would be to reintegrate students, say educationists. Teachers will have to work hard on making the environment welcoming for students before addressing the learning gaps caused by the long break in regular classes.

“The first one or two weeks, teachers must work towards rebuilding confidence in the students,” said Prince Gajendra Babu, general secretary, State Platform for Common School System, Tamil Nadu. “They cannot directly begin with the syllabus the day schools reopen.”

“And students who fail to return should be given counselling and motivated to come back to class,” he said.