At 10 am on a Tuesday in November, a group of children aged around 7 walked slowly towards their school in Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda, a Banjara community settlement in North Karnataka’s Yadgir district. The children were dressed in their school uniform: light blue shirts and dark blue skirts and pants. They were in good spirits – across the country, schools had only begun reopening two months earlier after remaining closed for more than a year and a half in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The children seemed lost to the world around them as they chatted with each other.

Around the same time, four teenaged girls aged around 14 stood by a handpump in the village, chatting and laughing as their pots filled up. Two years earlier, they too would have been making their way towards their schools. This year, however, they were to spend their day on household chores, after their parents left for work.

Shale bittubitvi [we have quit school],” said one of the girls, Nandini, when I spoke to them soon after, at one of their houses.

The four friends, who belong to the Banjara community, designated as a Scheduled Caste in Karnataka, are among the millions of children in the country whose school lives have been upended by the pandemic. In March 2020, schools across the country were shut in response to the spread of Covid-19. Classes were moved online, but this measure excluded millions of children who did not have access to digital devices and internet connections. When schools gradually reopened, many children, particularly those who already faced obstacles to their education, did not return.

There are varying estimates of how many children have been affected, and to what degree.

UNICEF estimated in March 2021 that the “closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 [had] impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools”.

Surveys showed that the incidence of child labour had shot up, as had rates of child marriage. The NGO ChildFund found in a survey of more than 1,700 children across ten states, that 64% worried about not being able to return to school because they hadn’t received the additional support they required to cope with school work.

More specific studies were conducted by organisations such as ASER Centre. According to its Annual Status of Education Report, which it has conducted since 2005, the proportion of children not currently enrolled in school across the country increased from 1.4% to 4.6% in 2020. The figures for 2021 for different age groups were nearly unchanged, or indicated an increase in dropouts, the report observed.

Another survey, conducted by Karnataka’s department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, whose findings were submitted to the state’s High Court in July 2021, found that 1.59 lakh children in rural Karnataka did not go to school – according to some newspaper reports, many had dropped out after the pandemic began.

Students had left school for a range of reasons, as I learnt speaking to children from government and small private schools across rural Karnataka, as well as Bengaluru, in November. In almost every case, students had overcome obstacles to attend schools in the first place – these were magnified by the pandemic and a series of lockdowns, and became insurmountable. Worryingly, with many of the children, there was little indication that they would find their way back to the classroom.

“It is still early, we will know the full impact of the pandemic only after a few months,” said Anantha, a child rights activist from Hunsur in Mysuru district. “Even among the students that have returned now, we have to wait and see how many sustain for the next few months too.”

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In many cases, children had their education broken off simply because they did not have a way to reach their schools once they reopened.

Parvathi Ramu, one of the four friends, faced exactly this problem. The 14-year-old, whose parents are daily-wage earners, is the third of four siblings. Her mother works as an agricultural labourer and her father is a “water man”, hired by the panchayat to turn on the water supply for fields at allotted times. After the onset of the pandemic, Parvathi herself sometimes helped out in the fields and at other times, with household chores. If she had returned to her school when it officially reopened in September, she would have been in Class 8.

Nandini and her friends, Bharathi Rathod and Bharathi Chauhan, at Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda, a Banjara community settlement in Yadgir district. The friends dropped out of school in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“My mother asked me to drop out because I don’t have anybody to accompany me to school,” she said in Hindi. Among the four friends, Parvathi is the only one to attend a different school. Previously, two school seniors would accompany her on the two or three kilometre walk to their school, but during the pandemic, one got married and the other began to work. “She has to walk through the fields alone. It isn’t safe for her,” said an adult in the village who was listening in while I spoke to the friends.

“But do you want to go to school?” I asked Parvathi.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

Nandini, another of the four, also struggled with the same problem. After the lockdown was announced, Nandini stayed at home for a few months, then started to accompany her father to his small eatery near their thaanda, the word for village in the local Lambadi language.

Nandini said that after schools reopened, her father decided not to let her return, citing as justification the sudden death of her elder brother in a car accident earlier this year. “He’s scared to let me go anywhere,” she said.

I asked her if she would have stopped going if the school had never closed, and the pandemic had never happened. “No, I would have gone,” she said.

Some children had their education disrupted because their parents migrated – this, in turn, affected other children who depended on them to reach their schools. In the village of Belgera in Yadgir district, Shubhadra M, the mother of 15-year-old Chandrakala, said, “The two children who walked with her to school have migrated to Bengaluru with their parents. So how do I send her alone?” Other children I met in Yadgir and Hunsur who had dropped out of school offered similar explanations.

A government school teacher in Yadgir confessed that so far only 70% of their students had returned. “I’m sure it will go up in a few months,” he said. Migration was common in the district but children often stayed back in the care of relatives, and studied at local schools. With schools shutting during the pandemic, these children often tagged along with their migrating parents – many didn’t collect their transfer certificates, and so technically remained enrolled in the same schools without attending them.

The teacher said that some parents had called up the school to ask for transfer certificates to be issued to their children. “Unless they prove to me that they have admitted the child in another school, I refuse to issue them the certificates,” he said.

Many children stopped going to school because the burden of household work, or even of supporting their families by earning money, fell on their shoulders.

For three months after the first lockdown was announced in 2020, Bharathi Chauhan, one of the four friends from Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda, patiently waited for schools to reopen. From the following month, she began doing some work around the house. Her father had died when she was two, and her mother, a daily wage worker, had taken care of the family and sent Bharathi and her younger brother Vishal to school. Bharathi’s grandmother, her ajji, took care of the children when they returned home.

A few months into the pandemic last year, Bharathi’s grandmother passed away. After that, all the household responsibilities fell on the child – cooking, cleaning, collecting water and taking care of her younger brother. “He goes to school. When he returns, I take care of him,” she said.

When Vishal returned from school, he often brought news for Bharathi too. Her two best friends in school, Ashwini and Nikitha, often asked about her.

“They keep asking him about when I’m going to return to school,” she said. She often missed them. Did she think she would see them again? “I don’t know,” she said with a shrug.

Dinesh, another child from the village, had dropped out of school too, and now works as an electrician to support his family, using skills he had picked up earlier during after-school hours. “I’m not good at studies,” Dinesh said. Though teachers had called his family – as well as other families in the thaanda – to ask them to send their children to school, the 15-year-old insists he wants to continue working.

Juhi Chawla, Sharubai, Nandini, Bharathi, Arjun and Dinesh at Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda. Dinesh, who is 15 years old, dropped out of school to work as a plumber, and now says he has no desire to return.

When it came to private schools, many families could often simply not afford to pay the fees owing to the economic distress brought on by the pandemic.

The principal of a small private school in Yadgir told me that they had several children drop out this year for this reason. “Enrollment is very low this time. Pre-pandemic, we used to get 40-50 new students every year. This time, we had about 20-25,” the principal said.

This problem is reflected in the ASER report, released in November, which showed that there has been a significant shift from private schools to government schools. “For children in the age group of six to 14, enrolment in private schools decreased from 32.5% in 2018 to 24.4% in 2021,” the survey found. The principal at the government school in Yadgir confirmed that they saw a significantly higher number of transfers from private schools to their school this year. “There are parents who have outright said that they will not be able to pay the fees,” the private school principal said.

Small private school teachers were the worst hit by the pandemic, said a member of Kalike, an organisation that “strives to facilitate deep, large-scale and long-term impact on the quality of life in Yadgir”. He said that government school teachers had managed to get their monthly salaries during the pandemic, but that many private school teachers had not. In March 2021, the Department of Primary and Secondary Education had requested teachers from government schools to donate a day’s salary to private school teachers because they were in severe financial distress.

The private school principal said that it hadn’t been feasible for them to hold online classes. “For online classes to happen, both the student and the teacher should have a smartphone. That itself was not available in the first place,” he said. For the first few months, the school’s teachers travelled to villages to teach children in groups, but this became impossible after Covid-19 cases spiralled.

Now, he said, parents were arguing that since the school did not hold online classes, they should not be mandated to pay fees. “We have no answer to that,” he said.

This problem wasn’t limited to children in rural areas.

A member of the ActionAid India said that the organisation was working on a survey to identify school dropouts from select slums in Bangalore, which covered 500 homes. “It was shocking to find out how many children had dropped out of school. These are scary numbers,” she said. “Private schools have sent out children who have not been able to pay fees.” The social worker added that in many cases, schools were also demanding fees for the previous year. “The parents are just not able to pay and now students are sitting at home,” she said.

In August 2021, I met 14-year-old Oviya S in a slum in the north of Bengaluru. Her mother Sumathi, who worked as a domestic help, had just given birth to a baby. Since she was unable to go to work, and since schools had not reopened yet, Oviya went in her place. She then became the sole earning member of her family, since her father was out of a job. At that point in time, Oviya and her mother were sure that once schools reopened, Oviya would be back in school. “She studies very well, she’s particularly good in English,” her mother had said.

Two months later, when I visited the family one evening, Oviya was not yet home. “She missed her bus, it will take some more time,” her mother said. A while later, Oviya entered the lane leading up to her house, and slowly emerged from the darkness – her hair was longer, and she looked taller, less hunched. She had a tiffin box in one hand that she gave to her mother before sitting down for the interview. She was now a working woman.

She worked at a bookbinding shop – her timings were between 9 and 6 pm.

What happened to her plans to return to school? “Interest poyiduchu [interest is gone],” she said in Tamil, without a moment’s delay.

Her teacher sends Oviya’s friends to her house to urge her to come back to school. “She is at a school-going age, and I’m having to send her to work. But what can I do, we need the money,” Sumathi said, her eyes welling up. “She comes back in the evening and tells me her hands hurt from all the binding and it just breaks my heart.” Out of Sumathi’s five children, two have not gone back to school. Her younger daughter Kavya echoed her sister’s sentiment – she had lost interest too.

Oviya S, with her mother and younger sister, outside their house in July. The teenager was hopeful of returning to school then. But a few months later, she had taken up a full-time job.

A few houses down from Oviya’s, 11-year-old Akshitha looks after her nine-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister when her parents are at work – her father at construction sites, and her mother in housekeeping at a nearby hospital. The children had been enrolled at an English medium school in their neighbourhood, and Akshitha and her brother were among the top performing students in their class, but they were not able to go back to school when it reopened, because their parents could not afford the fees. All three siblings were eager to return to their classrooms.

As we sat on the sidewalk, Akshitha listed out all the things she missed about school – her English teacher and her friends topped the list. While she talked about her friends she stopped abruptly for a second.

“Don’t look that way, but that’s the girl who I said was my best friend,” Akshitha told me, hiding her face in her lap.

“If she is your best friend, why are you hiding?”

“Because she stopped talking to me after she found out I’m not going back to school this year,” she said.

Akshitha said her parents regret not being able to send the children to school. “They’ll send me next year when they are able to make some money,” the 11-year-old said. She glances through her books everyday, so that she doesn’t forget her subjects, and also teaches her brother and sister.

The organisation Kalike, which conducts skill development classes for young women, noted that last year and this year, many children who had dropped out of school during the pandemic had joined their programmes. Fourteen-year-old Rehana Jalaal, from Tumkur village in Yadgir, said her mother did not want to send her to school but did not mind sending her for a skill development class. “A lot of my classmates have dropped out of school. Here, there are a lot of girls, so they agreed to send me,” she said. But Rehana is still keeping up with her studies – she attends tuitions at a neighbour’s house in the evening along with a few other children from her village.

The disruption to their education has taken a toll on children’s mental health. A UNICEF study of 5,029 parents and adolsecents across six states, conducted between August and September 2020, found that nearly half of secondary class students and about a third of elementary class students felt that their mental and socio-emotional health had been “poor or very poor” since May 2020. Marginalised students were hit even worse – 60% migrant families and 53% Scheduled Tribe families said their mental and socio-emotional well-being was “poor or very poor”.

In November, I visited settlements of the Jenu Kuruba Adivasi community in Hunsur, nestled in the wilderness of the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve in the district of Mysuru. (“Jenu” the Kannada word for honey, refers to the community’s traditional occupation of collecting honey.) I arrived in one, Bellane Halli Haadi, in the middle of a weekday to find that the streets were filled with children of all ages. When I asked one group if they went to school, the children slowly nodded, but when I followed up with a “Really?”, they took a few moments, laughed and remained silent.

This was a region that already struggled with low rates of children’s education. A 2021 study on Jenu Kuruba students in Mysuru district, in which Hunsur is situated, showed that more than half of the students did not attend school regularly. Irregularity or absenteeism “is most common among tribal students because of poverty (8.8%), disinterest and illiteracy among the parents (17.5%) and engagement in economic activities (21.1%),” the report stated.

The pandemic seemed to aggravate this problem. In the village, several young teenage girls walked around, some in groups. I asked several parents why they were not in school. Many had the same response – they had hit puberty. But some of the girls told me that they had been going to school prior to the pandemic despite the fact that they had already been menstruating.

In a village in Hunsur district, parents said girls had dropped out because they started menstruating. But the girls said that before the pandemic they were allowed to attend school, even though they had hit puberty.

When I arrived at the government school in Kalene Halli Haadi, another village in Hunsur, a frazzled teacher walked out to greet us – a book in one hand, a piece of chalk in the other. Some of her students held on to the edge of her saree. “Everyone attends school,” she quickly answered. “But I have to do one round every morning to each house and ask the parents to send their children.”

The teacher added that there were some students who had gone to work with their parents on coffee plantations, since it was the harvest season. I pointed out that several children were present around the school campus but were not in class. “They belong to another school,” she explained. “They never go. Today they are here to collect rations from the anganwadi.”

As she talked to us, she heard voices from the only other classroom in the building, whose door was bolted from the outside. When she opened it, she saw five students sitting quietly with their bags to one side. The blackboard was filled with words, but they looked like they had been written before that particular day. The teacher told me that she was the only teacher for the school, which had classes from the first to the fifth.

“It would be good if there had been another teacher. It’s exhausting to be in charge of so many children,” she said.

Many teachers I spoke to from government schools claimed that most students were back in class. But when asked why the streets were filled with children, the teachers claimed that they were “irregular” students and not dropouts. “That is a problem we always had, even pre-pandemic,” one teacher claimed.

S Sreekanth of Development through Education, an NGO based in Hunsur, which- has been working towards the upliftment of the tribal community in the region for over 40 years, agreed that the problem was not new. But he explained that the situation had been exacerbated significantly by the pandemic.

“Yes, it did not start with the pandemic but the point is that the pandemic has made it much worse,” he said. “It is easier for students to now slip through the cracks in the system.”

Sreekanth said that before the pandemic, one of the motivations for students to come to school was the provision of food, clothes and scholarships. “For almost two years, that was not available,” he said. Though the Karnataka government supplied dry rations for three months, this was stopped between June and October, and only restarted in November. “Because of that break, it’s difficult to get them interested in school again,” he said.

S Sreekanth, of the NGO Development through Education, said children were encouraged to attend schools by the provision of food, clothes and scholarships. With these curtailed by the pandemic, interest dwindled.

Children who lacked access to digital devices were hit particularly hard by the disruptions to education. None of the children that I spoke to had phones, and so none had ever attended a single online class. In almost every instance, the father owned the family’s only phone and carried it with him to work.

According to data presented by the education ministry in the parliament, 30 million students did not possess a digital device during the pandemic. In Jammu and Kashmir and Madhya Pradesh, 70% of the students did not possess one during this period.

Another survey on school education, Locked Out: Emergency, conducted by volunteers, including economist and social scientist Jean Drèze, found that only 8% of students in rural areas and 24% of students from urban areas studied online regularly. The survey took place among 1,362 children in 15 states and union territories, enrolled between the first and the eighth standard in August 2021.

Among these students, 55% of those from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities lived in a house without a smartphone. Among parents from these communities, 83% felt that their child’s ability to read and write during the pandemic declined during the pandemic. Only 13% of children from these communities said they were satisfied with the online material their schools had provided.

“The fact that this monumental injustice remained virtually unquestioned for so long is a telling indictment of India’s exclusive democracy. The survey gives an inkling of the colossal damage created by this extended lockout – one of the longest in the world,” the report stated.

As a result of this crisis, a grave problem haunts the millions of affected children: learning losses.

“They have forgotten everything they have learnt,” said Parvathi’s aunt, named Juhi Chawla, in Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda.

Juhi Chawla, named after the actress, is 24 and a mother of two. A graduate who briefly worked at the local anganwadi, she now stays home with her children. Chawla pointed out that once her niece’s learning was disrupted, it became difficult to motivate her to return to school. “If she remembered anything that she learnt in school, she would have gone to school. But none of these girls remember anything,” she said.

“They have even forgotten Kannada,” added Sharubai, the mother of Bharathi Rathod, another of the four friends. The Banjara community doesn’t speak Kannada, the medium of instruction in school. In the two years that the children stayed at home and conversed only with family and relatives, they didn’t get opportunities to speak in Kannada. The four friends also said they struggled with basic arithmetic, words and languages.

Bharathi showed me one of her school books – a Kannada textbook. “Look how brand new it looks, untouched,” a social worker who accompanied me observed. Indeed, the book was spotless, and the pages felt new and crisp. On the first page, Bharathi had written her name in Kannada.

“See, you do know how to write,” I told her. “Can you write your name?”

Slowly but confidently, Bharathi wrote down her name in Kannada. But when I asked her to write any other simple words she knew, and to read the title of the textbook, she was unable to do so. “We don’t remember anything,” her other three friends confessed. I asked if they would consider rejoining school if extra classes were organised. “We want to go but it is too difficult to start from the beginning. I’m scared of the teachers too,” said Parvathi.

The spectre of learning losses looms over millions of children. A study by Azim Premji University of 16,067 children found that 92% had lost at least one language ability and 82% at least one mathematical ability.

Outside the room in Mudnal Dhodu Thaanda where I spoke to the four friends, I met 11-year-old twins, Karan and Arjun Subhash. Arjun enthusiastically offered to recite numbers but he could not go beyond the number 10. His brother said simply that he did not remember numbers. The boys spent their days doing odd jobs, like helping carry water pots or fetching firewood, and made between Rs 10 and Rs 20 for each task. When they had nothing else to do, they climbed up trees and plucked fruits. Arjun showed some interest in returning to school. “But because Karan doesn’t want to go, Arjun also isn’t going,” said their father Subhash Y. “I want them to go but I’m also illiterate, there isn’t much I can do.”

I asked parents whom they blamed for their children’s disrupted education, and their loss of interest.

Bharat ki galti hai [it is India’s fault],” said Sharubai. “The government should have put in more effort to ensure children remained interested in school.”

Azim Premji University, Bengaluru conducted a study in January 2021 to analyse the learning losses that students had suffered due to the long-drawn break from physical classes. The study covered 16,067 children in 1,137 public schools in 44 districts across 5 states. The study found that 92% of these students had lost at least one language ability, such as reading with comprehension and writing simple sentences based on a picture. It also found that during the pandemic, 82% of the students had lost at least one mathematical ability, such as using basic arithmetic operations to solve problems.

“The extent and nature of learning loss is serious enough to warrant action at all levels,” the report noted. “Policy and processes to identify and address this loss are necessary as children return to school. Supplemental support, whether in the form of bridge courses, extended hours, community-based engagements and appropriate curricular materials, will be needed to help children gain the foundational abilities when they return to school.

The damage is not irreversible, some activists felt. “There needs to be strong intervention at the family level,” a member of Kalike said. “It hasn’t been too long since the children have stopped going to school, so we should make sustained efforts to bring them back.” He said the intervention should go beyond a single visit or phone call to the home and that local village heads, panchayat members and local NGOs should take the initiative and encourage parents to send their children to school, as well clear any misconceptions they had, such as about safety from Covid-19.

He also argued that problem of children who have dropped out of school should be addressed by the Integrated Child Protection Scheme, under the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the district child protection officer. These authorities are responsible for tracking children who are vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, and taking steps to protect them. “If children are out of school then automatically their vulnerability increases whether it is to child labour or marriage,” he said. “They have to focus on identifying dropouts and ensure they are brought back to school.”

All photographs by Johanna Deeksha.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.