It has been more than 450 days since schools were closed across India. This was the largest physical closure of schools in the world, affecting 24.7 crore children.

A study by Oxfam India across five states found that 80% of children in government schools could not access education during the lockdown. Despite this, uncertainty remains around the safe reopening of schools because of concerns that the third wave of Covid-19 will impact children. Many countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark have managed to keep their children safe while keeping schools open during the pandemic. India could do likewise.

Bridging digital divide

Keeping schools closed indefinitely needs to be balanced against the risk of erosion of educational gains made in India in the last decade and result in large-scale dropout of children, particularly girls and children from marginalised groups including Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims.

A year without physical classes has had a catastrophic impact on children’s learning. A study by Azim Premji University shows that over 90% of children have lost at least one specific language ability from the previous year.

The challenges of digital classes are not restricted to children – four in five teachers reported difficulties in connecting with children emotionally and assessing their learning meaningfully while teaching online. The prolonged closure of schools has had an impact on children’s mental health as well, with over 40% reporting an increase in anxiety and stress.

In this situati, the resumption of mohalla classes offers a reasonable compromise between complete closure and reopening of schools, particularly in areas with low infection rates. Mohalla classes are in-person classes set up in community spaces with a small group of students that ensures that social distancing norms are easier to follow, thereby reducing the risk of infection.

The teacher spends a couple of hours in each group, engaging with all students at least twice a week. The use of small-group, in-person classes to ensure access to education for all children is emphasised in the National Human Rights Commission’s guidelines on education.

Students wearing facemasks maintain social distance while attending class at a government girls high school amid the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Hyderabad on March 17. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Chhattisgarh has already announced the resumption of mohalla classes, an approach that has been adopted in different forms across states. In Madhya Pradesh, five-six students in a neighbourhood study together, under the supervision of an adult volunteer who supports their learning, and acts as a bridge between the children and their teacher.

There are three reasons why the resumption of in-person/mohalla classes is needed urgently.

One, they are an inclusive mode of education delivery and are not dependent upon access to devices and the internet. Two, they will offer teachers an opportunity to assess the current learning levels of their students. This will help them in creating a customised plan to recover the learning loss.

Three, it will provide children with a structured and supportive learning environment where they can engage with their friends and teacher. This engagement will be crucial in reducing dropouts when schools reopen.

Government’s plan

Given this context, the release of an action plan by the Union Ministry of Education titled “Covid response in School Education” comes at a crucial time. It was hoped that the plan by the Ministry would provide a detailed and systematic blueprint for ensuring a gradual transition towards reopening of schools, including the resumption of in-person classes, wherever possible. Unfortunately, it fails to meet these expectations.

At a time when children have lacked access to physical classes for over a year, the action plan by the Union government continues to overwhelmingly focus on home-learning programmes. While the greater emphasis on the use of print materials and ensuring that all children receive textbooks is appreciated, the plan fails to provide a clear commitment and timeline of how and when schools will partially/fully reopen respectively.

It is unclear as to why mohalla classes, which find a mention in the ministry’s own report on best practices in education during the pandemic, does not feature clearly in the union government’s action plan on ensuring access and continuous learning during the pandemic.

While only time can tell what state governments will do as far as school reopening is concerned, learning must resume, with or without physical school closure.

With school closures lasting over 15 months, there is an urgent need to think of a transition between distance learning and physical reopening of schools, by promoting mohalla classes as opportunities for students and teachers to interact in person. Doing so would be crucial to ensure that India does not lose this generation.

Ankit Vyas is Programme Coordinator, Inequality and Education, at Oxfam India.