As we all find ourselves in somewhat unprecedented circumstances, I hear and read all kinds of stories from friends and strangers. Some are trying to deliver food to those who cannot work, while others have resorted to more fancy binge-watching on Netflix, and the more adventurous ones are catching up on their sleep. Being in academia, some of my discussions naturally drift towards understanding how much of a toll the COVID-lockdown is taking on the education in India.
Many educational institutions’ and various industries are concerned about their statistics and financial losses, since such losses do mirror the effects of their circumstances to a good degree.
The true damage caused by COVID to the sphere of education can be gauged only by learning the impact of COVID on the education of the underprivileged children.
While entire economies across the globe are plunging into heavy losses, one could wonder why the impact on education of poor and marginalized children is such a big deal. So what if they missed a couple of big exams? What if everything is postponed for a few months? What if we lost a few months of school and perhaps, in the worst case, lost an entire academic year? In the big scheme of things, isn’t being alive more important than education; or, is living with dignity more important than merely staying alive?
Sometimes, the enormity of ‘little’ things can only be realized by looking back years later. The ones who have graduated from school and have gone on to achieve their aspirations realize that schools are not just stepping-stones for growing up and getting a job. More than anything else, schools are often a shelter for children from impoverished backgrounds by protecting them from bad environments or potential risks that could adversely affect them mentally and physically. In several places, schools provide not just a refuge but also provide nutrition and health services. Schools often provide free breakfast or lunch programs which they may not receive at home otherwise or could be the only meals they may receive for that day.
I have had the privilege of getting to know two young, highly motivated girls studying in 10th grade in two different villages in India. When I asked them how COVID has affected their education, they expressed the same concern and anxiety. The return of unemployed relatives to their village homes caused a severe strain on their families. The relatives crowd together in their small, 2-room houses, so the girls have no chance of focusing on their studies. The girls also mentioned how they feel extreme mental stress while they wait for their 10th board exams to be rescheduled. This exam is a crucial part of the education system in India.
The weight of stress and the uncertainty that these two girls are going through, along with millions of other students, is a burden on their young spirits.
It is easy to think that switching to online instruction mitigates the problem to a large extent. But, at least 65% of India lives in rural areas. Lack of reliable electricity, well-trained teachers, and no home computers or internet access make online instruction in villages very difficult. It would be safe to say that proper educational instruction is completely stopped for all rural students and poor students in urban areas.
Well, one could argue that these children are at least alive and safe even if their education is on pause. I try to appease myself by thinking it’s only a loss of one year at the most. But, in reality the impact is greater.
As we’ve learned from other documented catastrophes, the longer it takes for schools to reopen, the greater the risk that underprivileged children will not return to school at all. The COVID lockdown poses these very same dangers for all the underprivileged.
In many areas, schools protect girls from early marriage and pregnancy. Now, many young girls not only face the risk of dropping out of school but also the danger of getting married off young. Their families are already struggling to survive, and marrying off a daughter can ease a family’s burden.
In some cases they also risk falling victim to human trafficking forced slave labor. A recent article by a UNESCO personnel reiterates similar issues faced particularly by underprivileged girls. As hundreds of thousands of migrant workers return to their poorer homes in villages, hoping to escape starvation, the probability of their children returning to schools in time seems abysmally low.
As I found out from talking to several migrant workers, going to school is still a ‘big deal’ for many underprivileged families. Since they are daily wage earners, they barely have money for each day. In order to survive in seasons when there is significant job loss, many are forced to borrow money at very high interest rates.
For most poor people, the education of their children was their only and ultimate hope.
This is not just for future employment but it renders a purpose and dignity to their everyday, unnoticed struggle. There is a profound proverb that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Hope delayed can appear to be hope denied, because it has often been the case in the past.
But, the loss of work will eventually force families to send their children out to work as well. Although they would rather see their children finish school, many families will have to make a hard choice to make: asking their children to drop out of school and labor for the survival of the family.
It reminds me of a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Every hour of lost time is a chance of future misfortune.” I fear this misfortune is looming large over the underprivileged children of India.
By K Kothapalli
Articles to further read on the impact of education during COVID: