The Radicalities at the intersection of education, development and Corona

Is the new normal now the old bizarre?

A toddler photographed at his home in UP during one of my visits last year

he world, as we knew it, has ceased to exist. When I started drafting this article total worldwide cases were around 42 Lakhs. According to Worldometer, as of today, around 63,00,000 Coronavirus cases are currently in order.

Almost overnight, the education sector has radically changed.

Most schools, colleges and other private education institutions remain suspended over the globe. According to UNESCO, over 1.3 billion students and youth across the planet have been affected by school and university closures since the COVID-19 outbreak. In India, over 32 crore students have been impacted by a nation-wide lockdown which began on 23rd March.

Everybody, albeit almost getting used to the ‘new normal’, is grappling with the new realities of the education sector. We are still (what I would call) in the ‘nail-biting responsive phase’ to learning, and more importantly, providing access to learning during these times.

While many schools and learning centres have drastically adapted to the pandemic and continue to run virtually; teachers, parents and students alike are adapting, rather struggling to adapt to these shifting models. Most have taken to Zoom, Microsoft Team, Google Hangouts, WebEx, Whatsapp, Email and G-drive to keep the system up and running.

There is ambiguity, and nervousness in this shift, and of course, glitches.

Navigating the New Normal

The walls are caving in on our free birds that were only learning to form and flutter their wings in 2020. Their metamorphosis into young butterflies has been jilted with a crisis and its dependency on the Internet to cope.

In April, I and my (one and only) student turned to Zoom for our classes while using Whatsapp for the much-needed back and forth to maintain communication. My mother did the same.

While initial reactions ranged from hysteria, relief (of not writing unnecessary exams at the beginning of the year) to even complacency, a 60-day period has served enough time to test the water and understand the direction of the wind.

The role of the teacher has not only been delineated from institutions, it’s almost changed in the last two months. Teachers are navigating through these times by hit-and-trial and selection and emission of practices.

Role of an educator (argued for years now) has been redefined and almost overnight, evolved. Curriculum design and pedagogy needs are being attended more precisely, demanding higher participation from the teacher’s end. The position, time and expectations of a teacher in 2020 are also new: emotional maturity, technological know-how, resilience, patience, mentoring abilities and of course, skill and knowledge, to name a few.

With deficits already existent in the system long before Corona, the demand of teachers will further increase henceforth; especially because as opposed to physical classrooms, digital learning requires a more one-on-one connection with the teacher. This will essentially reduce the ‘density in’ and ‘dependency on’ classrooms as well as foster and increase stronger teacher-pupil connections. At least, it must.

One of the major spotlights of this shift has been on the parents. They have been as clueless, if not more, in navigating living and learning routines as the children themselves.

Role of parents is becoming more active and accountable towards learning. In a situation where children are locked up at home, (with or without a virus), their first contact is always the parents or guardians. Until they take a more active stand in learning along with the child, less can change in the long run.

Looking with eyes wide open

The government has announced relaxation in fee submission and private institutions are cringing under their masks.

Schools are confused about whether to pay teachers, teachers are confused about whether to continue teaching sans salaries, parents are concerned about paying the money and so forth and so on.

Many are exchanging books and cheques under the table and in gloves, literally.

A good question to ask at this point could be ‘What would be a safe time to go back to school?’ An even better question would be, “How can we make sure, each child is safe at home and learning.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to connect with the Relationship Manager of the Indian Welfare Trust and participate in a survey. The brief survey collected 238 responses from 200+ organizations from across the country and found some really interesting insights from the study regarding education in the times of Covid-19.

Out of the 238 responses, 46% estimated that schools are likely to reopen by August; 22% think it will be September, 23% think it will be as early as June or July, 9% expected it to be later or depending on the zone or were uncertain. Only 1 person felt they would reopen in May.

As states and centre tussle over bringing children back to buildings with the new unlock guidelines from the MHRD, primary school children in the age groups 6–10 years are unlikely to go back to classrooms for the next three months.

Are all children adjusting alike?

Of course, not!

In the villages of UP where I have interacted with hundreds of students and their parents in the past year and a half, and especially what one can decipher from recent telephonic conversations, the divide is expanding each day.

Over the years, I have come to realize that for most of these children in rural and urban India, especially the young girls in these villages of Uttar Pradesh, being able to go to school is not just a refuge or something ‘they have to do’.

The few hours of classes are a glimpse into their future selves, a self they can visualize only in the few hours they are away from their parents and their present circumstances. A self that can be nurtured in classrooms!

It’s an opportunity, each day, each passing minute to design a better tomorrow.

The past few months have been synonymous with visions of hundred and thousands of migrant workers walking on foot just to be ‘safe in their homes’, their villages. The reverse exodus from cities to villages is going to put children further behind in their ability to access quality education, further straining the existing dropout rate among these communities.

For the poor, education always comes at a cost. And going forward, the opportunity cost will be even higher; forcing families to choose livelihood, sustenance and income over the education of their children in the imminent future. Disparities will further weaken gender equity in classrooms.

The starting point is not the same for everyone.

In the ‘Culture and Captivity’ chapter of his book, ‘Identity and Violence’, Amartya Sen writes: “Shakespeare gave voice to the concern that ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ In the schooling of children, it is necessary to make sure that smallness is not thrust upon the young, whose lives lie ahead of them. Much is at stake here”

Whether that is a child living in Ghaziabad going to Lotus Valley in Noida or RK Puram in Delhi, or a young first-generation learner who has just started going to class in a tiny slum of Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh; they are all facing, or being thrust upon smallness at homes.

Stakes are high, but tables are far apart.

The importance and relevance of homeschooling have been amplified in recent past. However, digital dichotomies prevalent in our society ensure the starting point is not the same for all children, especially the ones trapped in poverty at the bottom of the pyramid population, the ones whose parents have never had any formal schooling and for whom, education was anyway not a priority.

When food and hope are scarce within households, education is a luxury, deemed fit only for a fortunate few.

The Flipside of educational development today

During my many recent telephonic conversations back in UP, it is evident that communities continue to struggle to access work, wages and viands.

Nationally, students have moved online to continue learning. Households in rural and urban slums mostly consist of multiple members (average 4–8) all sharing a single device, mostly a smartphone. During these times, it has been challenging to keep one smartphone recharged and some are even considering selling their gadgets to buy more food.

Over the last few weeks, innovative methods of learning, through radio and Whatsapp along with online pedagogical content creation continues to make sure these children do not get left behind.

But best efforts are not going to suffice.

Because most teaching models working in low economic states and regions entail a low operational cost, it reinstates their minimum involvement of high tech resource and resources. Including cultivating the use of complicated technology in learning and educating.

It is finally time to re-consider our bias of choosing one option over the other to teach the underprivileged.

Are we making sure we are not poorly teaching the poor?

Models that are working on the ground need to be better equipped to navigate through this fact pacing, dynamic interconnected world. A relevant question to ask is how long should we wait to give these children an equal holistic, new age learning opportunity, at par with our cities and elite institutions?

As the world economic forum and many other schools of thoughts are putting it, Corona could be the disruption that needed to redefine the way we look at the education sector.

I believe the disruption was glaring at us years into the making; we just refused to delve deeper.

Corona is thus, I believe, a mirror to the biased ethos we keep upholding within these communities, in terms of enabling quality education. Every child deserves a just opportunity to learn. Their education should not be limited to academic, but social, emotional and physical education alike, irrespective of geographical and economic mettle.

Poet | Writer I Researcher| IR Scholar |Senior Manager & Dev Professional // Stealing moments to be w kids on field https://thebigfatpoet.com/ @thebigfatpoet