Mumbai: The first full year back to school, after the prolonged closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, was a year of students struggling with writing and reading, and of re-learning what online classes should have taught them, said teachers, students and parents from four states.

This has meant that teachers and parents have had to put in more effort in children's education. Some teachers took extra classes at school, while parents sent children to private coaching classes. The government too tried to step in with their own efforts with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) cutting down on the syllabus and decreasing the length of chapters. State governments, such as Tamil Nadu, have been running community remedial classes for students.

Private school students have been able to make up for the pandemic years, and have adjusted to in-person school, but government school students, especially those from poor families, have been struggling to keep up, parents said.

Impact of school closures, online learning

During the Covid-19-induced lockdown, schools were shut and online classes replaced everyday school classes. The National Achievement Survey 2021 found that learning outcomes in mathematics and language in Grades III, V and VIII had dropped, compared with 2017.

"Primary schools in rural areas have poor kids who come to learn here and they do not have facilities for online education, very few kids took online classes during the lockdown," says Saumya Singh*, a government school teacher from Varanasi. Almost 60% of children could not access online learning opportunities, a study by the Azim Premji foundation in 2020 had found.

Most of the students that IndiaSpend spoke to preferred in-person school.

"When I do not understand some concepts, I ask the teacher and he explains immediately," says Sumit Gupta, a government school student from Grade IV in Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh (UP).

But they also found it hard to cope up.

"I have had to put in extra effort because studying online felt like a break in actual studies," says Shikhar Zubin Roy, a student of Grade VIII, at St. Mary's Academy, a private school in Meerut, UP. He said he had become a slow reader and writer, especially as most of the exams over the pandemic years were optional for students, and with digital education, he was not in the habit of writing by hand.

"As parents, we were seeing that the kids were not doing so well online, which is why we are happy that regular schools have begun," said Rashmi Rai, mother of a private school student in Meerut. "Going to school helps build personality, and online learning leads kids to no physical activity. At school, they are more active by participating in school activities."

Teachers too prefer in-person classes. "After the Covid-19 lockdown when schools reopened, kids had forgotten many things and they took longer to understand things," says government school teacher Digvijay Singh, who teaches at Mahmudabad Block Primary School in Sitapur, UP.

"During offline classes, I can look at the students' eyes to see whether they understand or not. I can clear the doubts easily; this was not possible during online classes," says Jyoti Singh, a physics teacher from Oxford School, a private school in Ranchi, Jharkhand. Ritu Scot, a private school teacher in Meerut, liked that she could interact with students for in-person school.

How teachers help students cope with learning losses

A common tactic that teachers use are remedial classes for students struggling to keep up with regular classes, especially for mathematics and science. For instance, Saumya Singh, the government school teacher in Varanasi, runs remedial classes for students from Grades IV to VIII.

"Presently, we are focusing on not only kids in kindergarten but also classes 1, 2 and 3 so that their fundamental concepts are clear and their base stronger," said Digvijay Singh, the teacher at the primary school in Sitapur, who also runs remedial classes for those children who do not understand the concepts while in regular class.

"Given the limited time for each period and the need to finish the curriculum on time, we cannot spend too much time in class on the same thing. This is why we are taking extra classes for students," said Suchitra Soneji, a Grade V teacher in rural Surat, Gujarat.

One change that the pandemic has wrought is that more teachers now use technology as a teaching aid. Some make online presentations in class, others use resources such as learning material from the government's Diksha app--Digital Infrastructure For Knowledge Sharing--of the education ministry.

Teachers have continued using WhatsApp groups that were created during the pandemic. "Kids can now message the group and we can clear their doubts and questions sitting at home. We did not use our phones optimally earlier," said Scot, the private school teacher from Meerut.

How parents helped children get back to school

Parents, especially from well-off families, have hired tutors and signed children up for online tuitions from company's such as Byju's, explained Protiva Kundu, a fellow at the Centre for Budget Governance and Accountability, a Delhi-based think-tank.

But private tuitions can widen inequality, as not all students would have access to them. "Any extra support (like tuitions) helps deepen educational inequalities [when this support is only for some children]," said Anjela Taneja, who leads nonprofit Oxfam International's Public Services and Inequality team.

"My children go to private tuitions and I also help them with their homework," says Vandana Devi, a parent of a government school student from Maheshpur village in Sitapur. Older siblings also pitch in. "I ask for help from my elder brother when I am stuck with a doubt. I also go over to my friend's house for help," says Gupta, the government school student in Sitapur.

Parents are also more involved with their children's progress since the pandemic. "I pay more attention to ensure the child is spending more time on physical books rather than online. We are also trying to create a conducive atmosphere at home where the child has fewer distractions and can study in a focused manner," says Rafat Quadri, a parent from Ahmedabad.

"Nowadays my parents ask me for a detailed report of what happened in school and they check my homework too. They are tracking my progress in school," said Roy, the Grade VIII student from Meerut.

How the education system, government could help

The NCERT reduced the syllabus so that teachers would find it easier to manage and could help children make up for the years they had lost. Yet, managing regular classes with remedial classes means teachers have had to spend more hours teaching as compared to the pre-pandemic years. "We have to focus on completing the syllabus as we have to conduct the exams on time," said Scot of Meerut.

"We were hoping that the government would have cut down the syllabus so that we could focus on the children's learning loss," said a government school teacher from Chandauli in UP, asking for anonymity. The state had reduced the syllabus for Grades IX to XII but not for younger students. The teacher said that her Grade VIII students do not even remember what they were taught in Grades VI and VII, suggesting that the government should have asked that children only be promoted one grade over the last two years to give teachers enough time to help children catch-up. "Two years is a long time period and students are not able to make up for the lost time."

Instead of holding children back a grade, which can have psychological impacts, experts suggest bridge courses or remedial classes instead.

Some state governments, including Tamil Nadu and UP, had programmes to help students catch up.

The Illam Thedi Kalvi Scheme of Tamil Nadu was launched in October 2021, through which volunteers help students, across 26 districts, on subjects including Tamil, English, mathematics and the sciences. This also helps families cut down on out-of-pocket expenditure on supplementary education, the government said in a policy note in 2022. The volunteers, who should be above the age of 18 years, enrol by filling a form on an online platform, and are expected to teach students from Grades I to VIII between 5 and 7 p.m., giving about six hours a week. Until now, 181,000 volunteers have signed up and nearly 3 million students study at these centres.

Mohalla classes, through which volunteers teach students in their locality, were organised in Chhattisgarh by the state government's Samagra Shiksha department in July 2021, and by Oxfam in December 2021 in seven districts of UP, Jharkhand and MP with the help of government schools. Volunteers would spend two-three hours per day with six- to 14-year-olds, teaching them to read, write, recite poems, and multiplication. This programme, no longer active, taught nearly 1,200 children, said Akshay Tarfe, media specialist at Oxfam India.

On December 26, 2022, IndiaSpend reached out to the departments of school education in UP, MP, Gujarat and Jharkhand about their efforts to overcome learning loss within government schools and their plan for 2023. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Way forward

Given these issues, and the wrapping up of some remedial programmes that began in 2021, IndiaSpend spoke to parents to understand whether children are better placed to tackle the next academic year and what assistance they still need from schools and the education system.

The responses varied depending on the type of school children attended and their location. For example, Sanjukta Shah from Surat, who is the mother of two private-school-going daughters, says that children are getting used to offline classes, which have helped the kids participate more in class and have improved their learning. In addition, "they are also getting the chance to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, music, and annual functions".

On the other hand, Meva Kumar, whose daughter is in Grade V in a government school in rural Sitapur, is worried about her academic progress. "When I ask her about what she is studying from her books, she is not able to answer," he said. His daughter, who was in Grade II when the pandemic began, was not able to attend all the online classes as Kumar could not recharge his mobile internet packs regularly. Next academic year, he wants to take his daughter out of the government school and enrol her in a private school in Grade III so that she can make up for the learning gap of two years.

Meva Kumar is not alone. Several parents, especially of children in government schools, have realised that the learning loss from the pandemic years has not been made up in 2022.

Experts suggest the continuation of remedial classes and resizing of the syllabus even for the next year. "I think what schools, teachers should be doing, along with the support of the education department, is to develop a plan that provides additional support to children--whether you call it additional classes or remedial classes," says Seshagiri K.M. Rao, an education specialist with UNICEF India. He added that though the NCERT recommended downsizing of the syllabus, not all states followed through with it. In the coming year, state governments need to downsize the syllabus in such a way that only the most important parts stay, and teachers can focus on making up for the learning loss that has occurred.

*name changed on request

(With inputs from freelancers Inndal Kashyap from Lucknow, Sumit Khanna from Ahmedabad, Narendra Pratap from Meerut, Kashif Kakvi From Bhopal and Anand Dutt from Ranchi.)

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