Mumbai: The Covid-19 pandemic, which has raged for more than 18 months now, has pushed millions of students out of education across India. New admissions have stopped, playschools have shut, students have dropped out, entire schools have disappeared. Many parents cannot even afford school fees anymore. Numerous studies have shown how the digital divide has caused a faultline in India's education systems. A very recent study of 21 state-run schools by Amartya Sen's Pratichi (India) Trust said 40% of primary school students in Kolkata could not even attend online classes because of the digital divide. Many other studies paint a similar picture in other states.

Now, as India emerges from the second Covid-19 wave and looks ahead at a possible third wave of hopefully less intensity, calls for reopening schools are growing louder. Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, has said that schools must be opened up in a staggered way, particularly in districts where the Covid-19 positivity rate is less than 5%. The calls to open schools have raised many larger questions.

How do we address the problem of children being out of school? To what extent do we see children, particularly younger ones, not attending school as being a problem? Another challenge is that parents may not feel secure about sending children to school yet, and teachers may not be confident about going to school themselves. What should be the plan B or C in case of future Covid-19 outbreaks, or other such public health crises? To discuss all this, we spoke with Rukmini Banerji, CEO of the Pratham education foundation, an economist who attended the Delhi School of Economics, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. We also spoke with Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India (PFI), who works on gender, has over 40 years of experience in development, setting up nonprofits and contributing to policy and advocacy. Muttreja also conceived the popular transmedia initiative 'Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hu' ('I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything'), launched by the PFI in 2014.

Edited excerpts:

Dr Banerji, where do we Indians stand today in our approach to schools? Is the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic exposing a larger problem, in that we don't even feel the need for children to go to school, because it's the exams that matter?

RB: We have spent a whole year trying out various things. And I think as a country, as families and as individuals, we've been waiting for a kind of golden moment when suddenly [the pandemic] will be over and the schools will open. I think now at every level, we realise that that is not how it is going to happen. There are going to be stages in this whole process. There may be an on and off [of Covid-19 cases] and therefore we need a flexible response to the eventualities we've seen. There is a digital divide, but we had lots of divides before as well. This digital divide has just fallen clearly on the divides that already existed and may have made some of them worse. But we shouldn't forget that, even prior to Covid-19, for many years we had very high enrolment rates and very low levels of learning. So as we look ahead, we shouldn't forget that we had some prior problems which may have gotten worse. I certainly think there should be greater pressure for opening schools because almost everything around us has now opened. Putting schools at the front and centre is really important. And, it worries me that there isn't more public pressure to say that we need a very serious debate on this, and with action coming through.

Schools used to operate on an annual calendar but now, let's break that up into quarters, like in many other sectors. We should think that from now till, say, October, till Dussehra, we want our kids to have a certain experience. Plan A is complete lockdown when you have to do remote types of learning; Plan B is when there is limited movement, where schools are open and teachers are coming in but not children; and Plan C, where everything has opened up. The overarching umbrella must be that we need to get our kids back into school. And we need to start feeling comfortable that we can switch from plan A to B to C as the [pandemic] situation demands, which may change at any time and in any location. I have [written] an article in the Hindustan Times which lays this out more. For this, we need close cooperation and dialogue between parents and teachers. While policy directives and frameworks can come from further away, it is only when you trust each other, are able to talk to each other that you can decide to go ahead [with reopening schools], especially for young children.

A final point is to say that this plan B situation, which we've actually been in for quite some time where teachers are in school but children aren't, is an ideal time to start the dialogue between parents and children. Invite parents to come to school and if they feel comfortable, take the child along. Because I know teachers are dying to meet children and children are dying to meet teachers. Start that process of reconnecting, reengaging, because there is more to school than just learning. There are all these social relationships, trust, fun that we need to build.

Ms Muttreja, give us a broad sense of where you stand on the issue of reopening schools.

PM: I agree with everything Rukmini said. I just want to add a plan D, which I'll come to later. I believe it was a huge mistake to have a total shutdown in general, but especially for schools. I said this very early on, I wrote about it. I was very dismayed that we stopped all schools during Covid-19, even in the tribal areas. In the first wave, where was Covid-19? It was spread narrowly in large cities. Why did we close down schools everywhere? Why this strategy? The education minister wasn't involved at all, it was really the prime minister and home ministry making decisions. If the decisions were made with the education ministry involved, with debate and dialogue, we would have given the DM [district magistrate] responsibility of whether to close schools or open them. How can we close schools for one and a half years? I can understand in Delhi, where the pandemic has continued, or Mumbai and some other cities. Why did we penalise kids in the remote parts of India, where there is nothing else for kids to do? That's where the digital divide is maximum, not only for girls but even for boys.

We have to learn from our mistakes. It was a blunder, closing all the schools. What did the kids miss out on? It's not only education. For instance, girls missed out on getting sanitary pads. This was a disaster. Even if we closed down schools, why couldn't we continue the distribution of iron and folic acid, mid-day meals and all the other stuff that young girls get? We also know the worst consequence of being at home was on girls. Housework increased and girls, who should be in school and studying, did double the household work. A lot of girls drop out of school during every disaster, and in this disaster, because of the economic consequences, there are many that are not going to go back to school.

Then, the mental health and wellbeing of the kids is a huge issue. It's not just about academic qualifications. I read an article that in the US, it's going to take 10 years for young kids to recover from the anxiety and mental health issues that have been created [during the pandemic]. All of this has got further exacerbated. As Rukmini said, it's not that these issues and problems didn't exist. So we have created a situation by just simply closing down schools, with no communication between parents and teachers. We didn't even use this as a learning opportunity for teachers, to train them on greater interaction with children, or give them some mental health training so that they can deal with parents on how to mitigate the anxiety. Study after study tells us the anxiety levels are really high. We at PFI did a study in Bihar amongst adolescent girls and 87% said they desperately need mental health counselling, they need to speak to somebody.

So [there shouldn't have been a] total closure of schools without listening to somebody like Rukmini, with a Plan A, B and C, or my plan D. My plan D is that the district magistrates take charge of deciding whether schools open or close. I hope we can make this into a campaign. 'I will work with you on your ABC, you work with me on my plan.'

Dr Banerji, we can better understand the scale of the problem if we are able to measure it. But how do we even know what the impact of school closure has been on children's minds, on children's education, apart from these scattered studies across the country? How is the impact going to play out, in terms of the steps backwards that children have had to take?

RB: The first thing is that you need to have some type of measurement done at some point against which you can compare. You need to have some kind of a trend on which you can see if this is higher or lower. But for 250 million children of school-going age in India, we have no longitudinal data that we can fall back on to understand what is normal in terms of health, or education, to know how different the last year and a half is.

We do have ASER data on very basic learning outcomes, foundational literacy and numeracy. We've been measuring it for almost 15 years. So when these kinds of discussions started, I pulled out what the usual year-on-year gain is for children, based on the very basic indicators from the ASER data. I want to give you an example of Uttar Pradesh because it is among the more educationally behind states. If I look at a cohort in primary school, like at a second standard level, over the period 2010 to 2018, there was a usual annual gain of 5 to 10 to 15 percentage points in a child's ability to read a very simple story. Now, learning levels are low, but the growth over time is also quite flat. That has been a typical characteristic of India as well as of many other developing countries. So what you're looking at is a usual annual gain of maximum 15 percentage points.

Then, because we worked with a lot of state governments on a very large scale on helping children catch up even before Covid-19, I pulled out what we had been able to do with the Uttar Pradesh government in 2018-19 across the state. In a three-month intervention in all government primary schools, with two hours a day focused on building basic literacy and numeracy, putting aside the grade-level curriculum, even a basic school system like Uttar Pradesh's was able to see a 15- to 20-percentage-point improvement, because they were focused, they were aligned, and they were able to do it.

Look at what your state was able to do over the last 10 years, find times at which you were able to push for some basic standards. Then, as soon as schools open, go back to building basics. Focus on building back foundations, putting aside your grade-level curriculum. There's no need to worry about exams up to the sixth standard. Focus on rebuilding and do it well and you may have a chance this time next year to be talking about a bigger gain than the 5 to 15 percentage points that we have seen for so many years. The anniversary of our New Education Policy has come; let's think about what that policy says: 'build your foundations'. Don't worry right now, especially in the primary grades, about the grade-level curriculum because the curriculum has left many children behind. Covid-19 is going to leave many children behind. So let's start with the children and move with them.

You suggested that we should look at a quarterly approach, which means reimagining and redesigning India's education system as we know it. How feasible is that? And what would it take?

RB: It's very feasible. Harvard works on semesters or quarters. Our schools work according to terms. So it's not a foreign concept at all. Just peg it to the known benchmarks. Navaratri, Dussehra, all those things start in the first week of October, so there is always a clear period from August till October where usually there are not many religious functions. I think from now, we should be planning what we are going to do in that period. And based on how much we are able to do, whether schools open or not, whether we have a plan A, B, C, or D, we have to say that now we are on a path--whether slow or fast--and build off of that path for the next quarter. Much of the primary school system in India really needs to work on some very basic things. Don't complicate matters, move with the successes that you're able to gain.

We have a huge, unexpected advantage from Covid-19, that parents have had to look into children's learning. Prior to Covid-19, the big responsibility was just to get your kids ready and send them to school, and then all the learning would happen in school. Now, whether you liked it or not, whether you were a rural family where worksheets came in on paper or you were an elite family in Delhi where worksheets came on WhatsApp, parents had to engage.

Today, parents, especially mothers, thanks to universalising of elementary education, are more educated than 10 years ago. These mothers are a resource. The New Education Policy talks about bringing them into the picture. In the first quarter in many states, they are going to be my main pillar. Punjab, for example, is toying with this idea that rather than doing teacher training, invite mothers to school every fortnight or every so often, and give them activities that they can do at home. Because children who are in the second standard in July 2021 have never been to school, have never had preschool. From their mother's lap, they will come straight into school. So we need to really rethink education in many different ways and this is our opportunity. As soon as schools start, there will be huge pressure to just go back to business as usual. So I would really encourage us to think of this as a big opportunity to do the things we should have done 20 years ago.

Ms Muttreja, you've approached some of these issues from a gender perspective. Would it take additional effort to ensure that gender balance is brought back? Is there enough policy understanding of the impact on gender because of Covid-19, in terms of keeping girls in school?

PM: I don't believe there is enough understanding. We need to do a lot more. We need to write about it, but even more, we need to go to the education ministry and talk about these issues. There has to be convergence between the education, HRD, women and child development and health ministries. I'll tell you why I'm raising hell. If we are going to reimagine our education system, which Rukmini rightly calls for, then we have to have greater collaboration and convergence between these groups.

From a gender point of view, PFI has regularly brought out a white paper on gender and the impact of Covid-19. We keep updating and sharing it but we've not seen much of an impact. After Zika, only 1% of research was focused on gender issues and I'm talking globally, leave alone India. In India, accept that there was an increase in domestic violence. Some people realised it. The ministry of women and child development has done very little about it, even though they know that gender-based violence increased. In terms of school dropouts, newspapers are reporting, but newspapers report and nothing happens.

So, we really need a plan. Some of us from different sectors need to get together and bring in convergence within the government. It's very difficult to bring in convergence at the national level, it is much easier to do so at the state level, and at district level even more so. Those of us who are working at the district level or national level, need to work with district magistrates or collectors. We need to develop models. Counselling, for instance, is going to be a big issue. That's why I said convergence.

So many girls, and boys as well, have been captured in the house with perpetrators, their fathers or partners of their mothers, who are beating them. So much trauma and then these kids are going to be back in school. We have to worry about it. There are counsellors at different levels in the health system. We also have adolescent-friendly health clinics. I think there has to be coordination to see how we can do some training quickly online before the schools open up, of mothers, of parents, of teachers and others these children will come in contact with.

Now we know there can be digital education, we should use television. I keep saying that children don't need a phone or computer; why can't we use Doordarshan, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha TV? We should try and bring in some stuff that needs to be dealt with, including counselling, including for parents to reorient them into this new world and their kids' realities.

Dr Banerji, falling back on digital or online learning and teaching is a Catch-22 because children cannot go to school but at the same time, many children in India cannot access even mobile phones to participate. It's worse in smaller towns or villages where children are just not able to access digital learning and essentially have not attended school at all. What is the way forward, knowing that online learning is exclusionary by nature?

RB: Looking back on the last year, because many things have been tried, the most successful things were not the exercises to impart learning, but which were able to establish two-way communication. Because in the end, it's not about shoving content down your throat and making you do an exam; it is really understanding what you know, and what I can give you and in what form.

I'll give you an example. At Pratham, we are directly connected to about 10,000 villages. What we did is to try and make a connection. We didn't try to do learning; we tried very hard to do engagement, exactly like how you do it in your family. We used SMS a lot. One big thing that we've learned during this last year is an SMS followed by a phone call by somebody you know can go a very long way. We send out 300,000 to 400,000 messages a day. And each of these numbers gets a phone call within 10 days or two weeks to find out what they thought of the content they got in the last week. That two-way communication that we set up has changed our content, our delivery and our approach to parents. I feel like, while everybody's talking about learning loss, we have had a learning gain, because we have learned how to deal with parents at their own level. We are well known for a method that is called 'teaching at the right level'. I think we've spent this year equipping ourselves about 'reaching at the right level'. So even if schools reopen, I don't want to give up this personal contact with parents. Today we are doing it, but every teacher can do it. And they are. There are many states where teachers are sending messages, making the phone call to say, "How is your daughter, did she find the content I sent yesterday okay?"

The second thing is I think we need to think about the mohalla [neighbourhood] or a group outside the school. There are several layers: the home, the mohalla, the community; and then there's the institution: the school or anganwadi (government-run child care centre). We've had some very good experiences with shared devices, shared laptops, and not individual ones at the home level. You cannot give 250 million individual devices, but imagine a school library with a bunch of tablets or devices, which could be used in turn by groups. There are two parts to it. Our entire education system has been based on individual excellence and is marks-driven, whereas the skill you need in the world is how you get along with the group, particularly with people who are not like you in so many different ways. So, we have had very good experience with these collective devices. I think that we should set up shared devices. In the morning you could use it for education, in the afternoon for tele-medicine, in the evening for something else, but it belongs as a resource to the village and it serves many purposes.

These things that we are seeing and learning need to continue even after everything [normalises]. I hope [Bihar chief minister] Nitish Kumar is listening to your show, because the way he gives cycles to girls created a huge campaign for how far they could go. I think similarly, we used tablets with young mothers of anganwadi children. Their husbands do not have a tablet, but they do. There are many things that technology can do, especially shared devices, with organically-grown groups within the community. We don't need to necessarily follow the Western example of individual things for individual people as the way ahead.

Looking at reopening schools from a broad policy point of view, in the context of using this lost period to address the problems of the past, which is to improve the quality of school education and exposure that children get and make them better future citizens, what are the one or two things that you both feel conceptually India should focus on?

PM: About what to do about girls dropping out of school, I think the government has to put the responsibility on the panchayats and the local MLAs. They should be judged on how many girls they can get back to school and ensure that too many girls don't drop out of school. Thanks to the 15th finance commission, money for education, health and many other areas has been transferred to panchayats for the first time. I think in terms of the role of panchayats in the reimagined education system, monitoring and accountability is very important. We have to have a model; those accountability mechanisms have to be worked out and they have to be very simple. PFI hosts the secretariat for Community Action for Health, we work in about 250 villages across the country, we have done almost 500 trainings of village-level committees and we worked out very simple systems. We need to have accountability for education similar to what the health ministry has with the secretariat for Community Action for Health. The model is there. There can be a Jan Samvad (people's dialogue) at the end where parents, educationists, teachers, anganwadi workers, panchayats and others can come to find solutions for improving education levels and bringing in innovations. I think that's a great model for education. And finally, please let's have Plan D, where we give district magistrates the authority to open or close schools.

RB: First, district-level, local decision-making, absolutely, at whatever level is appropriate, and allowing the flexibility on the fiscal side to spend on what seems important. Number two is creating a bridge between parents and teachers. They're the only ones that matter to children. The closer they are together, the more beneficial. Thirdly, don't be in a hurry to think you have lost time, [and that] there's a big curriculum which needs to be watered down. Focus on treating this year as returning and building back. Whether schools open or not, set some manageable learning goals that everybody can understand, and let's work together, home, mohalla, community and school or anganwadi, to help our children achieve them.

You are referring to all 250 million children who are in school now, not just primary school?

RB: Absolutely. There are different pressures for those children who are very close to 10th and 12th standard, which we as adults have created for them. And I think for them, we have to think about what to do. But for everybody else, don't put them on to that 10th and 12th track. We have time. And if we go slow now and go deep, we may be able to go much faster later. I just want to repeat that the curriculum has been a problem because it is designed to leave children behind. Now is the time to say, let's put the curriculum aside, let's do a big catch up for the older kids, let's do a strong foundation for the younger kids. We have the umbrella of the New Education Policy under which we can do this and say policy and practice are actually matching, and treat it like a time to rethink all of this.

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