The school bell rang for recess and children huddled to eat their meals. One could feel the excitement in the air. Both teachers and students appeared to be relieved to be back in school. Studying in a physical classroom in the presence of a teacher, casually chatting in between classes, taking notes, and learning lessons had all been a distant memory for these students. With schools opening up after the third wave of Covid-19, children are finally returning.
“I am very happy to be back in school among my friends. At my residence I don’t have many friends, but in my school, I am pretty popular,” said Devina Rathore, an 8th standard student from Sriram Millennium School, Noida. Sohan Singh, who attends the Government Sarvodaya Boys Senior Secondary school in Delhi, expressed similar feelings.
The experience of online learning was different for a private school-going student compared to a government school-going student. Anwesha Sen who studies in class 11th from St. Andrews Scott School, Delhi —a private school, said, “Online classes were pretty relaxed. Our teachers handed out notes to us and we didn’t really put in the extra effort of taking notes.”
Students like Anwesha and Devina, who come from an economically stable background, had access to their personal laptops and used to attend online classes in a separate room. Meanwhile Roshni Kumari , who studies in the 11th grade from Government Sarvodaya Girls Senior Secondary school in Delhi, said, “I used to attend my online classes from my father’s mobile phone. There were frequent power cuts in my home. I couldn’t study in a peaceful environment as we live in a one-room home.”
Along with low accessibility, in terms of electronic devices and a stable internet connection, most government school students complained that their teachers were not particularly helpful during online classes, compared to offline classes. Student-teacher connection was at an all-time low for girls like Roshni who said that teachers turned a deaf ear to their doubts and questions. That has led to a learning gap now that she has returned to school, she feels.
Teachers, both from government and private schools are now met with a new challenge: bridging the learning gap.
Regardless of the accessibility or inaccessibility of online classes, most students have endured an academic gap during these two years. Returning to school translates to catching up on the lost years.
The teachers were not expecting this much damage. Smita Ghosh, a teacher at DAV Public School in Kota, said, “The biggest issue that I have faced is in writing. Because when they (students) were online usually all the paper, even the board papers were of MCQ (multiple choice questions) type, where they just had to choose an option. Because of this the habit of writing is completely lost. I was quite shocked to notice that most students couldn’t even hold a pen properly. Writing speed has been compromised for even class 12th students.”
Papia Sarkar, a government school teacher, who teaches the 8th standard, pointed out a conceptual gap. Her students may have forgotten to write and even properly recognise words and numbers, she fears.
What’s more, many of Papia’s students have dropped out of school owing to low family income or loss of jobs during the pandemic.
“Out of 40 students, 16 have left school permanently. Upon asking their parents, they said that many of them lost their jobs during the pandemic and hence have pushed their children into employment in menial jobs to earn an extra buck. Some of the girl students have been married off.”
Sohan confirmed that a lot of his friends don’t attend school anymore as they have found employment and their parents prefer them to continue with their jobs instead of going to school.
According to a recent Times of India report, 7.6% students from classes one to five have dropped out of school in 2020-21. The reason cited in the report holds the pandemic responsible.
In the absence of a mandate for students to attend offline classes, a few who have the liberty and privilege to keep attending online classes have chosen to stay home and continue with the online mode of learning.
Most students from higher classes think it’s a waste of time to attend offline classes now as board exams are approaching. They prefer to stay at home to focus more on the exam. There are some who are reluctant to travel to their schools on their own since some schools haven’t yet resumed transport facilities.
Shashi Kumar, an educationist and general secretary of the Associated Management of English Medium Schools in Karnataka, said that along with students, teachers also need to put in extra effort to identify each student’s problem and address it individually. Moreover, he said that as an educationist, he and his team have recommended a slash in the syllabus to the government to alleviate some pressure for both students and teachers. These efforts however, have been in vain.
Meanwhile, some schools have made the effort to counsel students and discuss the academic problems the students are facing since schools reopened. Teachers think that it would take as much as six months, if things don’t go haywire again, for students to get back on track. Government school teachers are concerned about the dropout rates and are taking steps to ensure that students return to school.