For 12-year-old Monisha Dey, who lives in Mekhliganj in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, it has been an extended holiday since March 2021. She was promoted to the sixth standard in Bishnubhavan Public School but has attended only 10 days of classes.
“We were asked to log in via a smartphone or laptop. We didn’t have either. In fact, in my class of 35 students, only 14 had access to them. We were automatically promoted with a basic assessment and I really didn’t study at all,” said Dey to Moneycontrol over a telephonic interaction.
In the Cheranmahadevi town in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, 15-year-old Navneet Cherian has to keep borrowing a smartphone from his neighbour to attend online classes. The phone isn’t available all days, but Cherian tries to attend classes at least thrice a week.
“I will be taking the Class X board examinations in 2022, so I cannot be lax about studies. But what do I do? My family cannot afford to buy a smartphone, especially after my father lost his job at a textile unit. I wish there were some facilities made available to students like me,” he said.
Amidst lockdown-like conditions across India due to COVID-19, there are fears of learning gap among students getting wider and also rise in dropouts as students are unable to play catch-up with peers in online learning.
The second wave of COVID-19 has been fierce in India and schools that had reopened temporarily for a few weeks in January 2021 shut physical classes by mid- February. Between April 2020 and April 2021, there were hardly 3-4 weeks of physical classes across schools in India.
According to a UNICEF report, the Indian education system is one of the largest in the world, with more than 1.5 million schools, 8.5 million teachers and 250 million children from varying socio-economic backgrounds.
Challenges for students
Since classes are fully online, students are required to be equipped with a smartphone with stable internet or a laptop/computer.
Classes are a mix of recorded and live teaching. Examinations are held mostly online, and students need to print out the question papers, write answers, scan and upload them.
A basic smartphone would cost Rs 10,000, internet bills up to Rs 500 a month and a printer would cost between Rs 3,500-5,000. For students from economically weaker backgrounds, this is unaffordable.
Take Beena Morena from Bhind in Madhya Pradesh. She was promoted to the ninth standard at Little Dales School without any assessment. Reason? She did not have any technological gadget to write the tests.
“When we were told that an internal test would be conducted online, I knew that it would be impossible for me to write it. Internet connectivity is also very shaky and the nearby computer centre is at least 70 kms away. Hence, my mother requested the authorities to give me an exemption. They conducted an oral test for me via telephone,” she said.
Schools also don’t have much choice. Procuring equipment for all students would be a costly affair. Even if purchased at bulk, it would cost at least Rs 7,000-10,000 per student; an expense which schools do not want to incur.
Jagdish Prakash, the trustee at Little Dales School, told Moneycontrol that students have been encouraged to watch programmes on DD Gyan Darshan channels to help bridge the academic gap.
“I know students and their parents may not be able to buy phones and printers but schools also don’t have funds to purchase them. Hence, this arrangement will continue,” he said.
On the other hand, some students have also decided to stop attending classes altogether as they are finding them tough.
Mahavir Pradhan, a resident of Dumka, Jharkhand, said that his broken smartphone camera meant that he would lag behind his classmates.
“I would have appeared for my Class XII exam next year. Now, there is no point because I am unable to understand anything that is taught in class. We are also sent some videos over messaging apps but I am unable to access that too. Instead of being failed, my parents decided that is better that I don't attend school," he said.
Pradhan's parents are looking to enrol him into some certification programme, once the lockdown is lifted so that he can start earning a living in the next two years.
What are the fears?
As per education ministry data, the average dropout rate at the primary school level is 4.13 percent, while it is 17.06 at the secondary level. The bigger concern is that the extended online classes will lead to a rise in these levels.
Sanjeev Khanna, founder of EduDesign Consulting, which works in the area of school education, said that the dropout rates could be higher for the girl child.
"People have lost their jobs and school fee is expensive. Added to that is the requirement of smartphones. A vast majority of the population cannot afford them, so dropouts are bound to go up. My biggest worry is that a lot of girls would be pulled out of schools in semi-urban and rural areas and made to do house work," he added.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 Rural, facilitated by education-focused non-governmental organisation Pratham, had said that 30.5 percent of government schools and 28.1 percent of private schoolchildren did not do any education-related activities amidst online learning.