Moumita Sarkar, who has a small tailoring shop in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal, found that the highest expense for her family during the coronavirus-led lockdown was the monthly mobile bill.
Sarkar’s monthly income dropped to less than Rs 5,000 per month since business is down to zero. Her husband works as a construction worker in Odisha.
She pawned her gold chain to buy a smartphone so that her 10-year-old daughter was up-to-date with her school lessons. But, she quickly realised that this means paying another Rs 500 per month for the internet expenses incurred to access her online class. The phone was sold off and her daughter hasn’t attended classes since July.
With the lockdown extended till November 30, it is parents like Sarkar who have been hit the most by the schools staying shut. Laptops and personal computers are too expensive a purchase for families like hers and smartphone usage charges are on the rise.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 found that WhatsApp was used as the most common medium to send learning material and weekly activity plans to students. This makes it imperative for parents of school children to compulsory own a mobile phone with internet connection.
Mumbai’s Mukund Tamboli who has a stationery store is only educated till the third standard, as also his wife. For Tamboli whose son studies in the fifth standard in a government school, the smartphone is the gateway to better education.
Business is down close to 50 percent for him and he cannot afford to buy another phone. Hence the same phone is used for the child’s education as also at his store. This means that the child often has to miss classes in case he isn’t able to travel to the store with his father.
While there is an emphasis across schools that education has fully moved online, there is little cognizance of the fact that access to a phone with working internet during school hours is often a luxury.
The ASER 2020 Report showed that
61.8 percent households owned a smartphone. The bigger worry here is not just whether these households were financially equipped to pay for internet expenses but also the 38.2 percent households without a smartphone.
These students would either have to rely on relying on friends/neighbours to access learning material or hope that the school teacher would pay a visit to hand over some material.
The government has taken steps by launching new free-to-air education channels under the Swayam Prabha platforms. However, this may not be fully adequate to replace the daily lessons taught in the classroom.
While there is no doubt that the lockdown was a must to prevent a wider outbreak of Coronavirus, it is a given that the learning outcome of students belonging to the middle- and lower-income groups will certainly be affected due to schools staying shut.
A community pooling of resources at the village/Panchayat level to ensure easier access to online lessons would have been a good step. Or access to the Common Service Centres across villages to the school children during the lockdown would ensure academic continuity. It is still not too late considering that the COVID-19 spread in India is far from over.